by Mitchell Clute
When the Potter League for Animals opened its new facility in Middletown, Rhode Island, in 2009, the building became the first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold–certified building in Rhode Island, and the first such animal shelter in the US.
And if you’re wondering why an animal-care organization would spend the time and money to go green—well, the same question occurred to the nonprofit’s employees and board of directors. But positive press and happy animals prove it was the right move.
Taking the Plunge
“Initially, we were pretty nervous about our decision,” admits Executive Director Christie Smith, who has been with Potter League for thirty-three years. “We were worried that donors would see us as irresponsible, spending so much money on green stuff when we’re an animal shelter.”
But the organization needed a modern building, one that would have room for meetings and classes and also benefit the animals by providing an environment with less stress, less noise and more room. Their property, located on wetlands, demanded a careful construction plan, but a new location was out of the question due to skyrocketing land costs.
So they soldiered ahead with a $7.5 million capital campaign, eventually designing a space that featured storm-water cisterns to protect the surrounding wetlands from runoff, native plants, gravel paving and a vegetated roof. Indoors, the shelter features radiant heat, natural light, water-conserving fixtures and recycled materials.
“We were lucky,” Smith states. “As we were looking for money, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth came out, and suddenly that opened us up to different types of donors. There was enough publicity and conversation around our building that people became familiar with green building, so we played a community education role as well.”
Better for Animals—and Humans
Yet all these environmental efforts would be beside the point if they didn’t serve Potter League’s primary constituency—the animals. Though it has almost twice the square footage of the outdated cinderblock building it replaced, the new Potter League headquarters cares for about the same number of animals—around 2,000 a year, with between 80 and 150 in residence at any given time. But with more space and fewer distractions, the animals await their new homes in comfort and far less stress.
“It’s so much quieter,” Smith enthuses. “There’s more space and fewer visual sightlines, so the dogs don’t bark at each other; and acoustical treatments keep the noise down, so the cats aren’t irritated by the dogs. The animals are so much calmer.”
The twenty-five employees are calmer too, she notes, with a quieter but brighter workspace and natural light and lots of glass. “The only downside,” Smith adds, “is that we’re always washing nose prints off the windows.”
The new building has allowed Potter League to provide a greater array of programs to area pet owners. In addition to obedience school, the shelter offers onsite birthday parties, humane education classes for Girl Scouts, pet loss support groups, financial assistance for spay/neuter clinics, summer camp for kids, and even a pet university with classes on topics such as rabbit handling and behavior.
“We’ve become more accessible, with more education and advocacy work than ever before,” says Smith. “We’ve seen adoption rates go up since we opened our new facility, and we consistently place more than 90 percent of the animals that come though Potter League.”
A Greener Future
Founded in 1929, the Potter League has been helping animals find families for eighty-five years now. “In my thirty years here, I’ve seen so many positive changes, especially with dog ownership,” Smith relates. “Sometimes we’re overindulgent parents, but we provide great medical care for our furry family members; we train our dogs, and we walk them on leashes instead of letting them roam.”
Smith has also seen a greater willingness to adopt older animals. “When I started, it was difficult to place these pets,” she explains, “but now we place fifteen-year-old cats.”
From one perspective, the changing face of animal shelters goes hand in hand with the changing role of pets in our lives. Smith says shelters nationwide place a growing emphasis on finding homes for all animals, even those with health or behavioral issues, and on moving animals to areas of greatest need—for example, transferring pets from the South, where supply is higher than demand, to the Northeast—in order to reduce euthanasia.
And other shelters have followed Potter League’s LEED; the Denver Municipal Animal Shelter, opened in 2011, achieved LEED Platinum status, the highest level of green certification.
For all these changes, the underlying motivation for the shelter remains constant. “We’re here to help animals because of the joy they bring to our lives,” Smith concludes. “But with that joy comes responsibility. It’s not just about the animals. We’re also here to take care of the people who care for the animals, to make sure those relationships remain healthy and stable.”
To learn more about Potter League’s animals and building, visit www.potterleague.org.
Images by Sean Hennessy, Hennessy Productions