Just south of Palo Alto's Municipal Services Center on East Bayshore Road stands a squat building in which dogs slightly outnumber humans. The Animal Services Center houses scores of dogs and cats and has also been known to accommodate goats, rabbits and rats.
The number of feline occupants typically spikes during the summer, Animal Services Center Superintendent Sandra Stadler said, but during a recent tour most of the cages in the dog and cat rooms were filled. Though slightly cramped, with narrow corridors, the facility is well kept, having undergone a series of repairs, including new heating and ventilation systems and landscaping improvements, in 2009.
The 40,000-square-foot building was constructed in the early 1970s and has been providing animal services to Palo Alto, Mountain View, Los Altos and Los Altos Hills since 1993. Though it boasts a wide variety of services, including spaying and neutering, it has a hard time competing with larger and more modern operations such as the Silicon Valley Animal Control Authority. That regional facility, based in Sunnyvale, was built in 2006 and boasts a cage-free animal-services center.
Palo Alto's animal center, which contains 29 dog kennels and 57 cat cages, has gotten progressively busier in recent years, largely because of the economic downturn, Stadler said.
"We really are seeing a lot more surrendered animals," Stadler said.
Stadler said the facility's small size has forced staff to be creative. One room has two rows of dog kennels arranged in a way that requires dogs on one side to face their counterparts on the other side. Recognizing that this positioning could aggravate the tenants, staff installed plastic visors at the bottom of the kennels to block the view.
"We've had to utilize every square inch we have," Stadler said. "We have to be very flexible."
Stadler said she is proud of the facility's quality of services. She noted that more than 65 percent of the dogs the shelter picks up find their way back home. The rate for cats is between 10 percent and 15 percent. While that figure may seem low, it soars above the national average of roughly 2 percent, Stadler said.
One resident of the Animal Services Center is Ella Mae, a geriatric Pomeranian who -- having been adopted by the staff -- spends her afternoons in a crate in the reception area. Stadler said that when Ella Mae was found in downtown Palo Alto, she had no hair and was so overweight that she turned blue when flipped on her back. She also appeared to have a broken leg, though it later turned out that she was suffering from bone cancer that was eating into her nerves. She was given two months to live. That was 18 months ago.
Today, Ella Mae looks sprightly, pleased and well-groomed. She sports a black coat and is quick to protest when another dog in the reception area gets a treat.
"She is a shining example of what makes this place so wonderful," Stadler said.
But staff's efforts to make do with an outdated facility weren't enough to satisfy the City of Mountain View, which decided last year to withdraw from its 18-year partnership with the Animal Services Center, citing the building's seismic deficiencies and its long list of needed repairs. The Mountain View City Council opted to contract with the Silicon Valley Animal Control Authority once its contract with Palo Alto expires in 2014. This decision will decrease Palo Alto's annual revenues by about $450,000 -- a tough blow for an operation with an annual budget of about $1.7 million.
Changes could be afoot for the Animal Services Center, if Palo Alto were to pursue a land swap with local car dealerships.
The city's Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission in December recommended moving the center to a city-owned site near the former Los Altos Sewage Treatment Plant at the end of San Antonio Road, just a short stroll south of the existing Municipal Services Center. The site, Stadler said, could potentially be a "phenomenal location" for the animal operation, though she noted that the plan is still far in the distance.
While moving the Animal Services Center to the sewage-treatment plant site is one option, another one is scrapping the operation altogether. The Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission report states that in light of Mountain View's recent decision to withdraw from the partnership, Palo Alto "needs to take this loss of revenue into account while also considering the option of obtaining its animal services through Santa Clara County or the Silicon Valley Animal Control Authority, as other cities do."