Berkeley has a dirty and smelly secret. The roughly 60-year-old city animal shelter, tucked from public view at Second and Addison streets, is so dilapidated that shelter volunteers say conditions drive away folks looking for new pets.
“I’ve seen kids crying when they left,” said Linda McCormick, founder of Fix Our Ferals, a rescue program for wild cats.
On Nov. 5, Berkeley voters will decide whether to approve a bond measure, authorizing $7.2 million to build a new animal shelter. Property owners will be asked to pay, on average, about $12 per year for 30 years to finance the new facility.
Leading a tour through corridors of howling dogs, shelter volunteer Jill Posener pointed out the facility’s shortcomings.
“The sewage system is broken,” she said pointing at fecal remains in drainage gutters next to the cages. “Who is going to adopt a dog that has sh__ all over its own feet.”
Other problems are just as obvious. Cages have broken locks that make it difficult for interested adopters to see the animals, barriers between dogs are so low that the animals can easily spread diseases, and space is so limited that wild animals such as chickens or lizards are often kept in cages in the shelter’s office.
A simple renovation of the facility won’t work, Posener said. At 12,000 square feet the entire property is nearly half the size of new shelters in San Francisco and Oakland and is incapable of providing facilities that would welcome adopters and make life more bearable for the animals.
Posener said five essential upgrades are needed that are not possible at the current shelter: An isolation area for sick animals so that they do not infect other animals, a holding pen for wildlife, an off-leash dog area so dogs can frequently leave their cages to work off energy, a “get-acquainted” space for potential adopters to have room to interact with the animals, and an in-house clinic to provide immediate medical care to sick animals.
According to McCormick, the city pays for a veterinarian to visit the shelter every week. If an animal gets sick when medical care is not available, the disease is easily spread to other animals.
The measure has broad support and was put on the ballot by a unanimous vote of the City Council.
Although there is no organized opposition to the measure, voter approval is not guaranteed. A two-thirds majority is required for passage, and Posener acknowledged that some residents were likely to oppose it as an unnecessary tax hike.
Also, a new shelter site has not yet been found. Posener insisted there were several suitable sites in the industrial area of west Berkeley near Gilman Street, and that shelter supporters can’t pursue a new location until the measure is passed.
Despite building limitations, volunteers say Berkeley’s shelter has come a long way in recent years. Since Berkeley’s police department relinquished control of the shelter and turned it over to the city in 2000, programs have been initiated to reduce the number of shelter deaths.
According to shelter records, in 1998, 783 animals were put to death. Last year 123 were killed. The sharp decline was not achieved by more adoptions, but through partnerships with rescue operations that take animals to different, more desirable shelters or return them to the wild.
Adoptions won’t increase until the city builds a facility that people will be comfortable visiting, Posener said.
“We’ve begun to make a real difference with philosophy and policies, but now we need a building that reflects that commitment,” said Posener.
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