Animals deserve new shelter

San Luis Obispo County's Animal Services shelter, built in the 1970s on an old Camp San Luis Obispo landfill, is showing its age.
San Luis Obispo County's Animal Services shelter, built in the 1970s on an old Camp San Luis Obispo landfill, is showing its age. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

If the San Luis Obispo County animal shelter were a hotel, it might merit half-a-star out of a possible five — and even that’s generous.

Although the shelter’s staff and volunteers are top-notch, the facility itself is cold, cramped and crumbling.

And it isn’t just the grungy, 45-year-old building that’s a problem; the ground around it is a mess, too. The shelter was built on a World War II-era dump, and that land is now subsiding. Pavement behind the shelter has buckled; a large sink hole recently had to be patched; and the old landfill is emitting methane gas. While methane levels aren’t considered dangerous, they must be continually monitored.

The county had planned to spend $1 million to expand and upgrade portions of the shelter, including the cattery and the customer service area. But the condition of the soil is a complicating factor. The ground must be stabilized before any new construction can occur, adding substantial costs.

The county is now looking at whether it makes sense to build a new shelter, rather than spend $1 million or $2 million improving portions of an aging facility that still will be inadequate and inefficient.

We strongly urge against sinking that kind of money into a failing facility. Instead, the Board of Supervisors — which is scheduled to discuss the issue next month — should direct county staff to plan for an entirely new shelter.

A new shelter would cost about $8 million to $10 million, according to County Administrative Officer Dan Buckshi. The county, though, would not necessarily be on the hook for the entire amount. Since the cities contract with the county for the provision of animal control services, the county would look to them to share the cost of a new shelter, which would likely be built on county land near the existing facility — but away from the old landfill.

That may not be an easy sell, but given the state of the current shelter, we see little choice.

Here are just a few of the problems with the present shelter:

Because of inadequate ventilation, portions of the building are kept open. That allows air to circulate, but it also makes the building cold and damp in winter. It also permits birds to get inside, where they build their nests and leave their droppings, which sometimes land on the captive dogs.

The entrance to the kennels, where shelter visitors start their tour, is extremely unwelcoming — paint is peeling, doorjambs are cracked, the cold concrete floor is forbidding, and the overall look is bleak and depressing. That can be a big turnoff for pet adopters — so much so that some avoid the county shelter altogether.

The kennels themselves are inadequate. At modern shelters — such as the Woods Humane Society shelter — kennels allow the dogs to access an outdoor area where they can relieve themselves. Most of the kennels at the county animal shelter lack that feature, which is especially tough on house-trained dogs reluctant to relieve themselves in their “home.”

The cattery is especially outdated. Again, modern shelters like Woods have indoor/ outdoor rooms where cats can roam and socialize. At the county shelter, cats spend their days alone, in cages.

The noise can be intense. Newer shelters include noisemuffling features, such as sound-absorption materials on walls and the ceiling.

To repeat, shelter employees and volunteers have been troopers; they provide excellent service in surroundings that are noisy, drafty, ugly and allaround inadequate. And when they do speak out, it’s on behalf of the animals — not for themselves.

Building a new shelter is a big commitment. It will take time, and it will require a substantial investment from the county and the cities.

We believe, though, that building a new county animal shelter is the right thing to do. The existing facility was designed as little more than a warehouse for animals — not as a humane and comforting environment.

We can do better by the staff, by the volunteers, by the public and, above all, by the animals under the county’s care.