Delays, cost overruns dog Montreal's animal shelter
In 2011, the city announced it would build a centre to reduce the number of abandoned or stray dogs and cats destroyed. So what happened?
Published on: January 24, 2018 | Last Updated: January 24, 2018 4:30 PM EST
Of the more than 26,000 lost, abandoned or stray dogs and cats that end up in shelters every year in Montreal, an estimated 50 to 60 per cent are put down for want of a home, according to city figures.
That works out to slightly more than 1,000 dogs and cats killed each month.
In Calgary, where the dog population is of similar size, the euthanization rate for dogs is about five per cent.
There is no simple explanation for the glaring discrepancy, but what Calgary has and Montreal lacks is an animal-services centre that has helped position the city among the leaders in animal control in North America.
In 2011, the city of Montreal announced it would build such a centre to drastically reduce the number of animals needlessly destroyed, but that was four mayors ago. The centre was supposed to open in 2016.
Not only has the project been delayed, but the estimated cost has skyrocketed from $23 million to $46 million — roughly $41 million more than what Calgary paid for its bare-bones but vaunted facility in 2000.
The price has surged because the proposed site is a former municipal dump heavily contaminated with hydrocarbons and other toxins. Decontamination costs could amount to as much as the cost of the centre itself.
Last week, the new administration of Mayor Valérie Plante told the Montreal Gazette that if the centre is built, it might not be until 2022. More than $1 million has already been spent on studies and plans.
Meanwhile, construction is underway on a similar — for $15.3 million. It’s scheduled to open in 2019.
Requests for interviews with Montreal civil servants working on the dossier have been refused. A new call for tenders is in the works, explained city spokesperson Gonzalo Nunez, and those with knowledge of the file “don’t have all the elements needed for answers in hand.”
Last week, during a meeting of the city’s finance committee to study the 2018 municipal budget, the latest estimated price of $46 million came to light, thanks to questions posed by opposition councillor and committee president Richard Deschamps.
“Is there no one at the city who thinks this doesn’t make sense?” said Deschamps, quoted in . “It’s troubling.”
Seven years after the facility was first promised, costs are spiralling and its future remains in doubt, along with the fate of tens of thousands of animals it was designed to save.
It was under the administration of then-mayor Gérald Tremblay that Montreal first proposed to build a Calgary-style centre to better protect its animals.
The decision was spurred by citizen outrage over news reports depicting cruelty at shelters run by Berger Blanc, and statistics showing Montreal has some of the highest animal-abandonment and euthanization rates in North America.
Then and now, most boroughs signed contracts with either the for-profit Berger Blanc or non-profit Montreal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to handle lost or abandoned pets or wild animals in distress.
The city envisioned operating its own animal-services centre, including a veterinary clinic, rather than sub-contracting to outside shelters. This approach would help harmonize services, improve return and adoption rates and allow the city to promote responsible pet ownership.
Acknowledging their lack of expertise, city officials consulted with a committee of experts and hired veterinarian Suzanne Lecompte in 2012 at a cost of $76,000 to develop a new animal-services model.
In 2014, new mayor Denis Coderre announced the centre would be built in the Villeray—St-Michel—Parc-Extension borough, on Pie-IX Blvd. between 42nd and 47 Sts., at a cost of $23 million for the building, equipment and professional services.
The Tremblay administration had initially chosen a site at Angrignon Park in LaSalle, but Coderre said the new location would put the facility in an area with the highest pet concentration in the city, which would increase rates of return and decrease operating costs.
The centre would be able to handle 14,000 animals a year. It would employ 90 people and be managed by a non-profit organization, with annual operating costs of $7 million, while existing shelters like Berger Blanc and the Montreal SPCA would continue to offer services as well.
The SPCA, which provides services to nine boroughs and three demerged cities, remains a vocal promoter of the new animal shelter. It handles about 16,000 animals a year, 2,000 of them wild, spokesperson Anita Kapuscinska said.
Berger Blanc, which the city says handles about 12,000 pets a year in contracts with seven boroughs, did not respond to requests for interviews or statistics.
With the change of venue, the scheduled opening of the new centre moved from 2016 to 2018, as it requires relocating the city-owned municipal yards to make way for the shelter and outdoor dog runs.
In 2015, city council approved a $3.2-million contract for architectural, engineering and landscaping services, executive summaries issued by the city show.
Craig Sauvé, the Projet Montréal councillor responsible for animal services under the new administration at city hall, said to date, more than $1 million has been spent on plans and analyses.
Also in February 2015, city council approved a contract for $84,733.99 to hire consulting firm Legico-CHP to monitor the project and ensure against cost overruns.
In 2016, the city’s 2017-2020 capital works budget revealed the price estimate for the facility had jumped from $23 million to $34 million. The city said the sudden rise was because of studies showing the proposed location had been used as a dump site and would require decontamination.
Because of the hike in costs, city council approved, in May 2017, an increase in fees to be paid to Legico-CHP for its consulting work, to $111,288.09.
During the last two years, the city issued four calls for tenders to move the municipal yards to make room for the animal centre. The first was cancelled because the city was unable to purchase the adjoining piece of land to which it was planning to move its municipal yard. The second call for tenders, to move the yard to another location, was cancelled because no one bid, city spokesperson Nunez said. The third call, again to move the yards, failed because the bid that came in was two times higher than city estimates. Other entrepreneurs contacted by the city said they were too busy to take on the project.
A fourth call for tenders, to move the municipal yards and decontaminate the site, was issued in October. The deadline for bids was last week. They are currently being studied by the city.
“The administration of Denis Coderre did not factor the costs of decontamination into its estimate,” Sauvé said, calling the omission “irresponsible.”
The city also is faced with the problem of finding a new site for the municipal yards to be displaced. All options are open, Sauvé said, including keeping the yards where they are and finding a new place for the animal-services centre.
“Right now we’re still doing the cost analysis,” he said. “We want to make sure that wherever we go, we’re getting the best bang for our buck, that we’re responsible with taxpayers’ money — and that it’s going to serve the purposes that it needs.”
How Calgary solved its euthanization problem
It took Calgary about 15 years to create its “responsible pet owner” model that resulted in one of the lowest animal abandonment and euthanization rates in North America.
It hadn’t been done before, “so we had to learn from scratch, and try things, and fail, and try them again,” Bill Bruce, the city’s former head of animal services, told the Montreal Gazette.
Now that the template has been created, he believes Montreal could adopt a similar model within three to four years.
“It’s a lot of work, but it pays huge dividends,” Bruce said. “In North America, we don’t have a problem with overpopulation and stray animals — we have a problem with responsible pet ownership.”
Calgary started with a long public-awareness campaign. The message to residents: paying for an annual dog or cat licence (now $39 and $18, respectively) is not just a tax, but helps attain a much higher rate of return of lost pets to their owners.
The licence fees also go toward paying for inspectors and the city’s animal-services centre, which allows the city to put abandoned animals up for adoption instead of euthanizing them.
Overall, the Calgary approach has led to fewer animal issues and a safer community for everyone, Bruce said.
Pet owners are asked to perform four tasks: license your pets and equip them with an identification tag or microchip; sterilize them; ensure their physical and psychological health through exercise and diet; and don’t let them become a nuisance.
“If you can do those four things, you can have any animal you want, and as many of them as you want,” Bruce said.
Calgary , as Montreal tried to do, saying research has shown breed-specific legislation does not result in fewer attacks.
Instead, the city follows up on reports of aggressive behaviour, and advises owners of training that is necessary if they want to keep their animals. In 98 per cent of cases, owners comply, Bruce said.
Calgary built its in 2000 for $3.5 million. An extension for veterinary services quarters was added later a cost of $1.5 million.
At 21,000 square feet, it’s half the size of Montreal’s proposed shelter, despite the fact Calgary has a similar number of dogs as Montreal — roughly 120,000, but less than half the estimated number of cats (90,000).
Calgary decided it would not need a large centre because it did not plan on holding the animals for long. The shelter has spaces for 84 cats and 80 dogs, and cages tend to be mostly empty.
During his time there, from 2000 to 2012, Bruce said 95 per cent of the roughly 5,000 dogs that came in each year were either returned to their owner or put up for adoption.
Only 4.5 per cent had to be euthanized, because of extreme health or behavioural problems. Current figures are roughly the same, he said.
“The whole key to Calgary’s model for animal services was not housing them,” Bruce said. “We just want to get them back home as soon as possible.”
Revenue generated by licence fees covers the $6-million annual cost of operating the shelter and paying its two dozen animal inspectors and other employees.
In Montreal, thanks to a concerted push under the last administration, the number of dogs that are licensed jumped from about 15 per cent in 2016 to 41 per cent today, the city says.
“Changing the model from euthanization to responsible pet ownership is a complicated process, but there are a lot of people in Montreal that want it, so hopefully they can pull it off,” Bruce said.
“I’m excited to see what Montreal is doing.”