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Location, location, location

After years on the outskirts, shelters see the advantages of heading downtown

From Animal Sheltering Magazine September/October 2013

On paper, Helping Hands Humane Society’s old location didn’t look so terrible.

“We were real close to a Wal-Mart, and we were real close to a major grocery store, [and] a major highway,” recalls Bill Acree, executive director of the private nonprofit in Topeka, Kan.

But the site, which the humane society called home from 1973 until early this year, wasn’t quite central enough to attract drop-in visitors. “We still could not pull people down that road,” Acree says. The shelter experienced a slight increase in traffic when the Wal-Mart opened, but it was short-lived.

In 2000, HHHS officials started talking about moving. They’d become convinced that their location just didn’t provide the best opportunity to move animals into new homes—no matter how hard staff tried to market its pets through press releases and adopt-a-thons. “You have to adopt them to people,” Acree says, “and in order to do that, you’ve got to have people coming through your doors.”

Today, everything’s different. Since HHHS opened a new, larger shelter in January, adoptions have doubled, and its volunteer corps has increased fivefold. The new shelter is about four times the size of the old one, greatly increasing kennel space and the display area, which Acree says has helped showcase the animals and boost adoptions.

But he attributes the bulk of HHHS’s recent success to its new location in the heart of the city. The shelter is now on one of Topeka’s busiest streets and near a major shopping mall, and it’s reaping the benefits. “We have people coming in that admit they were never out at the other facility, because it was just out of the way,” Acree says. “You really had to want to go to the shelter to come out to our location.”

He sees the bump in adoptions at HHHS as proof that the old adage in the real estate business—that value is largely determined by location, location, and location—applies to animal shelters as well.

A History on the Outskirts

Historically speaking, Helping Hands didn’t have it so bad. Shelters have long found themselves in locations far more remote. They’ve often been on the outskirts of town, out by the airport, or next to the local landfill or sewage treatment plant.

The first animal shelter in the U.S., founded in 1870 and operated by the Women’s Branch of the Pennsylvania SPCA, was located next to a paupers’ cemetery in Philadelphia. Historian Bernard Unti of The HSUS believes that helped set the pattern of shelters around the country being sited in less-than-desirable locations near landfills, incineration plants, and industrial parks.

Local governments often owned such land or made it available for shelters, reasoning that it was undesirable for other uses but appropriate for an “industrial”-style operation that handled, euthanized, and disposed of animals, Unti explains. Such land-use decisions reflected a disregard for animals and a perception that shelter work was somehow “dirty.”

Noise is another factor that’s landed shelters away from human ears. The traditional thinking has been, “You’ve got barking dogs, and where else can you put them but far away from a community?” says Rick Johnson, CEO of the Sacramento SPCA in California, whose shelter is in an industrial park.

Shelters have long been viewed as eyesores that planners didn’t want prominently displayed in the community, notes Beau Archer, director of one of Washington Humane Society’s shelters in the nation’s capital. But that creates an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality, reinforcing the idea that pets can be quietly discarded, and making the prospect of visiting adoptable animals “significantly less desirable and sometimes downright scary,” he says.“They weren’t really considered places for the public to come gather” and have any kind of positive interaction with animals, adds Jeff Rosenthal, CEO of the Idaho Humane Society in Boise, which is located near an airport but is raising money to move to a more central location.

Thankfully, things are changing. As citizens push for animal shelters that engage with their communities and save more animals’ lives, there’s increasing recognition that, for many shelter animals, out of sight means out of luck. While the old “dog pound” might have been relegated to an undesirable location, newer shelters with modern amenities are often placed in higher-profile sites, making it easier for them to fulfill their missions.

It’s key to the modern approach to sheltering, Acree says. The old practice was to stick an animal behind a chain-link fence, tell adopters very little about it, and hope for the best. More modern facilities do a better job of putting animals on display and marketing them as individuals who’d love to be part of a family. “Those formulas of showcasing, marketing, and being in the right location—that one plus one plus one—is going to equal success,” Acree says.

Dawn Danielson, director of the County of San Diego Department of Animal Services in California, agrees that a shelter’s success is tied to both a convenient location and an inviting facility. “I think one without the other, you’re going to lose out,” she says. “You can have the best building in the world, but if you’re in a hard-to-find or a bad location, you’re going to miss a lot of potential donors or patrons. … You’re going to miss a lot of the walk-in traffic.”

If You Build It, Will They Come?

So what are the elements of an ideal location?

Easy access and visibility, says James Bias, president of the SPCA of Texas in Dallas. It helps to have directional signage at major roadway exits, similar to the signs that guide motorists to museums and restaurants.

Your shelter should ideally be in a growing residential neighborhood or close to one, and reachable by major roads, Johnson adds.

Bias helped open a Houston-area shelter in 1981 that he believes was one of the first in Texas that had freeway frontage. His 13 years there taught him how beneficial it is to have a highly visible location. “‘Build it and they will come’ doesn’t work,” he says. “Or it might work, but you have to … devote a whole lot of promotional energy just to get people to find you.”

Bias says he’s seen shelters make that mistake repeatedly. “An organization will get some property donated to them, and they’ll build this multimillion-dollar facility off the beaten path,” he says. “And then you have to just spend a considerable amount of time and resources and money promoting and getting people to go to that great facility out in the middle of nowhere.”

The SPCA of Texas relocated in January 2012 to an existing building near downtown Dallas that has highway frontage and about 160,000 vehicles passing daily. Freeway drivers certainly notice the SPCA’s new building, Bias says: It’s two stories high, bright purple and terra cotta, and lit at night with a neon “SPCA.”

You can have the best building in the world, but if you’re in a hard-to-find or a bad location, you’re going to miss a lot of potential donors or patrons.”

Beyond that, Bias explains, the move was prompted by the city government’s decision to open a new municipal shelter just two blocks away—which presented an opportunity to develop a Dallas Animal District, which might eventually include a dog park and animal-related retailers. At the new place, Bias says, “There’s just a lot more buzz going on.”

The biggest challenge for shelters seeking an ideal location is finding affordable land in an appropriately zoned area, Bias says. He cautions organizations not to underestimate the cost of acquiring property, which can amount to one-third of the needed budget. And Bias has seen several nonprofits get rejected by zoning agencies that were worried about new shelters bringing odor, noise, and abandoned animals. “Whether it’s true or not, that’s the perception,” he adds. Rosenthal notes that complying with zoning regulations is less of an obstacle than it used to be; now that new shelters resemble shopping malls, they’re considered more compatible with other uses.

Whether you’re a private group raising your own money or a municipal agency trying to convince your elected leaders to loosen their purse strings, the cost of building a shelter in a new, desirable location can be daunting.

Donors in the Topeka community got behind HHHS’s $8 million project once they saw that the organization was serious about relocating. “I never doubted that we would raise the money,” Acree says. “… People will follow a project that has some vision.”

And HHHS was thrifty: Rather than starting construction from scratch, it bought and refurbished a former supermarket, saving $1.5 million. The nonprofit did the construction as a design-build project, stopping and starting again as funds permitted.

Acree believes showing people the plan was crucial. “We actually bought a lot of blue tape and put it on the floor of the grocery store, showing where the rooms would be and that sort of thing,” he says. “And then we brought donors and potential donors in to what we called our Bare Bones Party, which was nothing more than four walls with a lot of blue tape on an old grocery store floor.” It helped donors visualize what the shelter could one day look like—with their support.In Plaquemines Parish, La., the old municipal shelter—a small, cinder-block facility built next to a sewage treatment plant—has been replaced by a new, environmentally friendly shelter near an elementary school, ball fields, and a conservancy with walking trails. The new shelter is built on property the local government already owned, which helped keep costs down, explains Raymund Ferrer, superintendent of the parish health department. Still, getting the project approved involved a lot of lobbying of elected officials, and providing data to justify the size of the planned building and the number of kennels. Ferrer advises shelter advocates to do their homework, because, “Local government officials, they like to ask the tough questions.”

In San Diego, a newspaper exposé about poor conditions at the county shelter helped spur people in the community to demand a better facility, which opened in 2001. Danielson says that type of support is crucial.

“It can’t just be the shelter administration lobbying the elected officials. It has to be the community,” she says. “Elected officials listen to voters, and they listen to their constituents.”

Other Options

Realistically, not everyone is going to get a brand-new building in a convenient location, so what are some other alternatives?

In Sacramento, the SPCA is planning to grow where it’s planted.

The SPCA shelter is located on 10 acres in what has become a heavy industrial area; within a mile there are about 30 recycling or garbage processing plants. “People aren’t just driving around for the fun of it and sightseeing in this area,” Johnson says wryly.

If you have a goal and a mission, and you got stuck with a location that isn’t prime, it’s your job to find a way to make it work.”

The SPCA mulled relocating, but the cost of ideal property in the region is prohibitive. Instead, the SPCA has purchased 10 acres adjacent to its current site, which it plans to develop into a multipurpose campus with a behavior training center, veterinary hospital, and dog park. The goal, Johnson explains, is to mitigate the industrial location by becoming a more appealing destination for local animal lovers.

In addition, the SPCA has off-site adoption centers at local pet-supply stores, and is looking to expand that effort to make it easier for people to adopt, Johnson says.

That strategy has worked in Boise, where the humane society last November opened an adoption center built onto a PetSmart in a mall. Within three months, the site was accounting for a third of all the shelter’s adoptions.

“If you have a goal and a mission, and you got stuck with a location that isn’t prime, it’s your job to find a way to make it work,” says Abigail Smith, chief animal services officer for Austin Animal Services in Texas, which relocated a year and a half ago from an old building in a central location (at Town Lake, a popular gathering spot for Austinites) to a new facility on a more remote site near the local airport. The department has conducted a “We’ve moved” campaign, and Smith says people have begun to find the new place.

Nearly every piece of marketing material the department distributes notes that the shelter has moved and includes a map, and animal services has greatly increased its off-site adoption program, she says. Staff and volunteers run at least two off-site events on both Saturday and Sunday, so people not only meet adoptable animals but get a postcard showing the shelter’s new location and outlining its services. Smith is also looking for satellite locations where Austin Animal Services can have a permanent presence for adoptions.

Municipal shelters in particular have to find creative ways to stretch their limited tax dollars, Smith says, but shelters can be in not-so-great locations and still be successful.

In Idaho, the trends in shelter locations are coming full circle. In 1941, the humane society took over a dilapidated barn that was the Boise city pound, in what would eventually become the middle of town, Rosenthal says. But in 1949 the shelter was relocated to an out-of-the-way industrial site behind Boise Airport—a move prompted in part by neighbors’ complaints about barking dogs. Today, the humane society, which includes a veterinary hospital, is conducting a capital campaign to move back to the center of the community and build a more modern facility.

Older shelters often carry a stigma, Rosenthal says, because they likely operated in an era when facilities were primitive by today’s standards, and euthanasia rates were much higher. People might have visited them years ago and never gone back. By relocating, Rosenthal says, shelters can shed that stigma and the “dog pound” fable. “It’s just an opportunity to kind of reinvent yourself.”

About the Author

James Hettinger is the assistant editorial director for Animal Sheltering magazine at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). He's responsible for editing copy and managing the production of the award-winning quarterly publication aimed at shelter and rescue personnel. Prior to joining The HSUS in 2008, James worked for several local newspapers and trade associations in the Washington, D.C., area. He shares his home with three cats: Edgar, Dana and Vinny.