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Shelter Watches Over D.C.’s Furrier Inhabitants

In a city with wild creatures of all kinds, Washington, D.C.’s lone animal shelter considers itself a bastion of law and order.

“Anything you can think of with animals, we handle it,” D.C. Department of Health official Peggy Keller said. “We’re really the nuts and bolts of the city.”

The shelter, located on New York Avenue Northeast, looks like any outdated government building with its fluorescent lighting and cluttered desks. The animal posters that adorn the walls and scent of cat food that fills the air, however, are unique to the shelter, which will expand next month to house more of the critters that roam the District’s streets.

“We’ll be a little cleaner, a little brighter,” said Keller, walking past a room of adoptable cats playing in a handful of cages.

The animal shelter is owned by the District and managed by the Washington Humane Society, which has overseen the city’s halfway house for cats, dogs and more exotic animals since 1980. Some of the shelter’s 40 employees respond to animal-control calls and recover sick or abused animals, including a sheep in Fort Dupont, a 250-pound potbelly pig in Georgetown and a monkey police found living in a house during a drug bust.

It’s wild out there.

“People tend to think it’s only adoption, but we protect public health and educate people,” said Keller, who owns dogs, cats and horses.

Keller is most proud of the shelter’s recent recovery of a sick beaver trapped in Southeast. Though the animal was elderly and passed away en route to the veterinarian, Keller’s team was able to donate it to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, whose only other beaver dated back to the 1800s. The team hopes to see its deceased friend on display as part of an exhibit on regional species sometime next year.

Of course, the shelter does have a large pet adoption operation that has brought furry friends to thousands in the D.C.-area, including former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who adopted a cat a few years ago. The shelter houses 50 adoptable dogs at any given time, ranging from a 1-year-old retriever named Chesapeake, to Chopper, a 4-year-old miniature poodle. It costs about $100 to adopt a dog from the D.C. animal shelter.

“You can go to an animal shelter and get a purebred dog. Look at this Pekingese!” Keller said, motioning to the peppy gold-colored pooch named Leon.

Gretchen Toorock adopted her boxer mutt, Winnie, from the shelter several months ago. Toorock already had two rescue dogs at home and volunteered occasionally at the shelter, but pet adoption agents still interviewed her and visited her home before signing off on her application.

“They don’t want the dogs back again,” Toorock said, noting that Washington’s pet adoption protocol is more involved than that of other cities. “They want to know it’s a good fit.”

The shelter’s new wing will house 26 more dogs. Every canine picked up by the shelter stays for five to seven days for observation before it can be adopted. Some are discovered to have rabies or a history of biting; those are typically put down.

For owners dropping off their pets at the shelter for adoption, the process can be less cheerful.

Kisha Parker, a D.C. resident, brought in her cat on a rainy afternoon to put him up for adoption. Her landlord said she could not have him in her apartment.

“I don’t want to give him up, but I have to,” she said, hugging her feline close to her face.

Interest in pets on Capitol Hill is high. There are at least two veterinarians in Congress — Sens. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) and John Ensign (R-Nev.). And there is a Friends of Animals Caucus chaired by Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.). Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) can be seen walking his white-haired pooch around the grounds of the Rayburn House Office Building, and last year, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) penned a children’s book from the perspective of his Portuguese water dog, Splash.

While Keller did not have a specific number, she said the neighborhoods near the Capitol are havens for pet owners, who find the many parks and sidewalks ideal for their animals.

“Owning a pet can reduce stress levels,” Keller said, noting the advantages for overworked Washington professionals. “It’s an excellent way for people in our city to reduce their stress level.”

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