Public Comment

Animal Shelter: Still A Doggone Dilemma

By Jill Posener
Thursday October 15, 2009 - 01:03:00 PM
Stray chihuahua-terrier mix in the kennels at Berkeley Animal Care Services.
Jill Posener
Stray chihuahua-terrier mix in the kennels at Berkeley Animal Care Services.

It shouldn’t be complicated to build a new animal shelter. In 2002 the voters of Berkeley passed Measure I, the bond measure to fund the construction of a new shelter. Finding an appropriate site has been far harder than persuading the voters of the validity of this cause.  

And if you listen to the city management, plans for the new shelter at 1 Bolivar are proceeding quite nicely, thank you very much. Demolition of the boarded-up building at the site, originally scheduled for last April, may start soon; joint plans with the Parks Department for the “touchdown plaza” at the base of the pedestrian bridge over I-80 are currently on hold because of a lack of state funding, but hey, don’t worry; and the bids for the new shelter construction are due to come in any week now. 

A great team of architects, faced with a site which is, to put it mildly, restrictive, have produced a design that most agree is better than what we currently have. But that’s not a high bar to cross. When people involved with the project say “we’ll manage” when talking about the flaws of the site and facility even before ground has broken, you know that something is wrong. At what point in a public project is it too late to stop and say “what are we doing?”  

Built in the 1950s, Berkeley’s city animal shelter is a squat cinderblock building on Second Street, with two rows of dog concrete kennels, the chain-link fencing stained over years with the saliva and piss of thousands of dogs, and with a drainage gutter running the length of the 60 kennels down which the detritus of a night of confinement runs into an inadequate drainage system which, after a heavy rain coughs the brown muck back into the kennel area. 

Built originally to just hold animals before being killed, it has no medical treatment room; the laundry room does duty as the euthanasia room; the volunteer training room is the staff kitchen; and the tiny lobby is often packed with people trying to adopt an animal, looking for a lost pet, paying for a license, or having a heated argument with an animal control officer over the legitimacy of a citation. A man with a crate of newborn kittens jostles a woman who has found a dog abandoned in the park; a 50-pound dog meets another by accident as one dog is walked in and one dog out at the same unfortunate time. In the noisy kennels, families are enthusiastically searching for their new companion, while volunteers are walking dogs past their eager and sometimes kennel-crazy cell mates whose bodies slam up against the chain-link fencing as a cacophony of barking reaches crescendo again and again. 

The cat room is tiny, with disease control impossible if a sudden virus were to appear. Once full, and when the overflow hut is filled with shy cats, or mama cats and their newborn offspring, frantic phone calls are made to animal rescue groups and the decision about which to kill causes staff the kind of distress you hope an animal shelter staff does feel when faced with these options. 

But the building was just the symbolic and visible festering boil on the policies and philosophies of the past. Evidence of the old oven, long unused, where the dead bodies were cremated is still visible today on a blackened ceiling. Just over 10 years ago, 1,350 dogs and cats (60 percent of intake) were killed at the Police Department–run Berkeley Shelter in one year. It was, in the words of an employee, “Berkeley’s dirty little secret.” Eleven years ago a group of us marched into Mayor Shirley Dean’s office and said “what the hell are you all thinking?” I looked across the table at Police Chief Dash Butler and said “The police shouldn’t be running an animal shelter,” and to his credit, he said “I agree.” 

In the 10 years since the city transferred the shelter administration to civilian control–Berkeley Animal Control has become Berkeley Animal Care Services and has, not without pain, become the animal shelter with the lowest rate of euthanasia in California and one of the busiest community resources in Berkeley, with hundreds of visitors, adopters and volunteers a week. And the shelter is the recipient—along with its community nonprofit partners—of an accolade only awarded a handful of times in the country, the declaration of Berkeley as a true “no-kill” community, where every adoptable and treatable animal (and many who would be deemed neither in other shelters) leaves the building alive. But we could not do it without our local animal rescue group, Home At Last, which rescues an average 250 animals from our shelter a year—well over 10 percent of all our intake—and the Berkeley East Bay Humane Society (BEBHS) which takes another 150.  

The troubling reality is that the new shelter may not meet the needs of the agency as soon as the ribbon is cut.  

Every other new shelter being built is increasing kennel numbers while ours is reducing the number of dog kennels from 60 to 49; municipal shelters all around the area are literally drowning in animals, kill rates are rising, disease is increasing. And if we think we are immune, we are making a mistake. The continuing economic crisis causes the family pet to be one of the first casualties of financial stress.  

Increasing numbers of animals in need of medical care are being surrendered or abandoned in these tough economic times. Last month alone, 15 dogs with contagious parvo virus were surrendered to the Oakland Shelter. People are struggling financially and not vaccinating their animals. 

Yet our new facility fails to include one of the primary selling points of the bond measure—a low-cost well pet clinic for the residents of this community. There is not one single low-cost vet service in Berkeley, and the BEBHS Hospital closed to the general public this year. In an era of shrinking revenues, of diminishing private giving, the mood among municipal and private animal welfare organizations is to consolidate, share resources and cut waste, we failed to do what we most needed to do—develop a joint “campus” of animal welfare with our local community partner, the Berkeley East Bay Humane Society.  

And we can’t expand. With the shelter scrunched into a corner of a smallish site with the freeway on two sides, the Toyota property on a third side and a park development on the fourth, we are trapped, and hemmed in by an EBMUD easement which the Humane Commission did not know about when the vote was taken to approve the purchase, and upon which we cannot construct. The site, in a flood zone, needs to be raised 18 inches and deep foundation piers need to be sunk to adjust for the fact that is landfill, and a proposed third story was deemed impossible because of the weight concerns. 

There is no back entrance for service vehicles, so that potential conflicts with pedestrians, bicycles, skateboarders and wheelchairs heading to and from the pedestrian bridge over I-80 are inevitable. And while there is the benefit of being able to take the dogs on leash walks to Aquatic Park—kenneled dogs need desperately to play and train off-leash—there is just one small triangular shaped dog run attached to the new building. The partially open air kennels back on to the freeway so that the noise, smell and debris from the freeway will intrude all the time. 

What happens at this little facility on Second Street is generally regarded as just “an animal issue.” How wrong this perception is. Just as the most vulnerable utilize the public health system, so do the most vulnerable humans utilize the city animal shelter more than the wealthy.  

Is it too late to change course? It should never be too late to get it right. Possible solutions include keeping our current site and rehabilitating it as an intake and medical center, revisiting the idea of building alongside the Berkeley East Bay Humane, or purchasing an entirely new larger site. The political pragmatism of “we just need to get this thing built” is just not the approach we should take. Not in Berkeley. 


Jill Posener, photographer, animal welfare advocate, has lived in Berkeley since 1997.