National Post

Thursday, May 01, 2008

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Vancouver pound plan goes to the dogs

Brian Hutchinson,  National Post  Published: Thursday, May 01, 2008

Lyle Stafford for National Post

VANCOUVER - Donna Liberson is not a dog person. She owns cats. Even so, the Vancouver-based realtor has a bone to pick with this city's public animal shelter, where canine strays sometimes end up. She's been hounding the facility for years, ever since she learned of a sheltered dog named Pepe that she claims was euthanized without due process.

She hass been a frequent visitor to the pound -- and its loudest critic -- ever since. Recently, Ms. Liberson unearthed dog-related documents obtained under Vancouver's Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act; they indicate the city plans to spend $30.5-million on a brand-new shelter, even though the existing facility may be more than adequate.

When last she looked, on Monday, the shelter housed only 21 animals -- 20 dogs, and one lonely rabbit. That's just 20% of its capacity, which, she notes, is about average.

The city added 16 kennels to the facility in 2004. These cost more than $300,000, but Ms. Liberson claims they are hardly used.

It gets worse. With the help of a fastidious chartered accountant, a former federal taxman experienced with forensic audits, Ms. Liberson crunched some numbers.

Using current occupancy levels, the pair found that the cost to finance the proposed new shelter, allowing for 40 years depreciation, works out to $750 per dog. Per day.

Outrageous, says her accountant friend, Scott Busfield. He figures the city would be better off shipping dogs to the south of France, or buying houses in "high-end" Vancouver neighbourhoods and installing strays there.

"Homeless people," he adds, could be hired to look after the creatures; this, he adds, would "solve two problems at once."

Mr. Busfield is only half-joking. "I'm not an animal rights activist," he admits. "But I have a real aversion to waste."

He worries that shelter staffers may be attempting to "exploit the public's concern for animals" by promoting a $30.5-million pound.

The City of Calgary managed to build a new shelter for just $3.5 million; that was eight years ago, but animal requirements could not have changed that much, Mr. Busfield says.

According to Lorie Chortyk, community relations manager for the SPCA's British Columbia chapter, shelter designs have improved in recent years.

Kennel-style arrangements are out.

"They are like jails," she says.

"Animals need places where freedom of movement is possible."

Her organization is building new shelters that feature "dog apartments, where dogs can socialize."

But modern facilities needn't be expensive. A brand-new SPCA shelter in Penticton, near Kelowna, cost about $2-million to build, Ms. Chortyk says.

Why should Vancouver spend more than ten times that amount for its new municipal pound?

No one inside City Hall seems able to justify the budgeted cost, much less understand what the outlay might actually cover. Calls to city councillors and managers were not returned yesterday.

A supervisor at the city pound said in a brief interview that the existing facility "is falling down at the rafters," and is "being held up by bits and pieces." But Katie Ernst refused to discuss the proposed new facility, nor would she explain where the $30.5-million cost figure came from.

That's because there is no detailed plan, Ms. Liberson says. No shelter drawings, not even a sketch on the back of a napkin. Yet half a million dollars was allocated by the city just months ago, to develop a new shelter proposal.

Of that, just $5,500 has been spent, according to

more documents obtained by the relentless Ms. Liberson.

In other words, city council seems to have accepted a $30.5-million budget item without knowing what that item is.

If that is the case, Mr. Busfield finds it an appalling dereliction of duty.

"The city has budgeted the amount for its 2009-2011 capital plan. It's essentially approved. It's gone way past the exploratory stage," he says. "At first glance, there appears to be a complete lack of [fiscal] control" at City Hall.

Down at the pound, there is also disarray. On Friday, shelter manager Nancy Clarke abruptly quit; no one there will say why. For years, she has lived above the pound, in a city-owned apartment.

There's no word whether she remains installed inside, or whether she has left the apartment for the dogs.

bhutchinson@nationalpost.com