A New Leash on Life
By: Jackie LeCuyer
Brown eyes, wide with excitement, peer out from behind a dog door. Yuna, a brown, white and black speckled hound mix runs to the edge of her kennel. Her loud, distinctive bark echoes throughout the room. Yuna knows it's time for her daily walk on the groomed trails beside the Northwest Organization for Animal Help Animal Adoption Center and is impatient to wander the half-mile trail with one of the center's volunteer dog walkers.
At any other shelter in Whatcom County and surrounding counties, Yuna would not be going for her daily walk. She would be dead. Yuna is one of the thousands of dogs the center has rescued from euthanasia.
N.O.A.H. is a private, nonprofit animal shelter with a no-kill policy. No animals that enter the center are euthanized, and every cat and dog is assured a home. Nancy Gebhardt, Anne Belovich and Fran Osawa founded N.O.A.H. in 1986 on Camano Island. The program outgrew its Camano Island facility and opened the Stanwood facility in April 2003 with the help of local donors.
The center is located off Interstate 5 exit 215 on serene land. Trees surround the four-building facility. The only disruption to the tranquility of nature is the busyness of the center. Last night three new dogs arrived, and the staff is busy grooming, spaying, neutering and photographing the newcomers, preparing to advertise them for adoption.
Executive Assistant Melissa Emery stands in the entry of the center petting Buttercup, a black puppy who walks across the front desk. Disgruntled when quickly scooped up by the receptionist and placed in her lap, Buttercup promptly begins to chew on her long, silver hair.
"He came in last night and hasn't been set down by the staff since," Emery says, smiling at the puppy.
Staff and volunteers keep the center alive and thriving. Ten on-site staff members and 250 volunteers put their hearts and souls into the animals and cause of N.O.A.H. on a daily basis.
Volunteer coordinator Laura Sureepisarn is responsible for recruiting and training N.O.A.H.'s volunteers.
"For all of us, working at N.O.A.H. is a different type of career compared to what we started out doing," Sureepisarn says. "Our dog trainer is an accountant; we have teachers and social workers working here. The people who are here are like-minded and passionate about helping animals."
The center's goal is to save the lives of animals about to face euthanasia at local animal shelters. Twice a week, two N.O.A.H. volunteers pick up dogs and cats from animal shelters in Bellingham, Burlington, Everett and surrounding areas. The center has dog suites for a maximum of 17 dogs. N.O.A.H.
houses an average of 50 cats because more than one cat can be kept in a large room.
"When our volunteers go to pick up dogs from local shelters, they load vans full of animal crates and a stick with a rubber hand attached to it," Emery says. "We want to see if the dogs get aggressive when touched or bothered while eating, and if they do we can't take them."
The center occasionally runs extra trips when a shelter calls inundated with animals facing the prospect of euthanasia, Executive Director Austin Gates says.
Laura Clark, community outreach director for the Whatcom Humane Society, says she is grateful for N.O.A.H.'s services. The Whatcom Humane Society accepts all cats and dogs brought in by owners and animal control, so it often is overcrowded. N.O.A.H. relieves the shelter of some of the animals it would otherwise have to euthanize. The shelter euthanizes when it is overcrowded or has animals in poor health or with aggressive behavior.
"It's great to have N.O.A.H. as a resource," Clark says. "They free up space for new animals here and give animals who have run out of time here a chance of finding a new home."
When cats and dogs are taken from shelters and brought to the center, N.O.A.H.'s veterinarian, Jennifer Duncan, spays, neuters, vaccinates and implants microchips. The staff and volunteers at N.O.A.H. hope if animals are lost in the future, the microchips will help reunite them with their families.
The center offers its animals a comfortable home, both transitional for the animals that are adopted and permanent for the animals that aren't adopted.
Light illuminates the cat corridor located to the left of the main entrance, filtering in through the skylights that line the ceiling. Glass walls show a large room that opens into a screened outside pen. Emery calls this the cat colony. Cats that get along with one another are allowed to socialize in the large indoor and outdoor room. Toy mice and cat beds are scattered throughout the cat colony, and half a dozen cats snooze in the midafternoon sunlight. Two-story cat apartments stand to the right of the colony in the middle of a spacious room.
The dog suites are located down a wide hallway painted red and yellow. Colorful paintings of cats and dogs adorn the walls, and benches face the suites so customers can rest and watch the dogs. The suites are made of glass and open to outside pens, which are lavished with sunlight on clear days. Cots rest in the corners of the suites, and blankets and bones lie strewn across the floors. Clipboards with scribbled messages about each dog hang outside the suites. Customers stop and glance at notes N.O.A.H. employees and volunteers leave about the animals.
Soft rock plays in the background of the main building, almost inaudible amid the barks resonating from the dog corridor. The center's dogs each respond differently to the staff members and customers who walk by their kennels.
Zeus, an Alaskan malamute, lifts his head only long enough to expose one dark brown eye and one crystal blue eye before laying his head back down, his chest moving steadily to the rhythm of sleep. Other dogs charge the 3-inch-round opening in the glass that separates them from the people in the corridor, poking their noses or paws out the hole, seeking attention.
Cadbury, a medium-size black dog, sits two feet from the glass of his suite wall. A bandana hangs around his neck and his stoic brown-yellow eyes watch the passers-by, never moving forward from his spot on the floor to draw attention to himself. The messages on his clipboard say, "Cadbury likes to be brushed and never yanks on his leash when going for a walk. He would be perfect for a family."
Emery stops in front of a small black and brown dog. She introduces Max, a dachshund with a long snout and short legs. He watches her curiously from the opposite side of the glass suite.
"We think he's diabetic, but our vet is still running some tests," Emery says, pausing for a moment. Taking her silence as a cue to start barking and wagging his tail, Max looks up at Emery with round, hopeful eyes.
"We do know Max is loud," Emery says fondly. "That much we can guarantee his adopters. My office is right next to his suite and I can hear him all day."
To make the adoption process simple for customers, the center color-codes its dogs' name tags that hang on the walls outside the suites. Each color specifies whether the dog is high, average or low maintenance. A dog's maintenance level is determined by how active and friendly it is. If a family is looking for a low-maintenance dog, the center's adoptions coordinator advises them to look for lavender nametags, which represent couch-potato dogs, and avoid orange and yellow nametags, which represent busy-bee and life-of-the-party dogs, Emery says.
"Our goal is to build a bond for life," Emery says. "We try to match a dog's temperament with a family's temperament so they click and the match works."
Besides ensuring owners choose dogs appropriate for their lifestyles, the center focuses on controlling the pet population by spaying and neutering dogs and cats. The center spays and neuters an average of 15 to 16 cats and dogs daily. Its spaying and neutering services are open to the public.
"You drop them off in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon," Emery says. "Once they're fixed here, there are no puppies of theirs left in the shelters."
Navigating the maze of hallways and speaking loudly to be heard over the sounds of dog barks, Emery explains the significant role volunteers play in keeping the center running. The center interviews and trains its volunteers and asks for a six-month commitment. Volunteers are expected to spend four hours a week at the center, walking the dogs, socializing with the cats, cleaning kennels, providing fresh food and water and working at the reception desk, Emery says.
N.O.A.H. is funded through various individuals and events, including benefit concerts. Donors can purchase plaques engraved with their names that hang outside the dog and cat suites for $100.
"I get so disappointed with the way some people treat animals," Emery says. "But then I look at our volunteers and am encouraged. I mean, our hearts are in these animals."
Outside the center, Yuna trots happily through the parking lot on her way to the trails, occasionally pulling on her black leash and sniffing something invisible to the human eye. And on this clear spring day, Yuna can rest easily. She has no time limit at the N.O.A.H. Center. She will either be given a carefully chosen home or remain at the center. There is no expiration date on her life.