A Place of Dignity

In the nation’s capital, compassion and hope build a new refuge for abandoned animals.
By Carol Guzy, April 2011

Soothing waters calm desperate fears, skylights illuminate once-dark spaces, and heated floors warm wounded bodies and mend broken souls. Strays, abused and neglected animals, companions lost or surrendered in sorrow (or simply tossed away like worn furniture) are given space to heal. Even pets devastated by Katrina’s rampage have found refuge here from their storm.

“If you build it, they will come,” declares Scotlund Haisley, executive director of the Washington Animal Rescue League in the nation’s capital, referring to the generosity of donors who funded the newly renovated, state-of-the-art shelter. A labor of love for the street-smart, savvy entrepreneur with a huge heart and an eloquent voice for the district’s most powerless, the shelter was constructed with empathy for the companion animals who would inhabit its space.

Gone are sad eyes peering through rusty bars. Instead of frenzied barking, classical music creates an inviting ambiance for both the animal residents and potential adopters. The view through a ceiling veiled in cascading water suggests an Impressionist painting. “Zen” is the word often used to describe these serene new digs, which address the animals’ physical, emotional and social needs. Compassion is the foundation. Hope is the mortar.

WARL, which was founded in 1914 and is funded solely by private donations, unveiled the $4 million reconstruction of its facility earlier this year at “Pawfest,” a grand opening reception during which a chain was symbolically cut to usher in a new era of humane sheltering. The improvements—made possible by a $6 million capital campaign—resulted in a 66 percent increase in space, and the complex can now house up to 400 animals. Among its new features are Dutch doors that allow dogs to interact with visitors, glass blocks that erase the archaic vision of chain-link cages and enhance therapeutic natural light, and elevated orthopedic beds that provide comfort and a sense of belonging. An air-purification system reduces the incidence of common shelter diseases. “Thus far, we’ve seen a 90 percent decrease in common airborne diseases—upper respiratory infection in cats and kennel cough in dogs,” says Medical Director Dr. Gary Weitzman. Sections of floor in the “Doggy Dens” and “Puppy Pads” have radiant heat, which allows dogs to select the temperature they prefer. One of the shelter’s residents, Lulu, is perplexed by the automatic self-filling water bowl, so an old-fashioned one will have to do. Here, animals are treated as individuals.

Feline friends live in “Cat Condos” made of sandstonecolor Corian (a composite that does not harbor bacteria or germs), and residents can visit each other through openings when appropriate; litter boxes are tucked out of sight for privacy. There are “Purr Parks” for exercise, and even a waterfall for cats to drink from, play in or practice their distinctive form of feline meditation.

The expanded medical center serves families with low or fixed incomes; its services are now also available to adopters and volunteers. Spay/neuter surgeries are free to all who reside inside the Beltway, regardless of income. The Love Fund provides for procedures and rehabilitation for special-needs animals some would deem unworthy.

Approximately 700 people attended Pawfest, and murmurs of “There are no more ugly bars” echoed off walls painted in muted earth tones. A dog named Columbus greeted visitors who packed the aisles as they interacted with animals.He graciously succumbed to the power of touch, and became a magnet for young hands and seniors’ kisses. “Fabulous,” exclaimed Cindy Lollar as she played with an exuberant, enchanting kitten. “I mean, unbelievable. It’s not a depressing place to come. There isn’t that guilt to keep you away.”

Critics may question an elaborate complex devoted to animals rather than humans, but Haisley does not view it as an “either/or” debate. His hope is that features of this holistic concept will be an inspiration for human institutions as well. Also, many people may not be aware that animal-protection regulations came before those meant to safeguard children. In 1873, Henry Bergh (who founded the first ASPCA in 1866) walked into a courtroom with Mary Ellen Wilson, a severely abused and beaten little girl, and launched a movement that resulted in child-protection laws.

Haisley wanted to eliminate elements that foster aggression and violent behavior, and consulted animal-care experts and visited holistic vets and human prisons during the project planning phase. (In a sad irony, Damon Ward, one of the architects of this peaceful place, was shot to death outside a nightclub. He never saw his final work completed.) “Our dream,” said Haisley, “has been to make this shelter a model, and a tangible resource for any group that houses and rehabilitates animals. We’re proud to be the first to build such a shelter, but we do not want it to be the only one of its kind. If more animal rescue agencies build facilities that actively enhance recovery and adoptions, the animal rescue option—and not pet stores, puppy mills or breeders—will become the standard, most attractive, most reliable way to choose an animal companion.”

And indeed, WARL caretakers expect that adoptions will greatly increase as folks find their way here. Animals have resilient spirits that respond to the nurturing environment. “They’re not shelter dogs. They’re pets. These dogs are so easy now,”remarked kennel technician Steve Szot. Just ask Columbus, Gardenia, Atlantis, Quaker, Paddy, Nigel, Noah, Ping-Pong, Wedgie or Big Byrd. They may not speak the language of humans, but their eyes speak volumes, and the furious wagging of tails in unison is a sonata of unbridled, adoptable joy.

Inscribed on the back of a League T-shirt is a quote, profoundly poignant in its simplicity, from that gentle visionary Mahatma Gandhi: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated,” a sentiment at the heart of this new home for homeless animals. A place where all life has value. A place of dignity.

Carol Guzy is a four-time Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist. She is a photographer for the Washington Post, and won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News for her portraits following the devastating earthquake in Haiti.

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