When you walk into the Richmond SPCA's Robins-Starr Humane Center -- an animal shelter -- instead of hearing pained howls and barks, you get soothing strains of Mozart or New Age music. Instead of the stench of hapless animals, the air smells outdoor fresh. Instead of depressed dogs and cats killing time in cramped cages, these potential pets are bright-eyed and ready to go in their "living rooms."
With its stylish interior painted bold yellows, blue-violets and mauves, the new "state-of-the-arf" shelter, which opened last month, looks more like a fancy hotel. Natural light pours down from huge skylights. Bronze sculptures and paintings lend the feel of an art gallery. And the canine living rooms and cat cotillions are unmistakenly homelike.
"Oh, my gosh!" says first-time visitor Katherine Gregory, from South Riding in Loudoun County. In Richmond visiting her mother, Gregory stopped by the center with her sons, Andrew, 10, and Matthew, 7, in search of a kitten. "I'm amazed. I recently went to the Loudoun shelter and the Fairfax shelter, and they aren't anything like this!"
Pound for pound, this 64,000-square-foot center -- currently housing about two-thirds of its capacity, which is 150 dogs and 150 cats -- is not like any animal shelter you've ever seen. The facility, located in a warehouse district off the Boulevard exit from Interstate 95, is among the largest nationwide. But size isn't everything: The center was designed to defy preconceptions, the theory being that a cheery environment will foster a higher rate of adoption.
That's critical, since the motive for this $7.2 million shelter was the Richmond SPCA's decision to "go no-kill." The group is also committed to making the whole city no-kill by 2008.
"What keeps people from walking in the door of a shelter? It's noisy, it's depressing, it's scary, it's smelly," says Denise Deisler, the Richmond SPCA's associate executive director. "This place is bright and friendly."
The building is a 78-year-old red-brick tobacco warehouse with a verdigris seamed roof. Beyond the lobby are 11 glass-doored "dog living rooms." About the size of a small bedroom, each is furnished with a stylish blue metal bench and chairs and a puffy dog bed. A large Labrador-mix named Old Bay sits eagerly at the door of one. On his windowsill is this personal publicity: a can of Old Bay Seasoning and a note, "I like lots of love and need to take long walks on the beach."
"They will allow you to go in these rooms and actually sit with the dog, and play with the dog, get to know the dog, walk the dog outside," says Tony Zimmer, the contractor who oversaw the renovation but kept returning after it was done.
A "lifelong dog person," Zimmer says he kept coming back because the people, the place and the pets left him feeling good. "It's not like looking at dogs in cages. You actually get to know the dog." A couple weeks ago, he took home a 4-month-old red chow.
The public can also visit dogs in the less flashy kennel rooms. The 22 "kennel runs," each four feet wide and 14 feet long, are significantly larger than standard shelter cages.
At the opposite end of the shelter are the individual cat "condos" and three cat "cotillions" -- large rooms with open drawers, cubbyholes and climbing poles, where as many as 10 cats live and people can visit.
All details are designed to bring out the best in the animals. The floors are soft, waterproof epoxy-finished surfaces and the ceilings are sound-absorbent. The cacophony typical of kennels not only is unpleasant for people but also hurts the animals (dogs can hear frequencies more than 20 kHz higher than humans; cats, more than 45 kHz higher).
"When a dog is in pain from the sound, that elevates the stress level," says Emerson Hughes, owner of Holiday Barn Pet Resorts and former chairman of the Richmond SPCA board, who oversaw the project.
Although the creature comforts are as much for visitors, Deisler says Mozart really does soothe the savage beast -- or confused puppy. In a study conducted at Queen's University in Belfast, psychologists found that heavy-metal music increased anxiety in dogs and caused barking, while classical music alleviated stress and quieted barking.
The shelter's classical music is digitally altered to put a damper on the ultrahigh and low frequencies. "If they are too stressed out, that reduces their immune system and that leads to them being sick, and if they are sick we can't adopt them," says Deisler.
But what an adoring public sees and hears in the adoption area is just a small part of the center. Only about a quarter of the animals are available for adoption at any one time. The rest are being rehabbed.
Behind the scenes, every animal gets a physical and behavioral checkup. Dogs with contagious diseases -- like Raspie, a 4-year-old Sheltie with kennel cough -- are confined to the Physical Rehab Room for treatment. Staff experts work with personality problems in the Behavioral Rehab Room. Even healthy animals get a three-day adjustment period to acclimate to shelter life.
Zephia Scarborough adopted a black-and-white kitten she named Steinway a few weeks ago. Because he had been trapped inside a wall for several days before being rescued, the kitten was traumatized. Before taking Steinway home, she had to wait for him to come out of rehab. "Ten days later, he was fat and happy and purring," the Richmond resident says.
Also hidden are the shelter's command centers for its centrally controlled, high-pressure hydro-cleaning system that borrows from car wash technology, and its advanced air-exchange system that sends fresh air throughout the building every six minutes. "It's good for reducing the spread of disease and the odors in the building, and it has the side benefit of not collecting as much dust and hairballs," says Deisler.
Near the entrance is the spay-neuter clinic. Each year, 18,000 "companion animals" end up here or in one of the city or county shelters in the greater Richmond area; in the past, half of those animals were euthanized. Now the center spays or neuters every animal when it arrives and offers those services at low cost to the public.
Pet overpopulation is a nationwide problem, of course. Accurate numbers aren't available, but the Humane Society of the United States estimates that 8 million to 10 million dogs and cats enter U.S. shelters each year and that half are euthanized. Locally, the Montgomery County Humane Society shelter, the only one in the county, took in 6,650 dogs and cats in the year that ended in July and euthanized about 2,600. The D.C. Animal Shelter took in 9,284 and euthanized 65 percent of them.
Deisler mentions a statistic. How many dogs and cats would every person in the United States have to own to empty all of the shelters? "It just blew my mind," she says. "Six cats and two dogs."
On the second floor is a "humane library," a large auditorium that seats 300 people for educational programs and benefit events, and a spectacular rubber-padded jogging track and training arena where all dogs are exercised and obedience classes are held.
"Part of making this community no-kill is you've got to provide good educational programs for people to understand how to do it," says Robin Robertson Starr, executive director of the facility, who expects the center to help 6,000 to 8,000 animals get adopted annually -- twice as many as the old shelter.
At the forefront of a revolution in the pet care industry, the Richmond center is attracting international attention. Since opening, it has received 250 job and volunteer applications. (Besides 150 volunteers, it employs 50 kennel workers and staffers whose annual salaries range from $20,000 to $36,000.) People from other SPCAs nationwide call for tours. Starr has participated in an "international chat" online and a conference in Atlanta. The Mayor's Alliance for Animals in New York has contacted the Richmond SPCA about how it is working with the city to solve the animal overpopulation problem.
The center's no-kill policy means it does not kill animals due to overpopulation. It takes in only animals that it can physically and behaviorally rehabilitate to an adoptable condition. All animals at the shelter stay there until they are adopted. "We control admissions so as never to exceed our capacity," says Starr.
Even private kennels are upgrading facilities in what the American Pet Products and Manufacturing Association calls a $31 billion industry: This month, Olde Towne Pet Resort opened in Springfield. Billing itself as "The Ultimate Pet Care Facility," it offers services such as an indoor hydrotherapy pool and an indoor walking track and agility course.
"It's more than just the building, it's the no-kill policy. No-kill is the real trend toward significant change," says Starr, after whom the center was named, along with patron E. Claiborne Robins Jr. In the first 10 months of this year, 1,200 fewer animals were euthanized by the Richmond SPCA than in the same period the year before.
Some of the interest is in how the Richmond SPCA raised $14.2 million in three years during an economic downturn. Half of that went to build and half to operate; the operating budget, derived from donations, is $2.5 million a year, twice that of the old shelter.
"You work really hard," says Starr, an attorney who worked full time those three years raising donations -- nearly all of them coming from the Richmond community.
Outside her second-floor office, playing with her own 3-year-old shaggy mutt named Nibblet, one of the four dogs and two cats she has adopted, Starr says people "care a lot about the humane cause, but people don't care a lot about continuing to throw their money at something that never changes."
What worked in Richmond, she explains, "was presenting them with a problem that can be licked, telling them how it can be licked."
But whenever an animal shelter upgrades beyond concrete floors and clanky cages, Starr says, someone always questions treating animals so well when homeless people are sleeping on the streets.
"I have trouble with that comparison," she says. "If we wanted to say that human homelessness is the cause that matters the most, then that could also be said of the money that goes to art museums, or the money that goes to botanical gardens, or the performing arts.
"All of those are valuable things that improve the quality of our lives. So do pets. They enormously improve the quality of our lives."