Humane Society’s new Lifesaving Center opens

Pets of homeless and low-income people now have a place to get emergency veterinary care with the opening of Kitsap Humane Society’s Lifesaving Center.

“One of the harsh realities now is there are a lot of people who are in need and aren’t able to get (their pets) access to desperately needed care,” said Dr. Jen Stonequist, co-interim executive director at KHS. “What we are doing for the people and animals that need us is really important. The ability of this community to support a clinic that helps people, when facing hard times, to keep their pets is really incredible.

“It’s going to be a game-changer,” Stonequist said.

The center – officially called the Russ and Linda Young Veterinary Lifesaving Center – primarily serves dogs and cats. The $10.1 million facility will treat an estimated 2,500 animals each year.

The center formally opened in March but during a pilot period, as the complex geared up to full operation, the staff provided critical surgeries to select animals. Dozens of furry patients were assisted during this preliminary stage. Here are a few examples:

Hulk, a 102-pound pitbull, had a hematoma on his right ear. Removing the swelling required expensive surgery the owners could not afford. After a successful surgery and a lot of drool, Hulk returned to health and was reunited with his family.

Mercury, a brown tabby cat, had been hit by a car in Bremerton and incurred extensive injuries to his hind legs and hips. The owners took him to emergency care but were unable to pay for needed services. The family took the animal to KHS to be euthanized. But veterinary team members examined the tabby and had another idea. After an operation, follow-up care and daily bandage changes, Mercury made a full recovery.

Judah, a 7-year-old cat with eye issues, was found as a stray in Bremerton. The feline was brought to the shelter suffering from bilateral entropion, a condition in which the animal’s eyelashes rub against the eye causing injury. The owner was unable to afford the procedure. But the lifesaving center performed surgery, and Judah was reunited with its owner.

The center provides services ranging from standard spay and neuter procedures to operations.

“We will be doing general practitioner emergency-type procedures. We will assist with things like foreign body surgery, like animals eating something they shouldn’t, with amputation surgeries, with exploratory surgeries if an animal has a mass removal, and wound repair. We will also be doing dental procedures, like cleanings and extractions,” Stonequist said.

The center features a community clinic that provides services similar to those available at a neighborhood vet. “We will be seeing things like eye and skin infections, upper respiratory and lameness, inappetence, and older pets that are ill,” she said, adding medical services will be provided on a sliding scale.

The building has two operating rooms, a dental suite, examination areas, and prep and recovery rooms.

Humane society personnel toured similar facilities around the nation to help design the 6,500-square-foot center. Bremerton’s Rice Fergus Miller was the architect. The late Dr. Jim Moore, a beloved Kingston veterinarian for over 30 years, influenced the project. “He was passionate about providing care for the community and pets in need,” Stonequist said.

Impetus for center

A change in state law paved the way for the center, the director said. Nonprofit shelters in Washington had been barred from providing medical care to pet owners, including those unable to pay. Shelters were limited to providing spay and neuter services, embedding microchips and vaccinating pets.

“At that time, the only thing we could legally do for these families was to have them surrender their pets in order to save their lives,” Stonequist said. “The hardest part of my job was having people show up with their pets in crisis, whether they had been hit by a car or experienced another medical emergency. Having to tell them the only way I could help their pet was if they surrendered it to the shelter. That was abhorrent to me.”

KHS and other animal welfare groups lobbied state lawmakers to change the law, which they did in 2019, the law was changed, paving the way for the lifesaving center. To pay for it, private donors provided over $8 million, corporate entities, including The Point Casino, the Petco Love Foundation, and the Suquamish Foundation, contributed nearly $600,000, while the state Department of Commerce provided $1.1 million.

Personal satisfaction

Helping financially struggling pet owners is the most gratifying work Stonequist has ever done.

“People have walked through our doors carrying pets who are on death’s door, needing emergency lifesaving surgery. They had nowhere else to turn. Sometimes people caught the bus line or paid their last nickel and dime to catch a taxi here to bring their animal. Then, to see owners and families walk out the door together with their pets, it’s beyond describable. I couldn’t imagine doing something more meaningful with my life,” she said.

There are only a few facilities like the Lifesaving Center, Stonequist said.

“There are only a handful of clinics like ours across the country. Kitsap is really at the forefront of this movement,” she said, adding she hopes the center will serve as a model for others to open similar operations so more pets will get the medical services they need.

Kennels open

In a related matter, the Kitsap Humane Society is once again allowing visitors to walk through its kennels to visit dogs and cats, eschewing the online queue adoption system that’s been in place for the last few years.

“It’s one of the most often-asked questions we get at KHS,” said communications director Mike Bush. “When are you going to open the kennels again? Well, the answer is ‘now.’”

Now, with increased staffing and volunteer participation, along with the addition of volunteer “hosts”– the doors are once again open for visitors to fall in love at first sight.

“We’re so excited to get back to this more personal way of introducing people to pets,” said Bush. “There are so many great stories of people who just happened to stop in and felt a bond with a particular animal. We can’t wait to watch that magic happen again.”