The colorful murals painted by schoolchildren barely cheer up the windowless, cinder-block room where dogs lie on plastic beds or concrete...

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The colorful murals painted by schoolchildren barely cheer up the windowless, cinder-block room where dogs lie on plastic beds or concrete floors in chain-link enclosures.

In the drab room next door, cats wait in rows of cages stacked three stories high.

Those animals, available for adoption at the King County animal shelter in Kent, have a better chance of finding a home — and surviving — than the hundreds of dogs and cats elsewhere in the building that haven’t been cleared for adoption. More than 4,000 of the 11,801 animals that entered the county’s two animal shelters last year were deemed too sick or aggressive for adoption — and were put to death.

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Now, in the wake of a damning citizens’ advisory committee report that said bleak, unsanitary conditions were making animals sick, shelter staff members have been working to make things better.

Officials plan to close the smaller, cramped Bellevue shelter, and they may also shut the Kent facility if a consultant’s report to the Metropolitan King County Council today suggests the county is incapable of operating a model animal-control operation.

“King County is a very compassionate region,” said County Council Chair Julia Patterson, who has made animal care a top priority. “There’s no reason in the world why we should have these high euthanasia rates in our animal shelter.”

The Kent shelter, opened in an addition to an old dairy barn in 1975, takes in all the dogs and cats brought to its door: strays, animals abandoned by their families, aggressive dogs, and sick pets brought by their owners to be euthanized.

Animal Care and Control’s administrative offices are in the barn, along with a spay-neuter clinic established in 1997. Animal-control officers collect strays and aggressive animals, enforce licensing laws and investigate complaints of animal cruelty.

In its early days, animals were euthanized after three days if they weren’t claimed by their owners or adopted. Eighty percent were euthanized in 1990. Now many animals are held longer in hopes of finding adoptive homes. The death rate has dropped substantially since the County Council in 1992 adopted then-Councilmember Ron Sims’ ordinance raising pet-license fees for unaltered animals. Today, fewer animals enter the shelter in a year than the 13,765 euthanized there in 1990.

But now County Executive Sims’ animal program is under fire from many pet lovers.

Councilmember Patterson began taking a close look at Animal Care and Control after questions were raised about the 2006 investigation into the death of a puppy found in a Federal Way yard with chemical burns.

When she first visited the Kent shelter, Patterson said, “I had the impression the workers were doing the best job they could with limited resources.”

“The animals in the shelter were definitely not being treated like animals who are members of families,” she said. “It’s a very cold and institutionalized, somewhat chaotic and space-challenged, facility. That concerned me, but the thing that concerned me most was hearing about the euthanasia rates.”

The shelters reported 40 percent of the animals were killed by lethal injection in 2006. Patterson, using a different method, calculated 49 percent.

Working with advocates of a “no-kill” philosophy, Patterson wrote an ordinance, adopted by the County Council, directing the shelter to euthanize no more than 20 percent of its animals this year and 15 percent in 2009. The ordinance also banned convicted animal abusers from getting pet licenses and asked a citizens’ advisory committee to take a thorough look at the county’s animal programs.

“Deplorable” conditions

The committee last September called conditions “deplorable,” pointing to poor sanitation, outbreaks of canine parvovirus and feline upper-respiratory infections, a veterinary staff too small to do its job well, failure to vaccinate some animals, and no place to isolate sick dogs. The Humane Society for Seattle/King County told the committee it sometimes had to stop taking dogs from King County shelters for adoption because they brought potentially fatal parvo with them.

“I was extremely naive,” said Claire Davis, who founded the Coalition for a No Kill King County and helped write the advisory committee’s report. “I had no idea how bad things were here — no idea. I assumed that as a progressive, humane community, King County would be among the best animal shelters in the country, not among the worst.”

Some of the worst problems had gone uncorrected for years, the committee learned. A succession of shelter managers didn’t cover an open sewer drain running through dog kennels — even as an animal-welfare fund of contributions from the public grew to nearly $600,000 but went untouched.

Al Dams, acting animal care and control manager since 2006, said officials thought tax money — not donors’ dollars — should be used for such work as covering the sewer drain or creating an isolation area for sick dogs.

But Patterson said that until the citizens’ committee issued its devastating report, Sims’ office didn’t ask for money for such basic improvements.

Derek Yoshinaka, a shelter volunteer and vice chairman of the citizens’ committee, would like to see the county build a new shelter. He thinks animal-control officers who care for the cats and dogs have done the best they can in a building that wasn’t designed as a modern, adoption-oriented shelter.

“I think it’s just been a failure at both the executive and council levels,” Yoshinaka said.

Progress cited

The citizens’ advisory committee made 47 recommendations for improving animal care inside and outside the shelter. The county should work more aggressively to find homes for animals, spay and neuter more pets and feral cats, and turn over animal-cruelty investigations to the Sheriff’s Office or other police agencies, the committee urged.

Improvements have been made since the committee’s report. Dog kennels are now given a thorough daily cleaning. The open sewer has been covered. Beds have been put in kennels. Cats have been moved away from the kennels holding stray dogs. Veterinarians are on duty two more days a week.

Much remains to be done, and Dams said there’s no way to make a structure of concrete, cinder block and chain link truly pleasant for the animals.

There’s also been progress toward meeting the County Council’s lower euthanasia targets. Dams said the death rate was cut to an all-time low of 18 percent in January and February.

Keeping the death rate that low for the full year will be difficult, Dams said, because the shelter population typically skyrockets in late summer.

Committee members didn’t all agree on whether the County Council’s euthanasia targets were achievable within a year, but they were unanimous in calling for more adoptions and more neutering of pets and strays. Unless the county puts significantly more money into animal care, committee member Yoshinaka said, “It’s like telling [Seahawks coach] Mike Holmgren you’ve got to win a Super Bowl next year with the exact same guys you have this year.”

Dams said he’s doing what he can to meet the lower euthanasia target. “Ultimately, he said, “what we need to do is find a way to get the animals out of the shelter — alive. You have to have an end strategy, a strategy for finding them a permanent home.

“We’re doing everything we can to get the animals out of here alive.”

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or

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