NOAH’s ark on Puget Sound
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2006:
STANWOOD, Washington–A starling swooped
through the last daylight across the northbound
lane of I-5, toward a gap in the young alders on
the inland side. Braking to avoid the starling,
I saw the sunset glinting off a sign through the
trees, saying something about spay/neuter–and
beyond the sign, caught a glimpse of a new animal
Just short of the Snohomish/Skagit county
line, as close to the middle of nowhere as I-5
goes between Seattle and British Columbia, the
starling had helped ANIMAL PEOPLE to quite
accidentally discover the three-year-old NOAH
It looked like a must to turn around and investigate.
Approaching past a cluster of off-leash dog
exercise yards, I met executive director Austin
Gates walking one last dog before locking up for
the evening. Other late-working staff were just
A public obedience class was ending in the NOAH Center training arena.
Many executive directors would have said, “Now
that you know the way here, come back another
Gates said, “Come on in.”
Built by the Northwest Organization for
Animal Help with substantial support from the
Edson Foundation, the no-kill NOAH Center went
through a few years of shakedown, testing and
improving the new facilities and developing
Now the NOAH Center is ready, Gates
explained, to grow into the teaching and
training mission that the shelter directors had
in mind all along. Hosting a recent visit by 35
members of the Washington Animal Control
Association was the start, the directors hope,
of inspiring a whole new approach to animal
sheltering in the Puget Sound region and perhaps
Accomplishments include averaging more
than 2,500 dog and cat sterilizations per year,
and more than 1,000 adoptions, recruiting and
managing 280 volunteers with a paid staff of just
The human population of Stanwood, the
nearest town, is only 4,000, with only 50,000
people in the four nearest towns.
Inconspicuous and seemingly
out-of-the-way as it is, the NOAH Center draws
adopters and volunteers from well beyond the
usual service radius of an animal shelter, even
without advertising, by offering a combination
of attractive facilities, positive energy, and
convenient access, once one knows about it.
The importance of education to the NOAH
mission is immediately evident. The adoption
desk is straight ahead from the main entrance, a
pet supply boutique is to the right, and behind
the adoption desk, visible through a corridor,
is a classroom-and-library area occupying half or
more of the space between the two wings of a
building resembling a National Park lodge.
The NOAH board members traveled
extensively throughout the U.S. and abroad,
Gates explained, collecting ideas.
The closest apparent inspiration is the
much larger five-year-old Oregon Humane Society
shelter in Portland. Other probable sources of
ideas include the nine-year-old Maddie’s Adoption
Center in San Francisco; the five-year-old Pet
Network of North Lake Tahoe shelter in Incline
Village, Nevada; the Hong Kong SPCA; and the
Best Friends Animal Society, of Kanab, Utah.
Gates attributes to Best Friends much of
the management philosophy, and also credits her
own early experience with the Denver Dumb Friends
League. A 17-year shelter veteran, Gates later
directed both the Ottawa Shores Humane Society
and the animal control department in Grand
Rapids, Michi-gan, before coming to NOAH.
Gates found the serve-the-public Dumb
Friends League attitude particularly hard to
instill in the Grand Rapids animal control staff,
she admits, where many of the staff were career
Coming to NOAH with the opportunity to
build a first-rate organization from the start
was, Gates says, the big break every animal
shelter director dreams of.
The NOAH Center houses cats to the left
of the main entrance, dogs to the right.
“There’s no stench here,” marveled
Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter M.L. Lyke in
2003, when the NOAH Center opened.
“Industrial-size laundry machines and constant
scrubdowns make sure of that. And there is none
of the dead-end dog-pound blues yelping heard at
other shelters. NOAH dogs are trained to
de-stress through calming exercises. There is
also no euthanasia room.”
The building is still library-quiet and
odor-free, demonstrating the advantages of using
storefront-grade window glass instead of chain
link to divide animal quarters, maintaining
constant air exchange, ducting air from the
bottoms of rooms instead of the tops, and using
well-placed sound baffles.
The NOAH staff rules include immediate
poop removal at all times and no use of the term
“cages” to refer to animal housing on the
premises. Indeed, there are no animal quarters
The design concept, Gates said, is for
the NOAH Center to resemble a shopping mall as
much as possible: clean, quiet, comfortable,
a place where neither animals nor staff nor
visitors feel stressed.
A separate entrance for the public
low-cost sterilization clinic is entered from the
far end of the cat wing, where animals are least
likely to become aware of the presence of other
How low is low-cost?
“We will perform the procedure on pets of
qualifying families for $25,” Gates said. “We
do feral cats for $25, or for 25¢ on Monday
The NOAH Center also loans out traps to feral cat colony caretakers.
Animals for adoption are drawn from local
animal control agencies, where most were on
death row after exhausting their holding time.
The NOAH Center does not accept animals directly
from the public.
“Not every pound pup is NOAH material,”
Lyke explained. “The staff carefully screens
incoming animals to make sure they’re
family-friendly. A healthy animal with three
legs and one eye might make the grade. But an
aggressive dog that fails the center’s
temperament test is out of luck.
“The animals may get more screening than
the families who come to adopt them,” Lyke wrote
with evident surprise. “NOAH has a guilt-free
adoption policy that avoids human interrogation.
There are no investigations into animals who
passed away, no requests for character
references from three vets. The NOAH process
simply involves meeting with a matchmaker to find
the right two-legged and four-legged connection.”
As most incoming animals have not yet
been sterilized, they arrive through the clinic.
Cats then go through the back door into
comfortable “kitty condominiums.” Dogs get their
first walk through part of the 17-acre NOAH
grounds. Later, volunteers will take them for
at least one walk per day and usually several,
over looping nature trails.
The 4,800-square-foot dog training area
is just beyond a British-style parasol kennel
that forms a turret at the north end of the dog
wing. The training area was recently refloored
at cost of $10,000 with a material made from
recycled tires, usually used to surface indoor
tracks. The price is competitive for the area
covered, and the floor is at once soft on dogs’
paws and resistant to wear.
Gates points out that a soft floor was a
necessity for offering agility training, in
which dogs jump a lot.
How it came about
While the NOAH Center is only three years
old, the Northwest Organization for Animal Help
“was founded in 1986 by Nancy Gebhardt, Anne
Belovich, Fran Osawa and a group of caring
volunteers,” the NOAH Center web site
acknowledges. Belovich is now listed as
Initially a shelterless rescue network,
NOAH eventually ran a small shelter on Camano
Island, outgrew it, and opened a thrift store
in Stanwood to raise funds for bigger premises.
The going was slow until early 2000, when
Bayliner boat company founders Orin and Charlene
Edson donated $1.5 million toward the
construction of the NOAH Center, and put up a
$1.5 million matching challenge grant to start an
Though that sounds like a lot of money,
the NOAH Center actually cost no more to build
than many conventional shelters of comparable
size–and cost much less than most of the
shelters from which the NOAH Center borrows ideas.
Gates told ANIMAL PEOPLE that the NOAH
Center will provide sets of blueprints to other
organizations for $50, which is their cost per
The NOAH Center scored 100 on the ANIMAL
PEOPLE point scale, detailed in the June 2004
edition. Based upon how well a shelter fulfills
the “Five Freedoms” articulated by the British
Farm Animal Welfare Advisory Committee in 1967,
with nine further considerations specific to dog
and cat sheltering, the scale is designed to
evaluate all types of shelter on an equal
footing, regardless of size, function, or