A husky named Hunter could hardly stand when DuPage County’s animal shelter took in the emaciated dog.
Hunter was “near death,” having barely survived neglect, recalled Dr. Barbara Hanek, the veterinarian administrator of the county’s animal services department.
“We are literally the safety net for unwanted or homeless animals in our community and beyond,” Hanek said.
The county’s only open-admission shelter eventually found Hunter a new adoptive home. The husky gained 25 pounds, and “he’s healthy and happy,” Hanek said.
There are many more before-and-after stories like Hunter’s: 89% of the animals brought to the shelter left with a new chance at life last year. A decade earlier, the shelter had a “live release rate” of only 57%.
“The problem is that our building has not kept up with the progress that we are making,” Hanek said.
After years of chronic overcrowding, county officials and animal advocates are planning a major expansion of the 1970s-era building in Wheaton.
The $10.96 million project would bring a 9,750-square-foot addition, plus extensive renovations, to the building across the street from the county government campus. The expansion plan calls for a new primary entrance off Manchester Road, additional dog kennels and separate rooms for cats.
The shelter now admits well over 2,000 animals a year. And they’re not just cats and dogs. Rabbits, chickens, ferrets, hamsters, guinea pigs, lizards, birds and even a baby goat have ended up in the shelter’s care.
“All these animals require special housing and customized diets,” Hanek said, noting some supplies are stacked to the ceiling. “Unfortunately, both of those things require a lot of space, which is one thing that we do not have.”
Shelter employees and volunteers make do with the cramped quarters. Space is so tight that animal cages line hallways.
“And that’s just not when we’re busy. That’s all the time,” Hanek said, giving a recent overview of the expansion project to county board members.
The space issues come into clear view as visitors enter the building. The public lobby doubles as an overflow area with stacks of animal crates. The “happy events” -- pet adoptions -- and the sad ones -- relinquishment -- come through the same lobby, Hanek said.
“We find that a different layout would prove to be much safer if you had separate entrances for both,” she said.
The project would provide a more welcoming space to counsel pet owners on issues they’re having with their animals. A new outdoor community space could offer training and educational events.
“We’re no longer the dogcatcher. We’re not the pound,” said Laura Flamion, operations manager. “We do so much more than just take in animals at the shelter.
On the medical side, a veterinary facility would ideally have separate areas for surgeries, surgery prep and dental work. But all of that happens in one “surgery room” because of space constraints, Hanek said.
“And that’s unfortunate because that’s the last thing a surgeon wants if you have an abdomen open is to have hair flying in the air and bacteria in the air from when you do dentals and use a drill,” Hanek said.
The design plans by Knight Engineers and Architects show an expanded surgical and recovery suite. Different species also would have their own dedicated spaces, reducing stress.
“It allows us to provide the best care for animals, addressing some of those medical spaces,” Flamion said. “And that then leads to better outcomes for animals, too.”
The shelter’s operations are not funded with taxpayer money. Instead, it relies on the sale of rabies tags and volunteers to care for animals that often arrive, like Hunter, in poor condition.
“It takes an incredible team and significant resources to get them healthy and happy in order to be able to get them adopted and transferred out to rescue groups,” Hanek said.
County and shelter leaders have proposed using a combination of funding sources to pay for the project. The estimated cost includes $900,000 for contingency and escalation.
“Animal Services has been planning for this project for many, many years, so they have $4 million in reserves already” for the expansion, said Nick Kottmeyer, the county’s chief administrative officer.
DuPage Animal Friends, a not-for-profit charitable arm, has pledged a nearly $1.6 million donation. Roughly $900,000 in improvements could qualify for COVID-19 relief money, pending county board approval.
Board members also are considering providing a loan from the county’s general fund to cover the rest of the costs. The initial $4.5 million loan would be paid back if it’s taken, but a fundraising campaign run by DuPage Animal Friends aims to reduce the amount drawn from the no-interest loan.
“The thought process is the vast majority, if not all of it, will never be taken because of the fundraising efforts,” Kottmeyer said. “But there needs to be a backstop, and that’s where the general fund comes in. It allows fundraising to happen throughout the entire project with construction not even starting until March of 2023.”