Nevada, Hong Kong shelter planners learn to see like dogs
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2002:
INCLINE VILLAGE, Nevada– The Pet Network of North Lake
Tahoe had a lot to show off on August 25, as host of the 2002
Conference on Homeless Animal Management and Policy shelter tour,
beginning with the two-year-old shelter itself.
The talking points–except for one –were neatly set forth on
fact sheets inside a folder given to each of the 25 CHAMP visitors.
The point omitted, the most remarkable of all, is that
approximately 250 residents of Incline Village and nearby communities
volunteer for the Pet Network, contributing 400 to 600 service hours
This was left out, director of development and public
relations Therese Flanagan told ANIMAL PEOPLE, because none of the
staff and board realized how unusual their community participation
level is: Incline Village has just 9,000 human residents, many of
whom are in town only during the ski season, or during the summer
months when Lake Tahoe is accessible.
The San Francisco SPCA, with as many as 2,100 volunteers,
and the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, attracting as many as 2,500
in recent years, are a comfortable day’s drive to the west and
southeast, respectively. But those legendary organizations shimmer
like mirages in the Nevada desert.
Beyond those two, even the biggest shelters in the biggest
U.S. cities rarely have 250 volunteers. Relatively few have even 150.
Volunteer coordinator Betty Battle was not present to explain
how she recruits, trains, and motivates so many, but board member
John Stimm pointed toward one reason for the Pet Network success.
The next generation
“We are right next door to the high school,” he noted. “The
kids come over all the time to see the animals and meet their friends
on the corner, and we find ways to pull them in and get them
involved. Some take on jobs as a social activity, some do things
for us as class projects, and some are earning community involvement
points for their college applications,” and/or are earning Scouting
Flanagan added that the Pet Network also runs summer programs
for children under 14, many of whom become volunteers.
But there is also no shortage of adult help. Many rows of
volunteer badges in the check-in area confirm the numbers of Incline
Villagers who donate time on a regular basis. Besides socializing
and fostering animals, greeting visitors, running off-site adoption
events, and organizing fundraising activities, Stimm said,
volunteers handle most of the building and grounds maintenance,
including the snow removal, a frequent necessity from February until
as late as early June each year.
“This last winter,” Stimm added, “the heavy snow started in
Another reason for the heavy volunteer participation is that
the Pet Network itself began and grew as an all-volunteer group,
rescuing and placing animals from Carson
Animal Services in Carson City at first, and eventually expanding to
assist Reno Animal Services as well. For nearly eight years the Pet
Network had no one physical location and no paid staff, while
learning to make maximum use of the adoption boutiques at pet supply
stores in Carson City, Reno, and South Lake Tahoe, assisted by
interenet communications and advertising.
“The Pet Network is the next generation of animal welfare
organizations,” the 10-year-old group dares to proclaim in a program
information brochure. The shelter maintains a no-kill policy, but
accepts any dog or cat whose condition can be treated with a
reasonable hope of success, including a dog currently in the
rehabilitation area who required orthopedic surgery to straighten a
leg that was mangled in puppyhood by some sort of accident, and did
not set properly.
“We recently adopted out a 17-year-old cat,” adoptions
manager Adam Hulme said. “So far in 2002, we have euthanized three
animals,” each due to a painful and incurable medical condition.
During the 12 months before the CHAMP tour, the Pet Network
handled 1,029 animals in all: 768 cats, 256 dogs, and five other
small mammals. It averaged 86 adoptions per month, 77 of them
animals taken out of the Carson and Reno animal control shelters.
This enabled the Carson animal control shelter to virtually cease
killing cats, Flanagan said. The increase in adoptions over the
first year that the shelter was open was 173%.
“Our state-of-the-art facility is specifically designed for
optimum animal care and cleanliness, in a warm and social
environment for pets and people alike,” a membership information
brochure claims. The building lives up to the description.
Architect George Myers, a shelter specialist, did the basic
planning. Local architects made amendments to comply with the strict
Incline Village design requirements. The community is the most
affluent enclave within Washoe County, which stretches all the way
to Reno, and fronts on environmentally sensitive Lake Tahoe. The
shelter is right in the middle of the Nevada side of the community,
which flows into Brockway, California, less than a mile to the
north. There was considerable community opposition to siting it
where it is; the location preferred by many Incline Villagers would
have been away from town, near the sewage treatment plant.
That, the Pet Network board insisted, would send the wrong
message about the value and attractiveness of adoptable animals.
Except for the outdoor dog exercise yards, the Pet Network
shelter could pass for a church. It houses just 36 cats and 13 dogs
when at designed capacity, plus a veterinarian-operated private
boarding kennel which often has more dogs than the shelter side of
the building. Running the boarding kennel is a perquisite for the
The contrast between the relatively conventional boarding
kennel design and the side of the building housing the Pet Network
animals affords an all-under-one-roof demonstration of how the Pet
Network strategy differs. The boarded dogs inhabit barred cages.
Air exchanged twice an hour keeps the atmosphere fresh. The dogs
have varying amounts of space according to size, temperament, and
price paid; some are housed with companions; and they enjoy toys,
bedding, walks, and the other usual boarding kennel amenities.
Yet the boarded dogs also bark at the slightest variation in
routine, like kenneled dogs almost everywhere. If soundproof doors
and baffles along the walls and embedded in the ceiling did not keep
the noise from spreading, the decibel level inside the Pet Network
building might rise toward the shelter norm–which tends to drive
visitors out, decreasing adoptions and volunteer help.
The Pet Network side of the building, however, is
library-quiet. There are no barred cages. Instead, each dog room
is enclosed in thick shatterproof glass.
Hong Kong SPCA shelter architect Jill Cheshire explained the
advantages of glass instead of bars to everyone she could at her
booth in the CHAMP conference exhibit hall. Cheshire had no
involvement in planning the Pet Network facility, but discovered the
same principles in designing and overseeing the construction of the
also two-year-old Hong Kong SPCA satellite shelter in Kowloon.
“To lower the volume of noise inside a dog shelter,”
Cheshire pointed out, “you have to realize that dogs see with their
noses. Bars or chain link allow them to be stimulated by everything
that goes on in your shelter. Because what stimulates them most is
the presence of other dogs, and there are always other dogs in a
shelter, they bark all the time. Nobody can stand it. Then
shelters often try to deal with the noise by restricting what their
dogs can see. They end up putting their dogs inside boxes, with no
visual stimulation at all–so what do they have left to do? They
bark some more. The visual barriers may help to deaden the sound,
but they do nothing to improve the psychological health and
adoptability of the dogs.
“What we have learned to do instead,” Cheshire continued,
“is to put the dogs inside glass, so that they can see everything
but cannot smell anything. This encourages them to spend a lot of
their time up looking around, using their other senses and being in
front of their enclosures where the visitors will see them and maybe
adopt them. If you look inside a glass-enclosed shelter, what you
see are lots of alert and attentive dogs, who are always watching
everything very carefully, but are rarely barking.”
Cheshire’s observations–and her attention to use of angles
that maximize use of natural light–are echoed throughout the Pet
Network shelter planning. But the model that the Pet Network people
mention is Maddie’s Adoption Center, the $7 million San Francisco
SPCA facility opened in 1998. Maddie’s Fund also helped to finance
the Pet Network shelter, and the Pet Network personnel describe
their shelter as a downsized version of the San Francisco building.
It is, and because of the high price of land acquisition, unusually
complicated design approval process, and higher-than-U.S.-norm cost
of construction itself in Incline Village, the Pet Network shelter
actually cost as much or more per square foot to build.
Can be emulated
But there is this important difference: take away the costly
aspects of the project which were unique to the Incline Village
location, notably the cost of the land, and the rest could be
emulated by most communities, on a normal shelter construction
As Cheshire kept saying during her presentations about
shelter design, “This is not rocket science. This is paying
attention to your animals and what they need, instead of just
copying what every other shelter has always done.”
Using glass instead of chain link or bars, for instance,
costs little more, and cuts shelter maintenance costs because it is
more easily cleaned and disinfected. The use of glass also enables
shelters to expand their quarantine and infectious disease isolation
space as necessary, because any enclosure can become a quarantine or
The Pet Network shelter includes separate kitchens for the
primary dog area, primary cat area, the quarantine area, the
boarding kennel, and the human staff. Five kitchens, Stimm
admitted, is a luxury, but a luxury that pays off in improved
convenience and sanitation, and is especially handy when particular
animals require special diets. In fact, special diets were
prescribed for eight of the 49 animals in care during the CHAMP tour.
Most shelters, of necessity, get by with only one or two kitchens,
and probably always will–but one Pet Network feature, copied from
fast-food restaurants, could be incorporated into the planning of
any new cat facility: the cats can watch the food preparation. The
Pet Network kitchen serving the cat area is long and linear,
stretching behind the banks of cat cages, and is also in plain view
of visitors as they inspect the cats.
There is little that most cats like to do more than watch
their person opening cans, sniffing and manuevering to get a better
view of the countertop activity. Most shelter cats do not get the
opportunity to be stimulated by feeding, as their meals just arrive
in bowls, ready to eat, but the Pet Network cats can enjoy the
entire typical household routine, except that they cannot jump up on
a countertop to jostle the elbow of the person opening the cans and
trying to serve them.
The Pet Network placed 384 cats for adoption at $50 apiece
through the pet supply stores during the preceding 12 months, but
placed the same number through the shelter at $75 apiece. Flanagan
and Stimm explained that the difference is a matter of pricing to
meet costs. Yet in a town where Audis may outnumber station wagons,
there is also a strong tendency among residents to equate price with
quality, and it seems possible that cats rubbing and purring in
anticipation of their meal are perceived as “quality cats,” even if
they are the same cats offered for much less at the other adoption