Animal cages are stacked two or three high along concrete-block walls and concrete corridors that echo with the sounds of barking so loud it can be overwhelming and stressful for visitors and the animals. In many cases, this can seem a harsh but accurate portrayal of an animal shelter, but shelters across the country are striving to try a completely new, better way that marries animal housing and adoption services with high-quality veterinary medical care.

During the 144th annual convention of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) in Washington, DC, on July 18, 2007, three directors from the Washington Animal Rescue League (WARL) - Executive Director, Scotlund Haisley; Medical Director, Dr. Gary Weitzman; and Director of Communications, Jim Monsma-will discuss how common problems of animal shelters can be solved through improved design and community outreach.

Today, as the result of multiple expansions at WARL's shelter, it houses up to 400 animals in a cage-less environment. Each animal unit has its own separate ventilation system, and the facility includes skylights, glass pet apartments, waterfalls, heated floors, a cat exercise room, and even soft soothing music.

The facility also includes an animal hospital open seven days a week that is redefining what most would consider shelter medicine.

"Life for an animal in a typical shelter can be filled with stress, anxiety, and depression," explains Scotlund Haisley, executive director of WARL. "The traditional concrete, cinder clock, and steel bar shelters simply do not meet the animal's basic physical and behavioral needs, much less facilitate a recovery from whatever traumatic situation brought them to the shelter in the first place. As a result, many of these animals get sick and develop behavioral problems. People, even many in the animal welfare field, have gotten so used to this that they see it as inevitable. But we thought that if we painstakingly designed a new concept in animal sheltering, considering even the smallest detail from the animals' point of view, we could build a facility that actually encourages recovery and adoption."

Haisley said that the WARL serves a leadership role in shelter medicine, and part of his mission is to help educate others to improve the quality of animal shelters around the world.

"Word travels quickly in this field," Haisley said. "I've been doing at least six tours a week for other animal welfare professionals. That's what I hoped would happen. Our dream has been to make this shelter a model and a tangible resource for any group that houses and rehabilitates animals. We're proud to be the first to build such a shelter, but we do not want it be the only one of its kind."

WARL expanded its facilities in 2006, doubling its capacity to house animals, and the renovations included new intake and holding rooms, a new community room, an expanded medical center, and new acquaintance rooms to encourage adoption by providing more time for people to get to know the shelter's animals. Perhaps one of the most ambitious aspects of WARL programs is the ambitious, high-quality veterinary medical care that is happening there.

Dr. Gary Weitzman, WARL's medical director, said that the new shelter hospital, which was built in 1996, is dramatically changing "shelter medicine" as it is considered today. It also opens up new opportunities to offer 'social work veterinary care,' by offering services to about 5,000 clients, three-fourths of whom are income-restricted. Dr. Weitzman said that these low-income programs have been very successful, but that success also brings challenges. "It's a tremendous financial drain for the hospital, so we have to make up the difference with fund-raising," Dr. Weitzman.

The WARL hospital also offers advanced care. There is an orthopedic specialist available to repair fractures, the shelter hospital offers veterinary ophthalmologic services, and has a veterinary oncologist on staff.

"We see a lot of dogs with mammary cancer, and we do chemotherapy if the prognosis is good," Dr. Weitzman said, explaining that chemotherapy and other advanced medical care are available to animals that come in with owners to the hospital, and also to shelter animals.

"Many people have a perception that shelter medicine is very repetitive," Dr. Weitzman said. "I haven't had a `normal' day in four years."

Jim Monsma, director of communications at the WARL, discusses the challenges of communicating the availability of healthcare to the low-income community. It's not always the case that "if you build it, they will come," he said.

"It's hard," Monsma said. "In the low income community, the best communications approach is word-of-mouth. You have to be conveniently located with transit nearby. You can't really rely on appointments, but rather have hours and treat patients as they come in, and services must be attractive financially."

Shelter management is one of many current topics being discussed at the AVMA Annual Convention.

The AVMA and its more than 75,000 member veterinarians are engaged in a wide variety of activities dedicated to advancing the science and art of animal, human and public health.


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