Kalamazoo could see the quality of its animal services, public and private, transformed in the next few years.
That’s if the Kalamazoo Humane Society’s plan to buy the North American Color building at Sprinkle and Milham goes through.
KHS would own the building. But it would also house Kalamazoo County’s animal services. The agency and the nonprofit say the arrangement would be of great mutual benefit.
If the Humane Society gets the building, it will need to raise millions of dollars to renovate it.
Kalamazoo County Animal Services and Enforcement director Steve Lawrence says a new shelter couldn’t open too soon.
In the big dog room at the Kalamazoo County animal shelter at 2500 Lake Street, he shouts to be heard above the barking. He points to a row of small, empty cages across from the pens for the biggest dogs.
“This is where the cats were,” he says. He means that when the shelter was originally built in 1984, someone thought it was a good idea to put the cat cages across from the dogs. The biggest and noisiest ones.
“So we have these guys, all these dogs looking at these cats, barking at them,” he says.
“The cats would hide at the back of the cage and you wouldn’t know if it’s because they’re wild cats or they’re just scared.”
And that isn’t the shelter’s only design flaw. Someone also put the larger dog kennels above the smaller ones. And they placed the dog cages face-to-face, which doesn’t help the barking. It does help spread disease.
“If one dog starts hacking, it’s airborne and goes right across. So that’s why we tell everyone unfortunately almost any animal brought into this facility is going to get an upper respiratory [infection] somehow,” he says.
When Kalamazoo County built this shelter 30 years ago, it was intended as a holding center. People had about a week to claim their animals or have them put down. The adoption window was only a few days. Lots of people saw the shame in that, Lawrence says. Now they hang on to adoptable animals as long as they can.
“The only problem with that is now, because we’re holding the animals longer and this place wasn’t made to hold them more than seven or eight days, they get sick because it doesn’t have the proper airflow,” he says.
“It doesn’t have the proper drainage. It doesn’t have things built in here to keep the animals healthy.”
The staff gives antibiotics, but when too many animals need them the cost is significant.
“If an animal gets too sick and is going to require vet care, we end up having to put those animals down,” he adds.
Lawrence says if the county shelter is going to serve as a community hub – or even just an effective place for adoptions –it needs more space. There’s nowhere to grow at its current location. Any new building would have to meet the requirements of the federal Animal Welfare Act. The dogs would have to be given more space than they have now, which means the shelter would quickly run out of space.
“We probably could only hold about 20 dogs, if that, here and probably another 20 cats, which would mean our euthanasia would go way through the roof because we wouldn’t have the room to hold the number of animals we do now,” Lawrence says.
“You still wouldn’t have any parking, you still wouldn’t have any place to walk the animals or to bring in more volunteers because it’d be too small a space.”
The Kalamazoo Humane Society is also short on room. It doesn’t run a shelter. But it does spay and neuter dozens of pets each week.
Today is a dog day. The Society alternates, because it doesn’t have enough room to operate on dogs and cats on the same day in their current offices at a former bridal shop on Westnedge.
Aaron Winters listens as several dogs, just waking up from anesthesia, howl.
“In a little while they’ll quiet down and their parents will be all coming back” to pick them up, he says.
Winters says it’s just as lively on cat days. He walks into a room, larger than a closet but still not big, filled with metal shelves.
“When we really get a full cat day we have cat cages lined up on all these racks. We can have twelve or more cats per rack and we have – gosh – sometimes we’ve had seven or eight full racks of – of cats,” he says.
That’s not counting feral cats, which come in in live traps. Those go up and down the hallway.
Winters says the Humane Society expects to spay and neuter 7,000 pets this year. People from throughout the region bring their dogs and cats to be fixed here because KHS offers the surgery for an exceptionally low cost.
And KHS spays and neuters the adopted pets from the county animal shelter. Winters says that’s one reasons it would make more sense for the county and KHS to share a building – and there are others.
“We can – not have to have animals driven across town for surgery, we provide some veterinary services at the county so veterinarians don’t have to go across town or whatever,” he says.
“We could share some of the services – some of the spaces within the facility.”
Spaces like bathrooms and conference rooms that both buildings would have to have anyway.
Back at the county shelter, Lawrence greets the big dogs in their pens as they bark.
Lawrence says with quick access to the KHS veterinarians, his office could save more of the animals that come in to the county shelter with injuries. And it could make the shelter into a community space where people could stop by to walk dogs or hear a lecture on pet health.
He says pet owners sometimes panic over conditions that look serious but aren’t – like hair loss due to a flea allergy. If the shelter could keep people more informed, it could improve owners’ and pets’ lives, he says. They might see fewer people turn up at KCASE with dogs and cats owners think are sick.
“A lot of times again when they get that bad, they can’t afford to take it to the vet, they’re afraid to take it to the vet,” he says.
“They bring it down and they turn it over to us, or they’ll take it and bring it in and claim it’s a stray because they’re too embarrassed to admit that it’s their dog or cat. We get a lot of animals brought in there that way.”
The county has agreed to pay $650,000 toward the purchase of the North American Color building. Then it would pay $200,000 a year for 20 years to lease a shelter space, with an option to renew.
Lawrence says the county is going to have to spend money on a new shelter one way or another – and by partnering with the Humane Society, it’ll get more for the taxpayer’s dollar.
“If the county does it, you’ve got to follow the low bidder and things like that, and you’ll get a place hopefully better than this but still not as good as this community deserves,” he says.
“That’s our reason for joining together and having them purchase the actual building. Also, donations – then people can write off donations easier,” he adds.
Lawrence says he’s heard some people balk at the estimated cost for renovation, which runs from three or four million dollars to up to twice that. But he says none of it is for frills.
“It’s not a Taj Mahal like some people think when they hear those prices. A shelter is a specialized building that is even more specialized than the hospital,” he says.
At the Humane Society, Winters points out that in a hospital the patients don’t lick their feet, so it’s a little easier to keep things clean.
There are other reasons a shelter is costly to build. The ventilation gets complicated. The walls must be able to withstand up to three pressure-washes a day. Lawrence says it won’t do to cheap out.
“Depending on who you get to build the facility, they can use materials that look real good and work real good for about three or four years, and pretty soon all of a sudden you’ve got a 250-300,000 dollar bill you’re looking at to replace or repair something that didn’t last long enough,” he says.
Winters and Lawrence say they hope to know within a few weeks if the Sprinkle Road space will work out. The next step would be to start fundraising. Lawrence says if the deal falls through, the county will probably have to pay for a new building of its own.