Animal House |

Animal House

Naomi Havlen

Across from the airport, the new Aspen-Pitkin Animal Shelter is surrounded by soon-to-be-fenced gravel yards for frolicsome dogs. Two employee housing units will occupy the upper level. Paul Conrad/Aspen Times Weekly

Behind a berm of dirt and rock just across Highway 82 from the Aspen airport, Aspen’s new animal shelter is rising.Its roof curves gracefully skyward and it is surrounded on three sides by yards soon to be fenced for dogs to run, bark and frolic in. Though it’s just down the road, it’s still a world away from the current animal shelter, tucked away in a corner of the Aspen Airport Business Center for the past 33 years.The shelter’s director, Seth Sachson, says the reasons for the new building are simple: age and lack of space. Over the past decade Sachson has crusaded tirelessly to give local stray dogs and cats a more comfortable space in the no-kill shelter, and Aspenites have responded en masse.

To date, the shelter’s nonprofit capital campaign has raised all of the $2.6 million it pledged to raise for the structure, and then some. Last Saturday night at its third annual Bow Wow Meow Ball, the shelter received a $600,000 donation from Cheryl and Sam Wyly. All together, with help from the City of Aspen and Pitkin County, the new building comes with a $3.5 million price tag.Naturally, this figure raises some eyebrows. “Only in Aspen,” is the phrase often heard about the cost of the new animal house. At 9,261 square feet, the building comes to more than $370 per square foot.”Those are some nice doggy digs,” said contractor Matt Pierce, who remodels and builds additions to homes in Aspen and Snowmass. Typically, his work ranges from $200 per square foot up to $1,200 on the high end, so $370 per foot would be “fairly nice residential.”Aspen architect Harry Teague said the numbers are “pretty expensive” for building an animal shelter, compared to other institutional buildings he’s had a hand in, like the Anderson Ranch Arts Center or the Aspen Music Festival’s Harris Hall. But he added that it’s probably the features inside creating some uncommon costs.

Sachson agrees.”It’s just like building a hospital, including separate drainage and air circulation to control disease, and separating animals the right way,” he said. “We’re doing the best we can. It’s hugely expensive to build in Aspen. We’re building a good place.”And it didn’t help that soil problems on the donated site jacked up building costs for the shelter and led to construction delays, Sachson said. In addition to the shelter dogs that get the most press; the building will also house the shelter’s money makers: dogs in the boarding kennel. The business model still impresses Sachson – the dogs with homes support the dogs without homes.

It won’t be finished until late this fall, but the new shelter is already a sight to behold.Sachson took a reporter through the building a few days ago with Dave Diedrich, project superintendent for Rudd Construction. The building’s concrete floor is in place and will remain a plain concrete surface, although with radiant in-floor heat for more efficient energy use. The walls are made of cinder blocks, stained shades of brick red and brown. In most cases, cost saving was the number one concern of the shelter’s design – one exception is the sound-proofing feature in the building’s high, pitched ceiling.”If we wanted a more expensive building, we could have gone with a lot more glass,” Diedrich said. “The acoustical treatment in the roof makes it a little more spendy, but you need that for the facility. It’s not like we’re going overboard – all the basics are here.”

Some of those basics are required by the government, like providing separate exhaust and drainage systems for animals with unknown health problems. There are separate isolation rooms for dogs and cats with entrances from the outside, so that found dogs and cats don’t need to be walked through the building where healthy, vaccinated animals live.Besides these expensive necessities, Sachson has another fine line to walk: He must build a quality shelter with money donated by the public, while satisfying the people who insist on extra amenities. Said Sachson: “Animal lovers [can be] a bit irrational and think shelter dogs need large kennels with beds.”The large, high-ceilinged rooms in the new shelter for dogs will have rows of pre-fabricated kennels, but will also include some rows of larger spaces where a mother dog could nurse her puppies, or an older dog could get away from yapping youngsters. Internet cameras are planned for some of these spaces, so pet owners can log in to see their animals when they’re on vacation.A wall of cages called the “cat condo” separates the cat room from the lobby, so visitors can peer into the cat room. The four outdoor play areas for dogs are large and graveled – grass yards just turn into mud, Sachson said.

A mezzanine level at the new shelter includes two employee housing units, to be offered first to shelter employees. Another space upstairs is reserved for grooming services, and the shelter board may add a part-time vet clinic. Currently all stray dogs delivered to the shelter are neutered or spayed at the Aspen Animal Hospital in the nearby Airport Business Center.Sachson said he’s used to thinking of the old shelter as his clubhouse – a place where he could make changes swiftly and with confidence. But he sees the new, publicly funded shelter a bit differently.”I want this to be a reflection of the animal-loving community in Aspen,” he said. Local artists’ work will hang on the walls, and the community has purchased personalized tiles and bricks for the shelter’s walkways and walls. He’s not certain the shelter is setting a precedent for shelters around the country, but he does know that Aspen’s actions have caught plenty of attention.

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The shelter has gotten calls from other shelters asking about the new structure, Sachson said, but a shelter like this wouldn’t be possible in just any community.”It absolutely says a lot about people in Aspen – the dog-friendly town full of compassionate people,” said shelter volunteer Anne Gurchick.

The new shelter, and the fundraising coup that led to its construction and eventual opening is just about the ultimate realization of Aspen’s long-standing obsession with pets, specifically dogs.Seth Sachson is just the lucky guy who has harnessed Aspen’s pet-oriented energy and used it for a specific purpose. Years ago he conjured the idea of having people ‘check out’ shelter dogs to take them for a hike or stroll. As a result he’s built up such a legion of volunteers – he estimates around 20 per day – that the day-to-day activities for dogs in the shelter virtually run themselves.Aspen resident Gurchick has volunteered at the shelter for the last year and a half, having found out about the organization through her own love of dogs. On her first day at the shelter Sachson handed her a dog to walk, and she was hooked.”People would stop me on the Rio Grande trail and we’d start talking about shelter dogs, and they’d say ‘Oh, it’s so nice of you to do that,'” she said. “But no – they don’t understand, it’s good for me and it’s good for them. I’m helping the cause and we’re both getting some exercise.”

The local dog-walking program attracts both local dog lovers and visitors who just want a hiking companion.”Where else is it a tourist attraction to come to the animal shelter and walk a dog?” Sachson said. “It’s the passion of the Roaring Fork Valley – how many other places do dogs go up the gondola, hike on top of the mountain, ride down the gondola, go to the bank and get a biscuit?”With the volunteers, Sachson is free to run the profitable end of the shelter – the boarding kennel that supports an estimated 80 percent of the shelter’s operations. Other revenue comes from adoption and impound fees, and renting space in the ABC building to a dog groomer.The need for a major overhaul at the current animal shelter was cemented in 1997, when a visiting American Humane Association representative noted that the building was nearing the end of its useful life. Eight years later, the shelter still has the same ceiling leaks and space constraints.

Although Sachson has run the for-profit shelter since 1994, in the late ’90s he pulled together a board of directors for a new nonprofit, with the specific mission of raising money for a new shelter.”When I started out, I didn’t know anything about nonprofits,” he said. “Our board was pure – I didn’t get people who just wanted to say they were on the board of the Aspen Animal Shelter at dinner parties. I didn’t look at their bank accounts or their status in the community. I wanted good people, dedicated volunteers.”With perseverance, Sachson convinced the city and county to participate. The county donated an acre of land, just north of the North 40 subdivision and the RFTA bus barn. The city agreed to give $500,000 plus a 10th of an acre of land.”It was apparent to everyone that it was the right thing to do,” said Rachel Richards, who was mayor of Aspen at the time. “The old facilities were antiquated and substandard. We didn’t have the money directly to do this considering all the other capital needs within the community, but with the partnerships that were formed we saw a window of opportunity to make it happen.”

But Richards also credited Sachson for taking the community’s love affair with pets, pairing it with his own love of animals and running with it. He says it’s not unusual for him to take calls in the middle of the night about homeless dogs. He’s planning to take his own dogs to the new shelter and spend a few nights there before it opens for business.You might call the new shelter “the house that Seth built,” but Sachson points to volunteer fund-raisers and helpers as the true driving force behind the building.”I think this will be a reflection of the animal-loving community with a high concentration of creative people who want to make a difference,” he said. “The community built this facility – people paid for tiles and bricks. You’ll walk in and feel the energy.”Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is

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