- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 4, 2006

The Washington Animal Rescue League’s newly renovated shelter is puppy paradise. Natural light shines through skylights, flowing water calms dogs in dens with self-filling water bowls and memory-foam beds, and classical music fills the air in the animal-welfare organization’s Northwest Washington facility, which has undergone a $4 million renovation.

The WARL is calling it the world’s first cageless animal shelter. There are no metal cages or cinder blocks here. Every detail of the new facility, right down to the heated floors, is designed to make the homeless animals who stay here happier and healthier, says Scotlund Haisley, WARL’s executive director.

The theory behind the project, which will be completed this summer, is that happy, healthy animals are more likely to be adopted.

Mr. Haisley says he hopes that by becoming a model for other shelters, WARL can help increase the number of animal adoptions and decrease the number of animals who are euthanized because shelters lack the resources to care for them.

When most people think of shelters, Mr. Haisley says, they picture dark, dingy rooms crammed with cages of animals waiting to be euthanized. Usually, they are right.

This is because the architects who design animal shelters often design them with humans, not animals, in mind. While some shelters have spacious lobbies with high ceilings and TV sets to accommodate human visitors, animals still live in 2-foot-long, 2-foot-wide cages in which they sleep, eat and defecate.

“There’s no more frustrating environment for an animal than a shelter,” he says. “So why keep building them that way?”

Mr. Haisley, who has worked with animals for 16 years, set out to build a better place. He visited other shelters, veterinary offices, holistic veterinary clinics, doggy day cares and human prisons to come up with his plan to modernize WARL’s facility, which his board approved in 2004.

WARL, which is funded by donations, then began a capital campaign to raise $6 million: $4 million for renovations and $2 million to maintain the new facility. About $2 million has been raised thus far. Construction, which began in March 2005, is almost complete.

In the redesigned dog room, a central hallway now separates rows of “doggy dens” made of glass block and tempered glass. Each living space, which houses a pair of dogs, is outfitted with an elevated memory-foam mattress, self-filling water dish, individual air-circulation vents and a radio speaker emitting classical music.

“Maria Callas is a favorite,” Mr. Haisley says with a smile.

Water flows down an angled glass plane over the pens into a gutter and recirculates, creating background noise and casting reflections that dance across the walls. Flowing water also is incorporated into the nearby puppy room, which contains eight “puppy pads” for tiny dogs, and the cat room, which still is under construction.

It eventually will feature interconnected “cat condos” made of Corian — the elegant nonporous kitchen countertops made by DuPont — with litter-box rooms attached.

Although some may question the need for such amenities in an animal shelter, Mr. Haisley says these features serve a purpose. At a typical shelter, a sneeze may be a death sentence for a cat. Even if the animal has a treatable condition, Mr. Haisley says, it may be euthanized to prevent other cats from catching it. The individual air-circulation systems in each living space at WARL will prevent the spread of disease and allow animals to receive treatment.

Heated floors are good for soothing puppies. Corian is easy to clean. Water, music and light can calm nervous animals, many of whom once were abused or neglected.

Volunteer Peggy Taylor says she notices a difference in the way the animals behave in the new environment. She remembers Christiano, a large terrier mix who was rescued from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Clearly traumatized, Christiano hid in the back of his pen for weeks after he arrived at the shelter. It wasn’t until after Christiano moved into the new dog dens that he began to interact with people.

“He came across as a totally different dog,” Ms. Taylor said. Christiano recently was adopted.

Volunteer David Wild says the new environment also benefits human visitors.

“I find people can linger and take a look at the dog and take a look at the next dog, and you can talk to them because it’s much quieter,” he says. “It’s a much more comfortable environment for people, as well. I think people come in to look at the dogs in the shelter now, and they can imagine that these dogs would fit well in their home.”

Matthew Castanera recently toured the dog room with his wife, Tiffany, in search of a small dog for their children, ages 3 and 4. WARL was the fourth shelter they visited.

“This facility is definitely the nicest,” Mr. Castanera says. “The others are all the same.”

“It’s great to see the facilities are a decent size,” visitor Kate Durant says. “The animals seem happy.”

Mr. Haisley says he hopes WARL’s facility will set a new standard in animal welfare. Six to 12 representatives from shelters across the country and as far away as France visit WARL’s facility each week.

“I believe if you see this facility and go and build something else, I don’t think anything less than this could be acceptable,” he says.

Larry Wiley, who has worked at WARL for 17 years, described the new shelter this way: “If they have a place like that for humans, I want to be a part of it.”

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