Animals due upgrade by WAIF

A septic system that failed, with sewage bubbling out of the ground in the dog play yard, caused a major breakout of Giardia among canines at the Whidbey Animal Improvement Foundation’s shelter near Coupeville early this year.

Fortunately for the dogs and the people who had to clean up after them, a couple of fixes are in the works.

Island County, which owns the facility, will install a new septic system at a new location this summer. Meanwhile, WAIF purchased a nine-acre lot and members plan to construct a 10,000-square-foot facility in the next three to four years, alleviating both the septic and larger space problems.

“Our current facility is not adequate,” said Lesley Mills, executive director of WAIF. “A good shelter is the nucleus of a good community animal care and control program.”

The county has a contract with WAIF to manage the “minimum-kill facility.” As part of the agreement, the county owns the building and maintains the septic system. WAIF, a nonprofit organization, also contracts to run Oak Harbor’s animal shelter on the Navy’s Seaplane Base.

Mills said the drain field for the facility’s septic system is in one of the play yards, an area that is frequently used for exercise and socialization, as well as a place for potential adopters to meet pooches. She said the center had a breakout of Giardia in February, but workers couldn’t figure out why is was so serious and persistent. Giardia is a parasite that causes intestinal distress, often leading to diarrhea and vomiting.

Although the ailment has an easy cure, the breakout meant workers and volunteers had to constantly clean the kennels. WAIF officials decided to temporarily halt adoptions and dog walking for several extended periods of time to contain the problem, which is now solved.

It wasn’t until weeks later that county officials notified WAIF about the failed septic system, the obvious cause of the Giardia. Mills said at least one county employee knew about the septic failure when it happened and didn’t tell WAIF.

“If the county had informed us early on about the failed septic,” she said, “we would have closed down the play yards a lot sooner and would have likely been able to stop the occurrence. Of course, once we did have knowledge, this was exactly what we did, but at that point the problem was well under way.”

Island County Commissioner Mike Shelton said that county officials did, in fact, inform WAIF as soon as they knew about the septic system.

“We haven’t been trying to keep anything from WAIF,” he said.

Shelton, however, admits that it has taken a long time to fix the problem. He explained that the process of installing a new septic system has been complicated by the county’s old, closed-down landfill adjacent to the animal shelter. He said the site of the new septic system had to be changed because of ongoing testing of the landfill.

The commissioners plan to have the new septic system up and running in the next month.

Shelton said he’s very supportive of WAIF and the group’s plans to build a new facility. He said the site of the current shelter conflicts with the nearby solid waste facility and closed landfill.

The site of the new shelter will be across Highway 20 from the current shelter, at the entrance to the county’s Rhododendron Park. Mills estimates that the building will cost about $2 million. WAIF plans to raise the money within the community.

Before beginning the fund-raising campaign, Mills said WAIF officials will work with an architect to design the facility and work out an exact cost estimate.

The need is real. As Mills said, it’s virtually raining cats and dogs at the Coupeville shelter. Kennels with cats crowd the hallways because cages in the cat room are filled. About 45 cats and 30 dogs now live at the shelter. There have been times when 100 cats crowd the facility and a waiting list for surrenders.

As envisioned, the new facility would more than double the space for dogs and cats, as well as a vital assessment area for new dogs — which is something that doesn’t now exist.

In Oak Harbor, WAIF contracts with the city to run the animal shelter on the Seaplane Base. The ramshackle shelter is open to the public — both civilian and military — but city officials have discussed the possibility of building or buying a more conveniently-located shelter elsewhere.

Mills said WAIF’s plans in Coupeville won’t affect any plans in Oak Harbor.

“The two are not mutually exclusive,” she said.

You can reach Jessie Stensland at or 675-6611.

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