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Votes

No Room at the Inn

County animal shelter is cramped, crowded and outdated.

In the Fairfax County Animal Shelter, one animal-control officer works next to exposed circuitry at a desk literally inside a closet. Wildlife is stored beneath the printer in the main office and small animals are housed in the same room with their predators.

But if county residents vote yes next week for the public-safety bond on the Nov. 7 ballot, all this could change. The shelter would receive $17 million for a much-needed renovation and expansion.

"Thirty years ago, the shelter was built for a specific purpose," said Shelter Director Karen Diviney. "Today, it serves a whole different need."

Constructed in the early 1970s, the small facility on West Ox Road in Fairfax was originally built as a dog pound to handle stray and homeless dogs. Renovated in the mid-1980s, the number of dog kennels went from 48 to 72 so it could better care for dogs in isolation and quarantine.

But it's still only 15,000 square feet and, with the county's human population skyrocketing to more than 1.2 million, its pet population increased more than 58 percent. And now, the shelter takes in more cats than dogs annually, but has 13 percent less space for them than for canines.

"If the bond passes, it would almost double the building's square footage," said Diviney. "And it would enable Animal Control to be in a separate building."

Because more higher-density homes — such as townhouses, apartments and condos — are being built, more people are keeping smaller pets. Therefore, said Diviney, their pets are often cats, ferrets, snakes, hamsters, guinea pigs, gerbils, rats, iguanas, rabbits and birds.

"AND THE shelter wasn't really designed to house the exotics, a lot of small animals and cats," she said. "And many times — because their cats like their old neighborhood — people move away and leave their cats behind."

And since more dogs are spayed and neutered than cats, said Michelle Hankins, the shelter's community outreach program manager, "We get lots and lots of orphaned kittens."

"One Tuesday, we had 26 surrenders [of pets by owners], and 19 were cats," said Diviney. And, added Hankins, "We only have 28 cat cages."

In the shelter's foster-care program, volunteers take abandoned animals into their homes if they're too young for adoption, or if they're sick and need special care. Then they bring them to the shelter in anywhere from a week to a month.

"But in the last four weeks, since we've had so many cats and kittens — and no space for them here — we've had to ask the volunteers to keep the fosters for a month longer," said Hankins. "So we've tried to innovate and be creative, but there's only so much we can do and then we're maxed out." And when they run out of foster homes, too, said Diviney, "Then we're really stuck."

One of the biggest needs the bond issue will address is the lack of separated space for cats and other small animals.

"For example, we get mice sometimes, and we have to put them in the same room with cats," said Hankins. "And we have ferrets in a hallway, along with rabbits, an iguana and, sometimes, birds and guinea pigs," said Diviney.

"So if the ferrets got loose, we'd have a problem," she said. "We've never had any incidents, but we don't want any to happen." So, said Diviney, "If the community is keeping these kinds of pets and we're truly serving the needs of the community, then we need to have a facility that meets these needs."

THE BOND issue would also remedy the lack of space for staff and the public, and that includes parking. Animal-control vehicles are parked in the back and, said Hankins, "They have to park two deep." Visitor parking is also a problem.

Said Diviney: "We get an average of 200-300 visitors a day — except on Tuesday and Saturday, when we get between 400 and 600." And if the shelter had more space and more parking, said Hankins, "We wouldn't be forced to have specific events such as rabies clinics, volunteer orientations, dog-training clinics and adoptions, on different days. They could happen simultaneously."

At a September rabies clinic, 140 animals came in two hours for vaccinations. People lined the hallway — and double-parked outside. Others, unable to find a space in the jammed parking lot, simply drove away.

There's only one, 8x10 room for visitation and, said Diviney, "We often have people lined up to meet with a dog or cat. And we can only have one person or family visiting with an animal at a time." Often, people have to wait 30 minutes to see a prospective pet.

So sometimes, said Diviney, "We use the grooming room or conference room for that. But the conference room is also used by volunteers checking in or out, and for meetings, so there's a conflict."

Employees have sat in hallways to work, and records are stored in boxes wherever they can be stashed. Basically, said Diviney, "All the space is used for multiple purposes, and it's inefficient."

There's only one animal-receiving room for the paid animal caretakers — with one desk shared by 11 people. Also in that room is a refrigerator for animal medications, plus all the supplies for receiving new animals. These include nametags, photography equipment, vaccination supplies and computer data-entry materials.

"We have no sink to wash the animals' dishes there, so we wash them in a tub," said Hankins. And, yes, the huge bathtub is in this room, as well. In addition, animal control officers use the room and animals are vaccinated here.

Master Animal Control Officer Jennifer Milburn works in the office-in-a-closet, across from the exposed phone circuitry and computer server. "The circuitry puts out a lot of heat and, when it gets really hot in here, it's stuffy and claustrophobic," she said.

SO MILBURN also has a large fan next to her desk. As if that weren't enough, other shelter employees continually go through her tiny office to get to the office supplies and files in the storage area behind her, and back out again.

The animal control officers' vans don't fit in the wash bay outside where they clean and hose down their vehicles after bringing in animals, so that's also a problem. These officers' four supervisors share two desks in a minuscule space, and the roll-call room is also small and inadequate.

All dogs and cats get clean towels and blankets every day so they can have something soft on which to lay. "It helps decrease their stress and creates a better environment for them," explained Hankins.

It also creates a huge mountain of laundry for the shelter's one washer and dryer — used daily from 6 a.m.-10 p.m. "In summer, we have up to 200 animals a day," said Hankins. So, said Diviney, "We could really use another industrial-strength washer and double dryer to keep pace, but we don't have the space."

"So we string up leashes across the laundry room to create [clothes] lines," said Hankins. "We're trying to make do with what we have, but it's hard."

There's only one isolation room for sick animals, said Diviney, "So almost-better animals are re-infected by illness." And the air-ventilation system is inadequate to prevent airborne diseases from spreading.

"If we had a better air-handling system, we could separate animals to quarantine the strays from our adoptable cats," said Hankins. "Now, if they look healthy, we have to put incoming strays in the same room with healthy cats. But if these strays then break out with an upper-respiratory infection, it spreads to the other cats."

AS IT IS, cages of ferrets, rabbits and other animals line the poorly ventilated hallways because there's nowhere else to put them. And injured, sick or captured wildlife are often stored under a desk in the main office area, where they're placed on heating pads while waiting to be picked up by wildlife rehabilitators.

Such wildlife includes birds, baby squirrels and ducks, stacked in cages under the desk where the printer is. "They need to be in a place that's quiet and dark, so we cover them with towels because we don't have anyplace else to put them," said Hankins. "It's not sufficient, but it's the best we can do with what we have."