No-kill shelter survives a scare

Advocates worry when Washougal changes its contribution method

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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For the last year and a half, the West Columbia Gorge Humane Society has been Boots’ home. The 7-year-old Shar-Pei/lab mix was surrendered to the shelter when her owners lost their house to foreclosure.

For M.J., a petite, 3-year-old pit bull, the no-kill shelter is a safe haven. M.J. was rescued six months ago from a Multnomah County, Ore., shelter where she was scheduled to be euthanized.

And for Noel, a 2-year-old pit bull/terrier mix, a Humane Society kennel is once again her home. Noel was adopted from the shelter last summer but was returned a few weeks ago when her owner’s work schedule changed.

Until new homes are found, Boots, M.J. and Noel will continue to live at the West Columbia Gorge Humane Society — the county’s only no-kill shelter, kennel manager Christy Stevens said. Without the shelter, the dogs’ futures could have looked much different.

In 2008, 3,771 dogs were taken to the county’s largest Humane Society, the Humane Society for Southwest Washington, and 496 were euthanized, according to Humane Society records.

Last month, though, the no-kill West Columbia Gorge Humane Society was facing its own demise. Its future became uncertain when the financial contribution from the city of Washougal was thought to be on the chopping block. Without the funding, the shelter would likely have had to close its doors, Stevens said.

In the end, though, the city council agreed to continue the funding, despite a tightening budget.

“The city council came through loud and clear for us,” Stevens said.

Forming partnership

The West Columbia Gorge Humane Society formed a partnership with the city of Washougal in August 2006.

The Humane Society, which at the time had only a cat shelter, agreed to take over the dog shelter on Index Street used by the city’s animal control department. The Humane Society agreed to care for the animals, maintain the shelter and facilitate dog adoptions.

In return, Washougal would pay $25,000 a year for two part-time employees, In addition, the Humane Society could keep the daily impound fee of $5 per dog paid by owners who retrieved their dogs, Stevens said.

When a dog is picked up by animal control officers within the Camas and Washougal city limits it is taken to the West Columbia Gorge Humane Society, where it’s checked in and placed in a kennel. The Humane Society takes possession of the dog if it remains in the shelter for five days, Stevens said. The dog is then taken to a veterinarian, where its vaccines are brought up to date. The veterinarian also implants a microchip and spays or neuters the dog, if needed, Stevens said.

While living in the shelter, the dogs go on daily walks, are taken to parks and sometimes spend weekends with the families of Humane Society volunteers. Shelter staff and volunteers are in the building for several hours each day to care for and play with the dogs, Stevens said.

Prior to the partnership between the Humane Society and the city, animal control officers operated the shelter. The two officers would take the dogs to the shelter, where the dogs would stay for five days. If the dogs weren’t recovered by their owners, they were taken to the Humane Society for Southwest Washington.

The partnership, Stevens said, frees up time animal control officers spent caring for dogs and provides the animals with more human interaction.

“I think it’s a warmer atmosphere,” Stevens said. “It’s much better.”

Budget concerns

Since the partnership was formed, the city has contributed between $28,000 and $30,500 each year, according to city records. The variance is due to the impound fees. The money from the city of Washougal is the only “hard money” the shelter receives; everything else is donated, Stevens said.

When Mayor-elect Sean Guard proposed removing the funding from the animal control budget, shelter employees and volunteers worried the Humane Society would cease to exist. Without the funding, the Humane Society wouldn’t be able to afford paid employees. And without the city-owned building, the shelter would have nowhere to house dogs, she said.

Guard, however, said he never intended to eliminate the Humane Society funding. He just wanted it removed from the animal control fund. If the council wanted to fund the Humane Society, the money should come from the general fund, Guard said. And that’s exactly what the council decided last month.

Guard said he suggested the change because the animal control costs are split 50-50 between the cities of Camas and Washougal. For at least 15 years, the two cities have shared the service, with Washougal administering the program. Since forming the partnership with the Humane Society, the cost for animal control services has risen.

In 2006, Camas paid $61,642 for animal control services. For 2009, the city budgeted $82,450, Camas City Administrator Lloyd Halverson said. That increase sparked concern among Camas city officials.

“There are budget pressures on the city of Camas and we need to stick within the budgeted amount,” Halverson said.

Camas officials expressed their concerns to the city of Washougal and Guard, who began to look for ways to keep the costs down. Guard believes the city of Washougal, as the administrator, is responsible for keeping costs within budget and should not bill Camas when costs exceed the expected amount. That’s especially true because Washougal decided to change the method for providing care for the dogs, he said.

“If we were doing stuff today the way we were five years ago, those expenses wouldn’t exist,” Guard said.

Now, with the contribution removed from the animal control budget and established as a $25,000 expense from the general fund, the city of Camas is not responsible for the cost. The change alleviated concerns in Camas and allowed Washougal to continue to support the shelter.

The allocation also means the Humane Society can continue to operate and rescue dogs.

And for Noel, M.J. and Boots, that means the dogs will continue to live in the shelter they’ve come to know as home.

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546 or marissa.harshman@columbian.com.