Animal shelter deplored, new one still awaited

Foozle enjoys some social time outside her kennel with WAIF animal care tech Michelle Rose.  - Jenny Manning/Whidbey News-Times
Foozle enjoys some social time outside her kennel with WAIF animal care tech Michelle Rose.
— image credit: Jenny Manning/Whidbey News-Times

Island County’s substandard animal shelter brought on tears at a recent meeting, but efforts to replace it are showing few signs of fruition.

Two former Whidbey Animals’ Improvement Foundation volunteers shared their concerns at a WAIF board meeting Feb. 16 at the Freeland Library.

The saga over Smiley — a mixed-breed dog who was slated for euthanasia and eventually stolen from the shelter following an expensive legal battle to save his life — sparked a heated debate over the shelter’s conditions, shelter practices and WAIF board members’ communication with volunteers and donors.

In the discussion, Pamela Hill-Keeva, WAIF board president, was reduced to tears over the amount of homeless animals on the island, the limited resources WAIF has to care for them and the substandard shelter conditions volunteers and staff work in, day in and day out.

“It’s horrible for man, let alone beast,” she said, “but we do what we can to make the animals as comfortable as possible.”

Former volunteer Diane Jhueck agrees.

“The dilemma is that this shelter is a terrible place, but you need money to make it a better place,” she said.

“I’m not as strong as Sheri,” Jhueck said, referring to WAIF’s shelter manager Sheri Bibich. “I couldn’t take it. That’s why I left.”

Karen Moore volunteered for four years, until she lost hope for the long-promised new shelter.

“All I know is that three and a half, four years ago I was told the new shelter would be built within the year,” she said.

A new shelter will be constructed, said Stephen Paysse, WAIF executive director, but WAIF needs to raise more money before work can begin.

“We have not even started our capital campaign yet,” Hill-Keeva said. “We want to have pledges for one-third of the cost before we begin.”

But what that cost will be, Paysse won’t say just yet.

“If you go to the public before the capital campaign is prepared, you’re doomed to fail,” Paysse said.

At this point WAIF has formed a new shelter committee, capital campaign committee, owns land and has submitted conceptual drawings for the new shelter to the county.

The capital campaign will not be launched until “we have all our ducks in a row,” Paysse said. “We’re building the board into a position were we can start a capital campaign.”

“The last thing we want to do is get it running and not have enough money,” he said. “Believe me, I would like a new shelter tomorrow. I’m in there every day. We’re a small community and its going to take a lot of time,” Paysse said of raising money for the new facility.

“We’re talking $3 to $3.5 million,” he said at the meeting of the amount he’d like to raise before shelter construction begins.

Moore is still concerned about the conditions at the current Coupeville building, citing poor air and water quality.

The county-owned building has been upgraded as funds allow, Bibich, the shelter manager, said. Several years ago, the county spent more than $30,000 for an air filtration system.

While Bibich and other volunteers don’t drink the water, it’s quality is checked quarterly and is “deemed potable.”

In 2005, some of the shelter dogs contracted giardia after the shelter’s 15-year-old septic system flooded the dog play yard. The fenced area was closed for a year to let the sun bake the bacteria out of the soil, and WAIF spent thousands of dollars to cover the yard with new dirt.

Ron Kerrigan of Old Dog Haven attended the meeting to talk about working with WAIF for their Spring Fling fundraising event, for yet another year. He also defended Bibich for her work at the shelter.

“People don’t know what Shari has done for certain dogs. She’s called me. Smiley, of course, was not old enough for Old Dog Haven. She’s out there looking for solutions for these dogs,” he said.

“How come the public doesn’t know about the success stories? I have nine dogs, that if it wasn’t for WAIF, would have been dead long ago,” Kerrigan said.

“We all care about the same thing,” Hill-Keeva said.

Moore also suggested that WAIF follow up with volunteers who’ve left, reporting that no one ever called her when she stopped volunteering.

“You’ve got a pretty deep black eye,” she told the board, referring to the fallout from the Smiley controversy.

Volunteers are the lifeblood of the shelter, Paysse said, adding that the board will make a list of everything that needs to be addressed, prioritize the items and tackle one concern at a time.

Move volunteers are needed, he said, adding that the shelter recorded 1,600 volunteer hours in 2008.

“What’s the next step?” asked Jhueck, who propelled the discussion forward.

“It’s really positive to hear a person with suggestions that is willing to help,” Susan Cohen told Jhueck, who proposed “a little task force of people who can keep dogs sane — without spending extra money — so they don’t go kennel crazy.”

For now, Paysse and another board member plan to meet with Jhueck over coffee.

“The community wants to talk, and WAIF is open to listen,” Jhueck said. “I think this is a pretty big deal.”

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