HAILEY — Grab a cup of coffee and meet your new best friend.
When Hailey’s new animal shelter opens at the end of the year, its “cat café” will be one new way for potential pet owners to socialize with the felines. Nearby, at “Central Bark,” on-leash dog walking and a splash pad will offer fun for pets in need of a new home.
The new $16 million Animal Shelter of the Wood River Valley will replace the existing dilapidated buildings and be an ideal place for the community, Executive Director and Medical Director Jo-Anne Dixon said.
“This is really about getting the community together and promoting compassion,” Dixon said during a digital tour of the future shelter on Thursday. “This is the community’s shelter — we’re just helping to actualize their vision.”
The new shelter will also allow the nonprofit to better further its mission of reducing strays, educating the public and helping Idaho become a no-kill state by 2025.
Duct tape and zip ties
In a storage-closet- turned-operation-room, Dixon was in the middle of a surgery when a lighting fixture above her started a small electrical fire. It was early May, and she was, fortunately, able to complete the operation successfully.
But as Associate Director Brooke Bonner points out, the building is held together “by duct tape and zip ties.”
“We’ve known for a really long time that we’ve needed a new facility,” she said.
Tucked up against the hills outside of Hailey, the 5,000 square-foot building has also faced exterior threats. A few years ago, it was nearly burned down by wildfire, and a mudslide that followed destroyed several outdoor kennels.
And the shelter is maxed out on space — its administration is housed in an office near the Hailey airport. At the main facility, animals that are in recovery go into the same room where dogs are bathed, Bonner said. Group cat rooms are barely large enough for a person to go inside, and all transactions occur in the same small lobby. It’s created some awkward moments.
“Somebody can be angry and picking up their impounded pet while a kid is picking up a puppy to adopt,” Bonner said.
The 1982 building also doesn’t meet ADA compliance, so senior citizens have difficulty with access.
Aware that there was a need for more space and a safer pet intake system, Dixon and board president Jan Main began planning for a new shelter in 2006. Twelve years later, the shelter has nearly met its fundraising goal and the new facility is under construction, just across the road.
“We’re looking forward to being on a nice flat, open piece of land,” Bonner said.
The Animal Shelter of the Wood River Valley employs 34 people. On Thursday, it housed 34 dogs and 18 cats and was expecting 11 more dogs the next day from California.
Reducing overpopulation at the source
The nonprofit was founded in 1977 as a group of volunteers who took in pets, but the physical shelter opened a few years later.
In 1999, the Animal Shelter of the Wood River became Idaho’s first no-kill shelter, meaning no healthy, adoptable animals would be euthanized. But this created its own challenges. The shelter was immediately overcrowded with a significant population of strays.
When Dixon came on to the shelter in 2006, she saw the need to tackle overpopulation right at the source, ensuring that every cat or dog that was born was wanted. She opened free spay/neuter clinics for all Blaine County residents — resulting in nearly 8,000 surgeries over 12 years.
“That has subsequently resulted in our stray population being reduced by half,” Dixon said.
The nonprofit has seen a 54 percent decrease in stray animals coming in. So while it absorbs the cost of spaying and neutering at about $100 an animal, it sees substantial savings by reducing litters it doesn’t have to house later.
“We’ve seen the success and we’ve seen the power of it,” Dixon said.
Yet the program might not have worked were it not for the community’s support.
“We’re donor-funded almost exclusively,” she said.
The animal shelter recognized, however, that more remote communities didn’t have access to resources. In Fairfield, for example, stray animals were a problem because residents had no animal services — not even a local feed store.
“We call it an animal welfare desert,” Bonner said.
In 2015, the Animal Shelter of the Wood River Valley became the first rural shelter to receive a Pets for Life grant from the Humane Society of the United States, Dixon said. With this money, staff went door-to-door to Fairfield residents, offering pet services — collars, kennels, fences, food and even free spaying and neutering.
It was a good start, but they weren’t done yet. Consistent return trips have become necessary to ensure the program’s success.
The Animal Shelter of the Wood River Valley has since expanded those services into Richfield and Dietrich. The goal is that in time, the shelter can reduce the stray populations in those areas, too, and promote animal welfare throughout Idaho.
Promoting animal welfare
Last year, Hailey’s animal served 2,500 animals, both in and outside of its facility. Dixon performed 720 surgeries and the shelter adopted out 622 animals — 175 of those adoptions were to people who live outside of Blaine County.
The success of its adoption program has allowed the shelter to assist other shelters across the West. About 40 percent of its adoptable animals last year came from outside of Blaine County — including 266 animals from other shelters in Idaho.
Given its limitations, the shelter could easily have chosen not to assist those other facilities. But the decision came down to its no-kill mission: In September, the shelter board committed to making Idaho a no-kill state by 2025.
Bonner explained that taking in animals from shelters that euthanize helps relieve overcrowding. And it’s her hope that this will, in turn, preserve animal lives in those shelters.
The Animal Shelter of the Wood River Valley is continuing its no-kill mission with a coalition of shelters around the state. Dixon seeks to identify problems other shelters face that prevent them from adopting no-kill policies.
The Hailey shelter also seeks to promote animal welfare with younger generations. Last year, staff talked to hundreds of schoolchildren about the need for vaccinations, as well as how to humanely interact with animals.
When the new shelter is completed, Dixon hopes to continue and expand that program.
“Little things add up to big things,” she said. “It’s one piece of the whole vision we’re working on to improve animal welfare.”
The Animal Shelter of the Wood River Valley still has a ways to go to reach its goal. As of last week, it had raised $14.2 million of the needed $16 million for its new facility. This is its third year of fundraising.
“There’s no taxpayer money being used for our new facility — it’s donations only,” Dixon said.
Staff expects an uphill battle to get the remaining $1.8 million. But for Dixon, it will be all worth it.
The animals will be healthier and more adoptable in the new shelter, Bonner said. Last year, a group of cats died of a disease that spread quickly.
But the new shelter will have a complete air exchange 14 times per hour, similar to a human hospital. It’ll also have separate receiving areas for adoptions, surrenders and surgery recipients. Any animals taken in will be evaluated for health before they can join the rest.
The 30,000 square-foot facility will have double the housing capacity for dogs and cats. And Dixon believes a friendly atmosphere will result in triple the adoptions by 2021.
At the cat café, people can order a coffee or cookies and go into an adjacent petting area. Cats will also be housed in group rooms or in individual “cat condos.” Some of those sunlit rooms will have their own outdoor “cat-ios,” Bonner said.
The community will also have access to training and event rooms.
“It’s about people coming together and sharing that animal-people bond,” Dixon said.