Renton school sets up program at animal shelter

The King County animal shelter in Kent is expanding. And its resident cats should have something to purr about.

The King County animal shelter in Kent is expanding. And its resident cats should have something to purr about.

The county has moved two modular buildings to the site of the existing shelter on 64th Avenue South. One of the units is for the cats, while the second unit will house a veterinary-technical education program through PIMA Medical Institute of Renton.

“We had reached capacity at the site,” said Wendy Keller, interim manager of the county shelters in Kent and Bellevue. “Now the cats can be housed in a much different manner, with larger cages and an area for interaction with volunteers.”

With the 3,000-square-foot addition, cats will no longer be housed in an outdoor area at the shelter known as the “igloo.”

“This will give us time between now and the long-term plan for animal control,” Keller said.

In addition to housing cats, the shelter’s new modular unit will have offices for the county Animal Care and Control volunteer coordinator and the communications specialist.

The PIMA Medical Institute’s interest is something new for the county.

Students from PIMA started to volunteer at the shelter earlier this year on a limited basis. That connection led to PIMA’s decision to set up a vet-tech program.

“That gave birth to discussion about a broader vision with PIMA as a partner,” said Kurt Meacham, county outreach coordinator for Animal Care and Control. “With their building on site and program on site, it will improve animal care.”

PIMA Medical Institute has eight schools across the nation, including a campus in Renton. The medical-career school paid for the second building to house a classroom, operating room and lab.

Funding for the cats’ portable comes from county funds earmarked for shelter improvements, along with the county’s ability to negotiate a discounted rate for the new buildings.

County officials are taking steps to improve the shelters after a critical report by a citizens advisory committee last year called shelter conditions “deplorable.” Another report in March 2008 by consultant Nathan Winograd said that “the county has failed for more than a decade to take the necessary steps to reform the shelters.”

Four King County Council members have gone on the record stating they are in favor of bringing in another organization to run the shelter program. Julia Patterson, Dow Constantine, Reagan Dunn and Larry Phillips stated at a Council meeting in October that they favored getting the county out of the business.

The council has directed staff to study what it would take to bring another organization, such as the Seattle Humane Society, to the table as an operator. There’s no timeline yet for when the council would vote on such a proposal.

Shelter officials plan to have a grand opening of the two buildings in January.

Robert Panerio, the Renton campus director for PIMA, said he became inspired to set up a vet-technician program at the Kent shelter because of a similar arrangement the institute has with the Las Vegas Valley Humane Society.

“That’s been an incredible success, so I figured why not start it here,” Panerio said. “We’ll be able to have access to animals. It’s a tremendous opportunity.”

PIMA invested more than $500,000 to start the vet-technician program. PIMA instructors will work with students at the shelter to provide hands-on training and supplemental medical care to animals.

“There’s a huge demand for vet techs,” said David Loehndorf, the veterinary nursing programs director for PIMA, who will work at the new Kent facility. “They are like the right-hand person for veterinarians. They assist with surgery and take X-rays.”

The 66-week vet tech program has three students. Five more are expected to start the course later. A new unit starts every six weeks. The classroom at the shelter will be able to handle as many as 24 students.

“The students spend a ton of time here,” Keller said. “It’s all voluntary and they’ve been extremely helpful.”

Students also will have the ability to use dental equipment to clean the teeth of dogs and cats at the shelter.

“That will make the animals more attractive and more adoptable and increase the adoption rate,” Panerio said.