Cozy shelter boosts strays’ prospects
There’s no dog yoga or kitty meditation, but the Animal Rescue League of Boston thinks it can de-stress the lives of the animals at its Dedham shelter and make it easier for them to find new homes around the region.
With features as simple as frosted glass and heated floors, the shelter’s $2.7 million renovation is designed to help animals feel at home in their environment and at ease with visitors who come to view and possibly adopt them.
Over time, staffers hope, this will enable more animals throughout Massachusetts to move through the shelter, which handles nearly 400 cats and 100 dogs, along with the occasional horse or rooster, every year.
“Overall, we were looking to provide a much more comfortable space for the animals, lowering shelter stress and increasing their chances of adoption,” said Melanie Sheffield, director of advancement.
The shelter was built in 1985 and serves as a housing, adoption, and rehabilitation center for large and small animals. It’s also home to Pine Ridge Cemetery, which is believed to be the oldest pet cemetery in the country owned and operated by an animal welfare agency.
However, as the demand on the organization for services increased and technology advanced, it became evident that the building needed updating, a brochure about the redesign said. So, as plans were drawn with ARQ Architects, staffers and others created a shelter that would help both the animals and the environment.
Features highlighted at a recent open house include port holes that cats can look out of; a choice of living arrangements that allow social cats to stay together in one area; sniff holes for dogs to “meet” potential owners; and “tail-to-nose” space requirements so each animal has plenty of room to move around and make its area a home.
“The cat is now controlling the environment — she can decide if she wants to be on the perch or look out — it’s a stress relief and it’s already clearly working,” said Lisa Lagos, the Dedham adoption center manager, pointing out that each cat seemed to be doing its own thing and not just sitting in the cage staring out.
Each dog’s kennel is made out of a durable, frosted glass and none of them face one another — a feature that will make “a huge difference behaviorally,” said Michelle Welch, owner and trainer at Turn Around Dog Training.
Welch, who previously worked with the league but is no longer affiliated with it, has seen the new shelter and said it’s a step in the right direction, though it has its limitations.
“The new shelter is gorgeous, but at the same time, these animals have still been taken from their home, there’s still noise, there’s still barking . . . there’s still going to be stress,” she said.
For the cats, the extra space allows each to create a home with a separate area for a litter box, an eating area, a perch to sit up high, and a window to look out.
Visitors can walk up to each kennel and meet the dog its way — through smell. The holes are large enough for Fido to get a good whiff, but not so big an entire hand can come through and create potentially dangerous situations.
Currently, the Dedham facility works with animal control officers in West Springfield, Worcester, and Sterling to help reduce the number of animals going into town shelters, which can sometimes be overwhelmed or underresourced, Lagos said. It hopes to form relationships with others now that the new building is open.
The staff also works with Pets in Limbo Out There, an organization that helps dogs in Massachusetts find adoptive families by transferring them to animal organizations that are better equipped to find them homes.
The idea is that if the new features make animals more adoptable, there will be greater opportunity for taking in more animals from outside Dedham. It’s a transition that Welch said may actually work.
“That’s an ideal move for a dog, and Dedham’s been (transferring dogs) for almost 10 years when they have the space,” she said. “Now these animals who may be stuck in a small municipal building run by one person will have a beautiful place to sleep and a great staff and program.”
Staffers eventually hope to bring in animals that are adoptable, but may be in stressful situations or lacking proper medical care.
“I’m a big fan of the underdog, and not just the animal, but the shelter that needs help, too,” Lagos said. “There’s a lot of great shelters out there with a lot of great animals, but they might just have limited resources, so those animals are lost.”
The redesigned buildings also offer some stress relief for humans.
Staffers now have their own areas for meetings, offices, and a break room — a big change from before, when Lagos said everyone seemed to eat lunch in a closet space.
A separate entrance for owners surrendering pets or bringing them in for euthanization was also designed, with human feelings in mind. In the past, everyone went through one lobby, sometimes creating uncomfortable situations between owners surrendering and others looking to adopt.
“When it comes to owner surrenders, it can be a very difficult time. Bad things happen to good people, and the least we can do is provide that service barrier,” Lagos said.
The building is also home to a number of environmental upgrades. The roof is mostly covered in plants to help with insulation and stormwater runoff. Rainwater is captured and reused in toilets and hoses, and light filters in through skylights while solar panels provide energy.
This fall the organization will apply for platinum-level Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification. According to league spokeswoman Jennifer Wooliscroft, the Dedham shelter and the organization would be the first in the country to receive such a high certification.
When all the changes at the shelter are combined, Lagos said, “There’s a human, an animal, and an earth impact.”
Natalie Feulner can be reached at email@example.com.