When it comes to animals, people tend to have strong feelings and often share them.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that the nonprofit Whidbey Animals’ Improvement Foundation, or WAIF, is the recipient of both love and ire in the community.
The organization shelters unwanted and wayward dogs and cats at its large and sparkling facility near Coupeville.
With an annual budget of about $1.5 million and facilities across the island, WAIF is one of the biggest nonprofit organizations on Whidbey.
The community donates hundreds of thousands of dollars to the group and dozens of people volunteer.
The euthanasia rate at the shelter is about 6 percent, among the lowest in the state, officials report. WAIF’s policy is to never euthanize for space but only for incurable disease, injury or when an animal is unadoptable — that often means it’s dangerous.
Well over 600 animals a year find new families through WAIF, which runs the main shelter in the middle of the island, two thrift stores and a cat cottage. Island County and Oak Harbor contract with WAIF to provide mandated shelter for stray dogs.
The organization runs a series of programs, including low-cost spay and neutering, feral cats spay and neutering and help for low-income pet owners.
But discussion still continues on social media and in some corners of the community about whether the group is doing enough and doing things right.
Former WAIF volunteers Maureen Fitzpatrick, of Langley, and Kris Letterman, of Clinton, for example, say they believe that the shelter isn’t progressive enough when it comes to enriching the lives of dogs.
“There are many, many easy things that can be done to make their lives better,” Fitzpatrick said. “There’s a resistance to change.”
Shelter manager Shari Bibich, however, said a shelter needs to be run in an individual way that best fits the community, the resources and the facility. Some of the things that people are asking for the shelter is already doing or will be doing in the future, she explained, but some things just don’t work for the shelter.
“Put two animal lovers in the same room and they will disagree on how best to treat animals,” said Charles Vreeland, executive director of WAIF.
Fitzpatrick said enrichment programs can have tremendous positive effects on dogs. Without such activities, long-term doggy residents can suffer from kennel stress, which in turn can make them crabby and unadoptable, she said.
She argues that the shelter should have a foster program to get dogs out of the shelter temporarily; dogs should be allowed to have group playtime; there should be a dog trainer to train both the pooches and volunteers; and volunteers should have more freedom to walk dogs in different areas — besides the same paths — or even drive them to another area for exercise.
As a dog walker, Letterman said she was disheartened to learn that the shelter doesn’t have a schedule for getting dogs out of kennels.
“The result is that dogs aren’t walked every day,” she said.
When it comes to foster programs, Bibich explained that WAIF has a program for puppies and kittens, but she doesn’t think it makes sense to pull dogs from the shelter when it takes them away from the eyes of potential adopters.
“It might be confusing to them when they come back to the shelter,” she said, but added that workers sometimes do bring dogs home overnight.
In addition, there’s usually a behavioral issue when a dog isn’t adopted after a long period of time, she said. It can be the same with cats, but she says the staff is sometimes baffled when friendly kitties get stuck at the shelter for long periods of time.
An orange cat named Bridget has been at the shelter for four years; she’s great with people but not so much with other animals.
For things like group play, Bibich said, the shelter needs “someone who knows what they are doing” because of the potential for dog-on-dog violence. Volunteers, for example, might not have the necessary knowledge about dog behavior and that could lead to trouble — and liability issues, she said.
Concerns about liability and the need to constantly keep tabs on dogs in the shelter’s care are reasons behind the tight leash on volunteers, WAIF officials said. And again, taking dogs away from their kennels for lengths of time means potential owners might miss them, Bibich said.
Bibich said the shelter will be hiring a part-time trainer this year. The former trainer quit last year and replacing her was delayed because of “personnel issues,” she said.
One common false rumor that WAIF officials deal with is the idea that the shelter doesn’t adopt pets to Navy people. Bibich said the truth is many Navy families get dogs and cats from the shelter, though it is a bit of a process.
WAIF has a policy, she explained, that requires potential adopters with jobs that take them away for lengthy periods of time — like the Navy or commercial fishing — to have immediate family members in the area.
Bibich said she’s learned from experience the trouble that can come from adopting pets out to people who depend on friends, roommates, boyfriends or girlfriends to care for their pets.
Friendships change. Roommates move out. Significant others become less significant.
Pets sometimes end up abandoned or brought to WAIF against owners’ wishes, which is a legal hassle.
In one case, for example, a great Dane was left in a home with a bag of dog food and a toilet full of water, she said. It ate through a wall.
When it comes to conditions at a pet shelter, identifying the best policies is a subjective task. Different shelters in the Puget Sound area, for example, have a wide range of programs and policies.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or ASPCA, has a policy paper for animal shelters, though specifics aren’t very specific.
When it comes to kennel enrichment, the document states that “appropriate levels of additional enrichment” and alternatives to traditional care — including foster homes — should be provided for animals staying in a shelter long term.
In addition, the ASPCA says enrichment should be considered as important as other components of animal care, such as food and water.
“Yes, there’s a risk with some enrichment programs,” Fitzpatrick said, “but it’s way riskier to let dogs deteriorate because of kennel stress.”