WAIF, Oak Harbor animal shelters differ

Rebecca Payne, a worker at the Oak Harbor Animal Shelter, checks Trooper, one of the cats it has available for adoption. - Jessie Stensland
Rebecca Payne, a worker at the Oak Harbor Animal Shelter, checks Trooper, one of the cats it has available for adoption.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland

The Oak Harbor city limits is a boundary invisible to dogs and cats, but it could literally mean life or death if they are caught on the wrong side of that line.

Stray and unwanted pets on Whidbey Island can end up at one of two very different animal shelters. There have been efforts to unite the two in the past, and at least one official is interested in doing so in the future, but issues of space and funding have so far blocked attempts. So for now, the two distinct systems remain.

Unwanted dogs and cats from homes in Oak Harbor -- or strays caught in the city -- usually end up at the city animal control facility located on Navy property. Because of budget constraints and limited space in the run-down-looking building, pets are routinely euthanized there. Last week, a veterinarian gave lethal injections to nine cats because an upper respiratory infection ran rampant through the shelter.

"It's kind of heart-breaking for those who care about pets," said Coupeville resident Jeff Thayer, who has been visiting the Oak Harbor shelter recently.

Terry Sampson, the city's contracted animal control officer, said 274 animals, including 132 cats, have been euthanized over the last 18 months. With 1,048 animals brought in during that period, animals at the shelter have about a 25 percent chance of being euthanized.

Also, Sampson said animals at the shelter occasionally die from illness since he doesn't have the funding for medical treatment.

On the other hand, the non-profit Whidbey Animal Improvement Foundation, or WAIF, runs a shelter just south of Coupeville. The facility -- which is run on donations and revenue from a Freeland thrift store staffed largely by volunteers -- is a minimum-kill facility, which means animals aren't euthanized unless they are dangerous or completely unadoptable.

Sheri Bibich, the manager of the shelter, said WAIF is able to handle the large volumes of animals partly through a foster program, in which community members care for shelter animals on a temporary basis until there's room at the shelter or the animals are adopted.

WAIF spays and neuters all pets and regularly sends animals to a veterinarian. Neither occurs at the Oak Harbor shelter.

Steve Almon, Oak Harbor police chief, inherited the oversight of the city's animal control program not long after he was hired about a year ago. As a pet lover, Almon said he's unhappy about the number of dogs and cats that are put down.

"It's not a good situation," he said, "but I don't necessarily have a solution. ... The reality is that it's not the animals' fault; it's the fault of irresponsible pet owners."

Almon said the city, which is mandated to provide animal control, contracts with Sampson at about $51,000 a year to handle animal problems and run the shelter. Island County also contracts for its animal control services.

The Navy provides the shelter facility, Almon said, in exchange for animal control on the Oak Harbor seaplane base and at its Crescent Harbor housing.

Almon sees the location of the shelter on Navy property as somewhat of a deterrent to public access and animal adoption. Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, civilians basically had unfettered access to the area since there wasn't even a gate. Civilians can still go to the facility if they provide license, registration and proof of insurance at the gate. Many people, however, don't realize they can get on the base.

Still, Almon points out that the city probably doesn't have the funds to locate a shelter elsewhere.

No money to fix

the problems

Sampson, who's been the Oak Harbor animal control officer for 18 years, said he's limited in his job by money and the facility. He explained that he doesn't have an area where he can quarantine cats when they first come in -- as WAIF does -- so diseases spread quickly. He also doesn't have an area to quarantine sick animals, nor does he have the funding for expensive medical treatment.

So when a cat came into the shelter with an upper-respiratory disease a couple weeks ago, the illness quickly spread to the other felines. The only thing he could do, he said, was euthanize all the sick cats so they wouldn't spread the ailment to others.

The recent illness-related mass euthanization of cats at the shelter was troubling for animal-lovers like Jeff Thayer. He blames the owner of the cat that infected all the others for the resulting tragedy, but he wishes the shelter could do more for animals.

Thayer said he offered to volunteer or donate money, but his offer was declined. Nevertheless, he brought herbal remedies for a sick mother cat who recently had a litter. One of the kittens has died and another looks very sick.

"I feel bad for the pets," he said. "I wish there was more I could do."

Sampson, however, explained that animal control in Oak Harbor is "a one-and-a-half person show" and he simply doesn't have the staff to run a volunteer program or the money to cover volunteers under insurance. He also feels that minimum-kill facilities like WAIF make it too easy for people who don't want to take responsibility for their pets.

According to Sampson, having to euthanize animals is a necessary, but unpleasant, part of the job. He claims that the number of animals euthanized is "not bad for a community this size," when compared to other shelters in the state.

Many of the euthanized dogs, he said, are aggressive or vicious. There's currently a friendly-looking pit bull in the shelter that was seized as part of a dog-biting case. The dog might end up being put down.

"It's not a real pleasant part of the job," he said, "but there are so many good animals, so why put an animal that wants to eat your face back on the road?"

After all, he points out that his "primary function is animal control," which means handling calls about problem animals in the community. That can mean rounding up strays, dealing with aggressive or noisy dogs, and responding to calls concerning wildlife. Having dealt with everything from snakes to possums and all kinds of birds, Sampson is probably more aware of the diversity of animals that live in the city than anyone else.

Might be room

for city pets at WAIF

While there will always be a need for an animal control officer in Oak Harbor, there is a chance of changes in the way the shelter is operated.

Lesley Mills, the executive director of WAIF, said there is a new "shelter committee" looking into the possibility of building a bigger, better shelter, possibly in four or five years. She said there have been "early discussions with the city" over the possibility of working together.

"We hope in planning for our new shelter," she said, "to help Oak Harbor out."

Almon agrees that change is a possibility. He suggests that the shelter could offer, for example, incentives to get people to spay and neuter their pets. "We always need to be open to looking at better ways of doing things," he said.

The best solution, Sampson said, would be to educate or encourage people to be responsible pet owners so there's not a need for a dog-and-cat shelter in the first place. He points out that the bulk of the animals he ends up with are surrendered by their owners. And even after 18 years on the job, he's still shocked when people don't come looking for their lost dogs.

"People need to take care of their animals," he said. "One who chooses to have an animal has to understand and commit to the life span of that animal.

"Until we get that taken care of, the problem will continue."

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