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Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Service (SCRAPS), an open-admission animal control agency in Washington state, has been around since 1922, when dog licenses were $1 and—according to old record books—the most common breed of dog was a “cur.” In those days, everyone knew the animal shelter as a “dog pound,” and “dogcatchers” patrolled the streets.
Today, our animal protection officers work out of a brand-new animal shelter, providing services throughout unincorporated Spokane County and the municipalities within the county. The road to our new regional model has been a long and winding one, with a few speed bumps along the way. It all began when SCRAPS staff and area elected officials envisioned a regional program with streamlined processes and better services for the people and pets in our community. The idea was to take a complicated system with multiple providers and make it simple, easy to understand and functional.
We wanted a model where:
- all stray animals were housed at one facility, making it easier for owners to be reunited with their pets;
- we used a countywide animal license, so that owners moving within the county simply had to update their address;
- a regional ordinance protected people and pets while providing uniform enforcement of laws and public policy;
- a modern regional animal shelter served as a community resource, offering help with animal behavior problems, providing humane education, promoting responsible pet ownership and encouraging volunteerism while providing a safe haven for homeless animals.
Our move toward this model began almost a decade ago with a simple conversation in a SCRAPS staff strategic planning session. We became more serious five years ago when county government and municipalities within the county formed a regional animal control task force. Government officials recognized that the then-current system was disjointed: A county agency provided service to some areas, and a nonprofit managed needs in others. Built in 1972, the county’s open-admission animal shelter was showing its age.
Officials saw potential benefits to the regional service concept, but they questioned its cost-effectiveness and how a new facility would be funded.
Initially, the task force decided to ask voters to fund a new regional facility, and the measure got on the ballot in 2011. Unfortunately, due to low voter turnout and confusion about language on the ballot issue, the measure failed, so it was back to the drawing board. Everyone recognized the benefits of a regional service, but funding continued to be an issue. We developed a model regional budget which showed that there was some economy of scale—enough to pay the debt on a new facility without increasing fees for participating municipalities. If the county and all municipalities within the county came together, it might work.
At that point, negotiations began in earnest. Spokane County and the cities of Spokane and Spokane Valley entered into a 20-year interlocal agreement, and the region’s smaller cities (under 10,000 in population) signed three-year agreements. The new facility was expected to last 50 years; it would take 20 years to pay off the debt.
The new regional shelter needed to be central to the service area, on a bus route for public accessibility and large enough to handle over 10,000 animals annually. It was difficult to find undeveloped land in a central area, and we decided to look for an existing building that could be retrofitted—generally more cost-effective than new construction.
We found a former Harley-Davidson dealership that seemed perfect—on a major arterial road, about 30,000 square feet and centrally located. The building was on 3.5 acres that included green space—definitely a plus for an animal shelter that needs a place to walk dogs and hold events. Built in 2001, the dealership was a relatively modern and energy-efficient structure, which made it even more appealing.
Of course, animal shelters have particular operational needs, so we were careful in planning the layout. We had to think about how the public, the animals and staff would move through the facility. The retrofit was challenging—we had to add additional plumbing and drains in the animal areas. We also had to make our programs fit into the existing shape of the building. We wanted to make sure exam rooms were located near animal receiving and that adoption areas were convenient to the public. Having a good “flow” to the building was critical both for public access and staff efficiencies.The result of that planning is today’s regional shelter—light, bright, open and inviting, with modern HVAC systems to minimize disease transmission. The new shelter has adequate animal housing space, a community room for training and education and enough room for all our special lifesaving programs. Since we opened the doors in June 2014, adoptions have skyrocketed. From January through November, we adopted out 2,514 animals, compared to 1,103 during the same period in 2013! Volunteer numbers have also increased dramatically.
The regional service has brought a new level of awareness to Spokane County. Pet owners are becoming more responsible, understanding the laws and reclaiming their lost animals in our one-stop-shop system. The public is more involved and sympathetic to the plight of our community’s homeless animals.
Moving to a regional model for animal services made sense for our community, and might for yours, too. It was a long road, but definitely worth it. Our community is now part of the solution through their volunteer hours, donations, adoptions and responsible pet ownership.
Our tagline is “Helping People – Saving Pets – Building Community.” It’s a reflection of our belief that today’s animal shelter is not a place that should be hidden on the edge of town or on a dead-end road. It should be part of the community—vibrant, engaging and welcoming.
Nancy Hill is regional director of SCRAPS. She has more than 28 years of leadership experience in the field of animal care, protection and control. She previously served on the board of the National Animal Control Association.