Maximum Bliss at the Pound

A mixed-breed dog peeks over the Dutch door in his
A mixed-breed dog peeks over the Dutch door in his "doggy den" at the redesigned Washington Animal Rescue League shelter in Northwest. (Photos By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 21, 2006

Larry the yellow Lab sleeps on a memory foam mattress. Paddy the Irish wolfhound laps from an automatically refilling water dish. Olga and Oslo, two Rhodesian Ridgeback-mix puppies, sprawl on a radiant-heated floor in Zen-like bliss.

They are among 80 homeless hounds inhabiting a new animal shelter that is ritzier than many day spas. These mutts exude the contentment of society housewives detoxing at an ashram, soothed into near total silence under a glass skylight skimmed by cascading sheets of recirculated water, the room aglow with daylight streaming through glass walls and thrumming with piped-in harp music.

"Do you hear that? No barking. You barely hear a peep," enthused Scotlund Haisley, executive director of the Washington Animal Rescue League, which is officially unveiling its posh new animal shelter in Northwest Washington to the public this weekend.

Opulent kennels with first-class features are popping up across the country. One in Denver features international-themed rooms for cats, and one in Richmond has bronze lobby sculptures and a rubber-padded indoor track on which dogs can run.

"Slowly, what's happening is that Americans are no longer accepting the small, stinky, rusty-fence shelters as suitable places for animals," said John Snyder, vice president for companion animals at the Humane Society of the United States. "There is a renaissance of new construction of these facilities across the country, and we're seeing some very attractive facilities."

At the rescue league's 71 Oglethorpe St. NW facility, $4 million was spent on deluxe digs -- called "dens," "townhouses" or "condos," depending on size -- for 80 big dogs, 25 puppies and 100 cats.

The league, founded in 1914 to save abandoned and abused workhorses, is funded entirely by private donations. For this renovation, the largest single donation was $75,000. The group held an art auction and fundraiser last night to generate the remaining $2 million needed for building costs, and it plans a grand opening from noon to 3 p.m. tomorrow, complete with a pet psychic.

Pet lovers find the "holistic" shelter inspirational. Workers show no embarrassment over a place fancier than many of their homes. But Haisley knows he must defend it.

"Of course, people will say it's nicer than some shelters for people," Haisley said, stopping to scratch Tate, a Labrador retriever mix, between the ears. "I understand that, but I don't run a human shelter. And if I did, it would have all this.

"Though some of this may seem frivolous, it really is not. It's redefining what the needs of animals are."

What the District's abused, lost and neglected critters need, in Haisley's view, is a peaceful place to nurture their rehabilitation. To figure out what design would foster recovery, he interviewed animal psychologists and prison historians.

"I wanted to understand what fosters aggression and violence and eliminate that," he said.

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