Sonoma Humane Society aims to open new Healdsburg animal shelter by spring

Healdsburg's troubled, unfinished animal shelter is undergoing a makeover, with plans by the Sonoma Humane Society to open its doors by spring.|

The unfinished animal shelter in Healdsburg, which has sat empty for four years in a stark reminder of the builder’s bankruptcy and dashed dreams for a modern, airy facility, is again buzzing with construction activity.

Workers are busy drywalling, rewiring electrical circuits, installing heating and cooling units and remodeling rooms to make them more pet-friendly. The surge in work is meant to meet an anticipated March 1 completion date that will finally provide a new haven for Healdsburg’s stray and homeless animals.

“A state-of-the-heart shelter” is how Kiska Icard, executive director of the Sonoma Humane Society, describes the eventual finished project, which aims to make the facility as stress-free and welcoming to animals as possible.

“This is a progressive building. A lot of thought is going into how to make it into an environment where animals really thrive,” Icard said last week on a tour of the building.

The news that work has resumed on the once-mothballed site and is on track for a springtime opening was welcomed by City Council members.

“I’m so thrilled this is getting done,” Councilman Tom Chambers said. “It was such a disappointment at one point. It caused a lot of angst among a number of citizens, for good reason.”

The Humane Society inherited the building more than a year ago from the defunct Healdsburg Animal Shelter, which dissolved in the wake of its failure to complete the 7,500-square-foot building off Westside Road.

The Healdsburg Animal Shelter had aimed to replace its cramped, antiquated facility across the street at the city’s corporation yard with a roomy up-to-date shelter, funded largely by a $2.9 million donation from the estate of the late vintner Rodney Strong and his wife, Charlotte.

But in 2011, as the building neared completion, the general contractor went bankrupt and work stopped. Subcontractors filed liens against the general contractor and the Healdsburg Animal Shelter.

Further exacerbating the woes, prominent large cracks appeared in the floor of the unfinished building, raising questions about its structural integrity.

Money to finish the project dried up along with community support and donations.

But there were problems beyond construction woes. Doubts were raised about the Healdsburg Animal Shelter’s avowed no-kill policy after a couple of incidents involving dogs brought to the smaller existing shelter.

The shelter went through four executive directors in a relatively short span and also was beset by high turnover and infighting on the board of directors.

That all appears to be in the past now, with legal and construction issues resolved.

But Icard said in the aftermath there was a “strong sense of hurt by the community and a real distrust” that the shelter would become reality.

Currently, the Humane Society operates out of two trailers at the site next to the unfinished shelter. Under a contract with the city of Healdsburg, residents can surrender or adopt animals, be reunited with lost pets and pay for licensing.

Dogs aren’t kept there overnight but are sent back to the Humane Society’s headquarters off Highway 12, east of Sebastopol.

The Petaluma Animal Services Foundation, which handles stray, vicious and injured Healdsburg animals, also operates in a trailer next to the unfinished shelter.

Rather than soliciting donations to finish the $4.2 million shelter project, the Humane Society decided to tap its own reserves by $350,000 to finish construction, augmenting the $142,000 that was left from legal settlements received by the former Healdsburg Animal Shelter.

The Humane Society “had to show we had some skin in the game,” Icard said, to show it believes in the project enough to make an investment. The hope, she said, is that a completed shelter will regain the support of the community members who will help “eventually replenish the reserves.”

The organization also is looking for in-kind donations from volunteers to finish landscaping and other needs.

Fortunately, the cracks in the new shelter’s floors turned out to be “a non-issue,” according to the building’s new general contractor, Bill Cileo, head of BC Builders.

He said the flaws were reviewed by structural engineers and found not to extend to the building’s foundation. The cracks can be fixed with injections of cement-quality epoxy sealant. The cracks developed because the cement “was poured on too cold a day and the mix was probably a little wet at the time,” Cileo said.

In the meantime, the shelter is being reconfigured to make the rooms as hospitable as possible for the 300 or so dogs and cats that are expected to come through its doors annually.

Instead of some standard kennel runs that were planned in one of the building’s biggest areas, the approximate 1,900-square-foot room will be open, serving as an area for dogs to run and play.

Shelter officials are exploring whether they can put in a rubberized floor, which would be safer for rough-and-tumble dog play and serve as a noise buffer. It could take an “angel donor” to pay for the $20,000 estimated cost of the rubber flooring.

Similarly, it may take some donations to put in a video system where people interested in adopting can view animals remotely.

It’s sometime easier for the animals to “put their best paw forward” on video footage rather than during an initial interaction with people, Icard noted.

There are areas set aside for shy cats and feral cats, a cat lounge, a grooming room, a community meeting room and a place where would-be human adopters can visit animals.

There will be a room for vaccinations and some medical treatments, although surgeries will still continue to be performed at the Humane Society’s headquarters.

Many of the holding areas can be repurposed, to hold rabbits and guinea pigs, for example.

“The shelter needs to be like an accordion to be able to flex at times of heightened capacity,” said Icard, who said an event like the recent Valley fire in Lake County can leave hundreds of animals homeless and strain local shelters.

And above all, the shelter will follow a no-kill policy, with a 97 percent “live release” rate, other than the occasional animal that is too sick or aggressive to be saved.

Icard called the delays in opening the new shelter unfortunate but said the story ends well.

“It would have been a travesty for the animals and all the funders who believed in this if we weren’t able to make this happen,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.? Twitter@clarkmas.

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