The Million Dollar Dog House

By Amanda Smith

“We don’t need to build a million dollar dog house.”

This statement gets thrown around a lot in connection with the proposed animal shelter; the implication being that we are building something to benefit pets and not people. However, a municipal animal shelter doesn’t serve animals. It serves humans. In addition to reuniting people with lost pets and getting dangerous dogs off the streets, there are many things animal control officers do that some of us may never see. They capture snakes and other wildlife in people’s homes, remove dead animals from the roads, rescue animals trapped under houses or in wells, send decapitated heads to the state lab for rabies testing, and much more. Their job is dirty, dangerous, and thankless.

Over thirty years ago, through a combination of research and trial and error, it had already been learned that by building and operating animal shelters differently, better results were achieved. The results included better working conditions for employees, better outcomes for the animals, and better services for the public. This led to a revolution in the design and operation of new shelters and the demolition of the old-style “dog pounds” that were the norm when the Marshall Shelter was built 50 years ago.

Experience showed that it was not only more humane to save animal lives than to end them, it was actually less expensive. This is part of the reason that the average U. S. shelter is now about 15 years old. Some states are still behind the curve on this, with Texas being one of the worst in terms of euthanasia rates. Think of that for a moment. Texas is one of the states with the highest kill rates to begin with, and we have the oldest and one of the highest kill rate shelters in this state. It doesn’t speak well of Marshall.

Another of the drivers of change came from recognition of the toll that shelter work was taking on employees, including depression and PTSD, and this issue is even more urgent than the stain on our city’s image. We have animal control officers – police department employees – whose job it is to protect and to serve us, and we are not giving them the work environment they deserve. 

Ironically, one part of the job is responsible for both the greatest emotional rewards and the deepest despair for shelter workers – dealing with homeless pets, including the constant requirement to kill healthy companion animals. We should, at the very least, try to lessen the burden they must bear for slaughtering healthy animals.   

Some argue that the cost of a low-kill shelter is too high. By comparison, the police department and fire station facilities cost $2.5 million each, over 10 years ago. Like them, the animal shelter is a municipal facility that is responsible for a core function of city government. A low-kill shelter can be built today for half the cost of just one of those. It isn’t a fancy dog house. It is a special-purpose government building that is intended to serve our community for decades to come. 

We need to build with the future in mind, and to place the welfare of the people who will be working there at the forefront of our thoughts. Could you do their job? Most of us couldn’t. Why would we expect them to live with the cheapest and least effective thing that can be built? Why not follow the example of other cities and do it right? To do it right, we must build what is needed. 

Most cities the size of Marshall are spending $2 to $3 million (or more) to build low-kill animal shelters. They have tight budgets too, but they realize that it’s important build what experts know they need to succeed. If Marshall builds a low-kill shelter for $1.2 million dollars it will be the least expensive facility of its kind built in a decade in this state.

So, when people say we don’t need to build a million dollar dog house, the answer is that we are not. We are building an effective and modern animal control facility. Our animal control officers would much rather be saving animals than killing them, and with the right facility that can be the normal outcome.

Another outcome of building the right facility lies in the ability to attract volunteers and donors, and to qualify for grants. A high-kill shelter won’t offer those benefits. It’s cheaper to build a slaughterhouse than a place of salvation but which one will make Marshall proud? And in the end which makes the most economic sense – save some money in building costs up front, but lose millions in grant and donor revenue over the life of the building? 

The answer is obvious, and that’s why for most of the last three decades cities across the country have embraced the low-kill paradigm and built shelters where lives are saved more than they are taken. It’s the ethically and economically sensible thing to do.

Sometimes making the responsible choice requires looking ahead. It’s time to look ahead, Marshall. We are not building a shelter for today. We are building an animal control facility that will serve our community for decades to come. Let’s get it right.

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