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2013-04-03 / Columnists

Pets pets pets

The Town of Babylon will be building a new animal shelter at a new location. How often do I get to type such a great lead? Well, this is the second time in 30 years. The new shelter will be so much better than the last, new one (our current shelter) which opened in June 1989.

Recently the Town Board approved a $500,000 bond for design, engineering, architecture and site preparation of a new shelter on New Highway near the N. Lindenhurst/N. Amityville border. Target grand opening is 2015. This column will explore the rationale behind the need for the future shelter while also dipping into the history of Babylon shelters, past and present. Subsequent “Pets” will examine desired design features that will minimize stress, while maximizing space, noise, odor/ disease control and cleaning efficiency.

The Ghosts of shelters past: It’s been 24 years even though I still call the present shelter (which is falling apart) the “new” shelter. That’s because I continue to have nightmares about how horrible the original shelter was. It was one narrow hallway starting with cats, leading to female dogs, next male dogs and then a door to isolation. The back room was for those that would never be on view, and for euthanasia. That was it.

The versatile meet n’ greet room at Babylon Shelter The versatile meet n’ greet room at Babylon Shelter The reason for the move and new building in the 1980s was different from now. The old pound on Edison Avenue, and, yes, it was truly a “pound,” was to be demolished to make room for the Resource Recovery Plant. The Town chose a site, practically around the block on Lamar Street, and put up a modular building designed by Town engineers at a cost of $1.18 million with little planning for utility or longevity. The building has not held up well. The metal frames have rusted away from years of heavy hosing. It would probably cost as much or more to modernize the current shelter as it would to build a new updated one.

Back in 1989, the Lamar facility, a huge improvement over the Edison edifice, was considered modern because it had a separate cat room, more kennels, a (poorly designed) maternity ward and a small meet n’ greet room. I snicker when reviewing a 6/27/89 Newsday article: ‘A new state-of-the-art animal shelter dedicated by Babylon Town last week will provide its inhabitants with more comfortable, roomier surroundings, including a private room for expectant mothers. “As far as shelters go, Babylon is the most flexible on the Island,” said Joanne Anderson, an official who attended the open house Friday. “They will keep dogs for months, if we think we can find a home for them.’”

“Official” what? Actually, the “we” I was referring to was “rescue,” and this statement was a ploy to get the difficult long-time shelter director to do the right thing, but that’s a story for another day.

Why a new shelter? The mindset behind municipal shelters has changed over the last two decades. Years ago, Town shelters weren’t adoption centers; they were holding tanks. They’d keep stray dogs, mostly Shepherd and Lab mixes, a week in hopes that an owner was looking. Most were then put to sleep. Disease, including distemper, was widespread. Surrendered dogs and all cats could be put down immediately, and usually were, even if they were highly adoptable. The shelter was always full; often with two dogs per run. Pregnant dogs were plentiful. Only a few volunteers, both visible and behind the scenes, were racing against the clock to find desperate pets homes.

Nowadays, most LI Town shelters are housing pets for extended stays, even for years, while the shelter staff and volunteers work together trying to find them homes. The dog population has shifted with at least 85 percent being Pit Bulls or Pit mixes. Most responsible owners are “fixing” their dogs; only the Pits are still being rampantly bred. Mandatory altering of adopted shelter pets as well as Almost Home of LI’s Training Wheels outreach in Wyandanch with free spay/neuter of owned pets, especially the chained Pits, have curtailed the number of litters born or nursed at the shelter, so the maternity ward has morphed into isolation for special cases. We now need room for the vet to examine and treat animals.

In 2012, Babylon Shelter took in 1,322 dogs and cats, and also subsidized 800 feral cat spay/neuters. The shelter averages about 60 dogs at all times, while the cat count soars past that total during kitten season which is from April through November. The Town is not looking to expand capacity but is seeking a better layout of pet and public space. Our current shelter is cramped with every available inch being utilized. The tiny meet n’ greet room quadruples as a real room, scared pet seclusion and storage for blankets/toys. Owner surrender dogs, even desirable ones, are put on a waiting list because resident Pits move out slowly. Years ago the shelter took in feral cats for euthanasia. No longer- instead, the shelter promotes Trap/Neuter/ Return, and even helps manage several cat colonies.

Long-term stays are stressful to dogs, especially energetic Pits who need mental and physical stimulation. They tend not to kennel well, making it harder for them to find homes. A vicious cycle. The typical configuration of staring across the aisle at a fellow canine inmate adds to anxiety and counter-productive behavior. About a year ago, Chris Elton, the current Babylon Shelter director, visited the Southold Shelter and was impressed by many features. One design being considered is a pod system, possibly four suites of 12 dogs where they would not see, hear or smell the masses.

Besides deteriorating, the Lamar shelter has been plagued with design flaws since the get-go. The narrow drain encased in cement backs up weekly. The goal in the new shelter is to employ a design team with extensive experience in building an animal care facility. Elton says: “We need to incorporate solid engineering and materials that will produce a building that is more flexible and will last 40 years.” He added our shared Pollyanna wish that, “By then, hopefully we won’t need a shelter like this.” Yes, I would love to see the pitiful Pit problem solved before I retire from rescue or die, whichever comes first.

For Adoption at Babylon Shelter 9631-643-9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon: “Twiggy” #13-162, a petite Pit came in emaciated with pressure sores and hairless feet, while “Snowy” #3-82 is a lovable seven-month-old kitten.

Dogs: two abandoned Beagles; “Jake” Puggle; “Spooky” Canaan Dog mix.

Cats: “Tiger” gray fellow; “Misty” black declawed gal.

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