February 2010 by Mike Fry

Audience: Executive Leadership, Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers, Veterinary Team

Innovative ideas about sheltering emerge from looking at shelters from new perspectives.

A Quick History Lesson

In the mid 1990's when Richard Avanzino, then head of the San Francisco SPCA, contracted ARQ Architects to design a new adoption center for his agency, he did not go easy on them. He wanted a shelter that did not smell. Furthermore, he did not want a lot of loud barking. He wanted a warm, open, welcoming space that would be inviting to visitors and in which animals would want to live. In short, he was asking his design team to think about animal sheltering in a whole new way.

Conventional shelter wisdom at the time resulted in institutional spaces that were more like prisons than homes. Shelters were designed for ease of operations. Making kennels easy to power-spray was more important than the comfort of the dogs that had to live in them, or the people that visited them.

Recent research into animal ownership and adoption has shown that most Americans prefer adoping pets rather than purchasing them. However, because shelters are often perceived to be depressing, dirty and smelly places, people tend to avoid them.

The new Maddie's® adoption Center at the San Francisco SPCA broke that paradigm entirely. By integrating knowledge from diverse disciplines an entirely new concept was created, with dramatic results. By blending expertise from areas of creative thinking from interior design and retail sales with scientific thinking from veterinary medicine and animal behavior, a new era of shelter design was ushered in. This new design accounted for the physical, emotional and behavioral needs of all the creatures there, including the humans that work and visit there.

Stress = Disease

Early approaches to disease control focused on creating a sterile environment. Concrete and stainless steel were the materials of choice. But, trying to keep animals healthy by keeping germs at bay failed for two reasons:

First, the world is full of germs. Even the cleanest shelter is full of tiny, unseen organisms such as viruses, bacteria and fungi. These germs may not be present in large quantities. However, spores of ringworm, as well as organisms that contribute to upper respiratory, kennel cough, and other diseases are relatively ubiquitous in the environment. Keeping them out of an animal shelter is practically impossible.

Second, attempts to make animal housing "easy to clean" often result in environments that are stressful to animals. Research has proven that stress weakens the immune system, making animals more susceptible to disease.

Take for example the standard bank of stainless steel cages often used to house felines. Traditional thinking has been that these cages are ideal because they can be easily disinfected. However, a more thorough analysis suggests otherwise.

While it is true that the flat surface of these cages are easy to disinfect, the front bars, the hinges and other crevices are not. Furthermore, as cats are forced to live in cramped conditions in close proximity to their litter boxes, food and water bowls – the places where germs are likely present – when they use the litter box, spill their food or water, they sprinkle infected material in to neighboring cages below. Beyond that, cats are typically removed from these cages for cleaning. When the cats are handled by care staff for removal, cat fur and other organic material stick to the person's clothing. Each subsequent cat that is removed for cleaning is then exposed to all the other cat's germs that were cleaned beforehand. At the same time, the stress associated with this type of housing weakens the immune system, making the animal more susceptible to a variety of diseases to which they are likely to be exposed.

In short, traditional approaches to caging – that were supposed to prevent disease – have created incubators for disease.

Shelter Enrichment Does Not Have to Cost Millions

Shortly after the opening of the Maddie's® adoption Center at the San Francisco SPCA a group of representatives from Animal Ark in Hastings, Minnesota visited the facility. They were very inspired by what they saw but unsure how the ideas could be implemented in a small, poor, rural shelter.

At the time, Animal Ark suffered from financial stress. The organization had no cash reserves and its annual income was less than $300,000 per year. In spite of the challenges, the group set about re-designing the shelter.

Prior to the re-design, Animal Ark Shelter provided two basic kinds of housing for felines. Some cats in the adoption area were housed in moderately sized stainless steel cages. More cats were housed in two large rooms. These rooms were furnished with cat trees and other amenities. Cats in these rooms lived in communal colony-style housing of around 20 cats per room. In spite of the openness of these large rooms, the Animal Ark team found problems with them.

"The large, colony rooms appeared very cat friendly," said Dr. Linda Wolf, one of the participants in the effort to redesign Animal Ark. "However if you really watched the cats, there were some serious problems with the colony room approach."

For starters, Animal Ark found that visitors often overlooked shy cats living in the large colony rooms. Because shy felines could easily hide in the large rooms, people rarely saw them. Furthermore, behavior problems resulted due to territorial disputes that were common, because of the constantly changing nature of the population in these colony rooms. The large colony rooms were also uncomfortable for humans when multiple families were in each room looking at cats.

"For a variety of reasons, we wanted to do away with the cages as well as the large colony rooms," said Dr. Wolf. "Our goal was to recreate a much smaller and less expensive version of the ‘cat condos' we saw at the San Francisco SPCA."

In the end, what seemed nearly impossible – duplicating the design ideas of the SF/SPCA in a poor, rural shelter – was relatively easy and affordable. By selling sponsorships to each of the 21 luxury cat apartments, the project was fully funded within a matter of weeks. The total cost of the 3-phase construction project was a modest $45,000.

Each kitty apartment includes amenities like ceramic tile, track lighting, classical music, and large and open windows with valances. Additionally each unit comes with its own air source and return. Housing between two and 5 cats or kittens each the condos vary between 7 X 8 feet and 7 X 14 feet in size.

After more than 7 years, the results have been dramatic and have included increased adoptions, reduced disease and a more pleasant work environment. Diseases like upper respiratory and ringworm have virtually disappeared from the shelter and are limited almost exclusively to debilitated felines that have brought the illness into the shelter with them. There have been no measurable outbreaks of illness within the building since the transition occurred. But, perhaps more importantly, people from all over the country have come to think of Animal Ark as a world-class animal shelter, giving the organization more influence relating to issues concerning animals locally and nationally.

Marlene Foote, president and founder of Animal Ark, explains it like this, "When people visit Animal Ark, it is immediately clear how we care for and value the animals we rescue."

"Seeing cats in small metal cages sends a message. Seeing cats in room-sized apartments with floor-to-ceiling cat trees says something totally different," Foote added.

In addition to these other outcomes, Animal Ark credits the redesign for helping the organization dramatically grow it operating budget, from about $250,000 to more than $1.2 million just a few years later. These new funds have been used to launch some of Minnesota's largest animal welfare initiatives, including an innovative TNR program for feral cats, low-cost and no-cost spay/neuter services for owned pets and others.

Thinking Outside the Cage

In addition to the cat center redesign, Animal Ark also rebuilt their dog kennels, added a new off-leash socialization park for dogs and built a new adoption center that features socialization rooms with fireplaces and wall-mounted high definition television sets.

"Inspired by the San Francisco SPCA, we decided to entirely re-think our animal shelter, everything from the flooring to the dog beds," said Foote. "The results have been spectacular."

Mike Fry

Mike Fry is the Executive Director of Animal Ark, Minnesota's largest no-kill animal welfare organization. He is also host of Animal Wise Radio, celebrating animals and our connection to them.