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The Future of Animal Shelters

Julie Morris, VP, ASPCA National Shelter Outreach, and Tracy Basile

Shelter Dreams

In redefining themselves, innovative shelters are inventing a future in which the animals come first.

What’s the first thing you notice when you walk into an animal shelter? The deafening roar of the dogs? The overworked staff? That smell? At the Oakland, CA, shelter, people see colorfully painted murals designed by award-winning artist Laurel Burch once they reach the front door. Visitors to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, UT, see dogs running, playing and digging in the earth. The San Francisco SPCA offers the weary human traveler a respite at a coffee bar and boasts a shelter without bars. And, to ease the stress on felines, humans accompanying cats to the Houston SPCA walk into an entrance separate than the one used with dogs.

Are these design decisions outrageous luxuries? Meaningless indulgences? Not at all. In fact, many shelter experts argue that the concepts behind these designs succeed because they rock the status quo of what animal shelters are supposed to look like and how they are supposed to function. By breaking down preconceived notions of the stereotypical shelter, real change can occur on levels that enrich workers, volunteers, communities and, most of all, the animals who are harbored within.

Shelters past

Remember how bleak shelters used to look? When Bill Meade, who is now director of the architectural division of Animal Care Equipment & Services in Crestline, CA, was a young man growing up in Virginia in the 1960s he volunteered at his local shelter. With winter temperatures dropping below freezing, many animals suffered every year. “People just accepted it. That was the way it was,” recalls Meade.

It’s not that people 30 years ago were any less concerned than they are today. “The shelters of the past were simply built for the wrong reasons,” says Gordon Willard, executive director of the Animal Protective Foundation of Schenectady in Scotia, NY. Typically, little value was placed on housing and rehoming animals. Funds just weren?t allocated by the community. “The result,” he says, “was warehouses for animals without regard to function.”

Remnants of this mentality are found today in barracks-like shelters on the outskirts of towns and cities across the country, environments more appropriately called “pounds” than any kind of safe haven. Ironically, many of these shelters have succeeded brilliantly in being models of cleanliness and efficiency, but lack the one ingredient the animals need most -a feeling of home.

The effect is usually devastating. But it doesn’t have to be. “The shelter is a beacon of hope,” says Willard, and it is people with vision such as his who are redefining and revolutionizing what shelters are today and what they will be in the future.

Shelters present

Dealing with the stress of being cooped up in a cage can be extremely debilitating. Just ask Sue Sternberg, president and owner of Rondout Valley Animals for Adoption in Accord, NY. The first thing she’ll tell you is, “Dogs live in the present.” They don’t rationalize that they may only be in the shelter for a few days, weeks or months. This is why, Sternberg insists, the shelter staff must ask itself every day, “Is this animal a better animal behaviorally, emotionally and physically today than he was yesterday or the day he came in?” The answer has to be yes or the shelter is failing.

Facing up to this challenge can be grim. But there is hope. “You can change what happens emotionally to dogs,” says Sternberg, whose shelter charges compete in agility classes, attend obedience classes and take nature walks. Sadly, large under-funded shelters in poor urban areas face unbearable conditions every day. But in communities scattered across the country, in shelters large and small, municipal and private, innovations are happening. Granted, some are multi-million dollar projects, but real innovation is more about being open to new ideas -such as playing classical music in the kennels or creating a “real life” room through modest donations (see sidebar) -than about spending money.

Fortunately, what’s healthy for the animals also tends to be healthy for people, so once a few programs are in place, the domino effect kicks in. Using glass, taking advantage of natural sunlight, creating park-like settings no matter what the scale -all these design elements create win-win situations. Take indoor plants, for example, growing under skylights between facing rows of kenneled dogs. This design provides a visual barrier so dogs on one side will be less likely to bark at dogs across from them. In addition, more natural light, fresher air and less noise are parts of the equation.

Shelters future

Getting involved in improving your local shelter, or campaigning to build a new, more humane one, requires perseverance. Just ask Sherry Hoe of the Kauai Humane Society in Hawaii, who has raised $2.1 million to replace the island’s 40-year-old building. “Everyone said it couldn’t be done, but that just made me all the more determined,” says Hoe. While the island is in a hard-hit financial crisis and down to a population of just 46,000, she and other shelter die-hards took a giant leap of faith. Fortunately, the community responded. “People contributed lunch money, ladies quit smoking for a week and gave their cigarette money… We still have about $800,000 to go.” The new 26,000-square-foot shelter boasts an herb garden in the interior courtyard and its own generator for use in the event of a hurricane.

Many experts agree that shelters aren’t just for animals; they’re for communities. It is this vision of firmly bringing these safe havens into the fold of the community that seems to be revolutionizing shelters the most profoundly. In the past, shelters were seen as “the repository of a community’s outcasts,” says Mark Hafen of the Boulder, CO-based architectural firm Gates, Hafen, Cochrane. But today that image is changing. Animals -both human and nonhuman -need to feel secure, Hafen reminds us. “They need places to get away from the madness.”

Providing a sense of home to every creature who resides in a shelter, no matter how briefly, enriches us all. “Let your voice be heard,” advises Meade. “Write and talk to local officials. Go to community meetings. Tell them you don’t want a dog pound anymore, you want a humane shelter. Once that battle is over, the rest is pretty easy.”

The Comforts of Home

Sue Sternberg, president of Rondout Valley Animals for Adoption, in Accord, NY, has spent a lot of time pondering what it feels like to be a dog in a shelter: “Imagine spending month after month in a concrete kennel run, with chain-link fencing your only view; loud, echoey ceilings; wet, bleachy walls; a dog to your right, a dog to your left; uproarious barking whenever someone walks nearby, or feeds the dogs, or walks past with another dog …” she says.

What’s the solution? According to Sternberg, and a growing number of shelter professionals and animal behaviorists, the answer is a “real-life” room -a quiet and cozy respite from the tensions of kennel living. They don’t require money, just creativity, a little extra space and a few donated items -such as a couch, a big soft chair, a rug, an old television or radio.

Kelli Nicholas, volunteer adoption counselor at Pet Orphans Fund in Van Nuys, CA, says that the three newly created “real-life” rooms at the shelter help the animals relax. “These rooms can really change a dog’s personality for the better,” she says, all of which translates into higher adoption rates and a more positive mood. “Real-life” rooms are an excellent way to show off dogs to prospective adopters, especially older dogs who may be devastated by their new existence in a kennel. “It’s hard for a dog to spend day after day in the kennels and remember his indoor manners,” says Sternberg, who adds that these handy little homes also can be used to help staff assess what a dog is like indoors, if the dog has ever lived in a home before, and what the dog is like when left unattended.

For information about starting a “real-life” room, contact Sue Sternberg, Rondout Valley Animals for Adoption, (914) 687-7619 or fax (914) 687-0802.


  • Volunteer or donate money and materials to improve your local facility. Take documented, unresolved problems to the board of directors or municipal government.
  • Join us in the dream The ASPCA invites you to share your vision of the dream shelter with us. Drop us a line at the address below or e-mail us at
  • For a free copy of “The Hands-On Handbook: Everything You Should Know to Make the World a Better Place for Dogs and Cats,” write to ASPCA National Shelter Outreach, Handbook Request, 424 East 92nd Street, New York, NY 10128-6804.
  • To contact the organizations and architectural firms consulted for this article, write to ASPCA National Shelter Outreach, Shelter Dreams Source List, 424 East 92nd Street, New York, NY 10128-6804.


Make it a place to learn.

Kiosks and Computers
Take your dog or cat I.Q. Learn the story of cats, dogs and humans living together. It’s easy to stay informed and entertained while at the Oakland SPCA in Oakland, CA, which boasts kiosks, interactive computer stations and video presentations. Interactive learning centers also are being designed at the Wisconsin Humane Society, The Monadnack Humane Society in New Hampshire and the Humane Society of Missouri featuring touch screen computer games, scavenger hunts and craft activities.

Staff and Volunteer Training
A shelter is only as good as its employees. That’s why many of the best are discovering that if they want to keep the most committed, talented people they need to send them to clinics and conferences. One Midwestern shelter sent every employee who works with its dogs to obedience classes. Employees had a choice of taking their own dog or a shelter dog. The care and enthusiasm people brought back to their jobs far outweighed the costs. Extra perk: the dogs more quickly acquired basic manners, making them that much more desirable for adoption.

Pet Training
Many shelters today boast not just basic dog obedience classes, but behavioral consultation services as well. The Denver Dumb Friends League, for instance, offers “Pet Parenting” classes and an “Animal Behavior Helpline” free to all adopters.

Invite people in.

Location, Location, Location
Architects and leaders in the shelter community are stressing the importance of building in a predominantely retail part of town. “It’s plain, old common sense that every businessman knows,” says Bill Meade, whose architectural division of Animal Care Equipment & Services in Crestline, CA, designs shelters across the United States. “Every time we convince town officials to put a shelter in a good location, adoptions double.” Prime locations come at a price, but the results are often worth it.

Color, Design and a Touch of Whimsy
Shelters need to stand out from the crowd. The Houston SPCA built a big modern barn with a pink granite lobby and teal green accents. “Very Texas,” says Patti Mercer, executive director, right down to the color-coordinated teal knit shirts worn by the shelter employees.

An abundance of plants and trees distinguish this kind of shelter from its retail neighbors. The shelter becomes “a quiet neighborhood unto itself because of the landscaping,” says architect Larry Connolly of Austin, TX, who specializes in shelter construction.

Murals and Graphics
Art brings people in, and that’s a powerful force in communities striving to build a bond that benefits their animals. At the Oakland SPCA in Oakland, CA, renowned animal artist Laurel Burch and her staff designed and handpainted murals of cats and dogs all over the shelter.

Off-site Adoption Centers
“If Mohammed can’t come to the mountain…” Besides boosting adoptions, small adoption centers in busy retail areas also can sell animal-related products that profit the shelter. So far the North Richland Hills Animal Services Center in Texas has sold more than $60,000 worth of Beanie Babies, which will help support a new adoption center and injured-animal assistance fund.

Create a healthy environment.

Let the Sun Shine
In Atriums, glass, plants and skylights go a long way to create an open, positive atmosphere. But the benefits of this kind of design aren’t just cosmetic “some diseases can’t survive exposure to ultraviolet light. What’s more, “sunlight brings warmth and a sense of well-being. Your resistance stays up,” notes Meade. The new Humane Society of Missouri (see Shelter Spotlight, p. 13) features high ceilings, skylights and atriums, plus planter dividers in the kennels to prevent dogs from viewing each other and thereby reducing the amount of stress and barking. As an extra perk, indoor plants enhance air quality and absorb noise.

At the Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago, glass window cases face the street, tempting passersby to find out about that “doggie in the window.” Cat cages with a plexiglass front and a rear utility door for staff access can be found in many shelters across the country. This design, which lets folks view cats while the felines remain undisturbed by probing fingers, was pioneered by the Denver Dumb Friends League.

Clean, Really Clean
“Think simple in order to be neat and clean,” advises Gordon Willard, director of the Animal Protective Foundation of Schenectady in Scotia, NY, who visualizes the ideal shelter’s wall to be smooth and fast-drying so it can be washed down frequently.

Park-like Settings
The mild climate in southern California allows for shelters to have open spaces and a park-like atmos- phere. Gardeners at The Pasadena Humane Society regularly maintain the animal-shaped topiaries. The shelter also boasts an outdoor area with benches, lush plantings, fountains and vine-covered trellises. Outside runs for dogs at the San Clemente Animal Shelter face a courtyard appointed with benches and a statue of St. Francis of Assisi.

Air Quality
Good ventilation is a requirement of the shelter of the future. New shelters have heating, ventilation and cooling systems that exchange air as often as 15 to 20 times per hour -a rate unheard of in private residences or office buildings. Patti Mercer reports that the eight different air systems at the new Houston SPCA in Houston, TX, have dramatically reduced airborne diseases such as kennel cough and upper respiratory infections. “Odors and stale air will do more to create the wrong impression and cause disease than anything else in a shelter. Don’t scrimp on this,” warns Willard.

Face it; dogs bark. Bored dogs bark even more. So, it’s not surprising to learn that shelters are experimenting with all sorts of acoustical and sound absorption technology. The new Maddie’s Pet Adoption Center of the San Francisco SPCA utilized the most advanced acoustic technology available in building its $7 million shelter. Plants and trees also help to reduce noise.

Put the animals first.

Behavioral Enrichment
The well-being of animals concerns more than just meeting basic needs. John Rogerson, an English animal behaviorist who works extensively with shelters both in the United States and England, recommends companion housing, communal play areas, durable easy-to-clean toys, plastic “kiddie” pools filled with water or sand, mobiles, aquariums, television sets, classical music, the smell of an orange… the list goes on and on. Often, a few changes are all that are needed to get started.

Living As Nature Intended
“The needs of cats are different than those of dogs or rabbits, so make the rooms and spaces match the natural needs of the animals,” says Willard. He likes cat rooms with windows to the outdoors, where he places bird feeders or mobiles to stimulate feline interest. Faith Maloney, director of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, UI, recommends, “vertical spaces for cats, grass pasture for horses and livestock, earth for rabbits to dig in and aviaries that permit flight for birds.”

Work, Play and Excercise
“Animals live to interact and interact to live,” says architect Mark Hafen of Gates, Hafen, Cochrane in Boulder, CO. With that in mind, “play places,” as he calls them, are a neccessity. “Every shelter should incorporate room for an agility course and training room,” says Hafen, who adds, “dogs need to feel like they can work to justify their existence.” Companionship Cat condos, as they popularly are called, are popping up at shelters all across the country. “Once you’ve got a stabilized population,” says Meade, “cageless cat colonies work just fine.” Often built to house 4 or 5 cats, these cozy habitats are furnished with something for cats to climb on, such as a tree branch, and plenty of soft perches.

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