Even in its early design phase, some rather grand plans from the Idaho Humane Society look more like a college campus that a pet care clinic. Sprawling across 10 acres off Overland Road, the proposed complex includes walking paths along a manmade lake; shade shelters; specific areas for puppies, small and large dogs; a wildlife rescue facility and center for large animals; a memorial garden; even a beach and amphitheater. With a price tag of $11.5 million, it's an ambitious project and it already has some high-profile friends.
"The city of Boise will ante into this," promised Boise Mayor Dave Bieter at the May 28 kickoff of a fundraising campaign for the project.
But more than a few Treasure Valley veterinarians are less than enthused about the IHS plan. In fact, the Idaho Veterinary Medical Association has gone so far as to consider taking its discomfort to the Idaho Legislature in order to put the humane society on a shorter leash. But before that fight can be taken to the Statehouse, the debate is going to have to gain traction from Idaho vets beyond Boise.
"The organization represents all vets in the state," said IVMA executive director Vicki Smith.
The IVMA ultimately met in a series of closed-door sessions on Nov. 7. But when Boise Weekly asked for comment from several vets who attended the strategy sessions, Smith sent a one-line email, insisting that the association would remain tight-lipped:
"The IVMA Board of Directors unanimously voted to have no comment to any media outlets," she wrote.
IVMA President and Northern Idaho veterinarian Dr. Robert Pierce previously indicated that his association might advocate for a measure limiting Humane Society services to only low-income clients, effectively prohibiting full-paying clients from receiving IHS services.
The IHS, meanwhile, insists the real debate with vets is about money.
"Some practice owners feel [financially] threatened, since they view [the IHS] as having an unfair advantage," said IHS CEO Jeff Rosenthal. "But these attempts to suppress nonprofits are really attempts at restraining free trade."
Josh Moynihan, a former assistant operations manager at IHS, pushes back against veterinarians' attempts to limit IHS services to only low-income patrons.
"We get all sorts of people in our community, with all sorts of money—including low income—who come in to adopt animals and I don't think they should be turned away [from the clinic] just because they have money," said Moynihan. "For me, it's a matter of choice."
As for limiting IHS clinics to spay, neuter or vaccination procedures, Moynihan said, "That would be a disaster for the entire community."
"A big part of what the IHS does [is help] smaller communities who can't help an animal because they're swamped just trying to keep up with spay and neuter surgeries," he said.
Moynihan described what he called a common scenario at IHS.
"Let's say a dog comes in with a broken leg and a rural clinic doesn't have the means to fix it. Normally, that animal would be put down—for something as simple as a broken leg. Instead, the IHS can take that animal and perform orthopedic surgery that no one else in the community has time to do," he said.
Rural communities such as Jerome, Wendell and Idaho Falls transfer cases such as the one described by Moynihan to the current Boise IHS facility nearly every day, and to lose that resource because of legislation "would be a tragedy," he said.
Concerns over exactly who the Idaho Humane Society's medical clinic should be serving—and how—surfaced soon after IHS unveiled its plans for the 10-acre complex on May 28.
To be sure, the IHS has a fair amount of public support in Boise, beginning with Mayor Bieter. But BW also learned that the community includes more than a few skeptics. But they all expressed concern about their name going public, given IHS's considerable sway. One community member with years of experience in the animal welfare industry told BW, "Just because the IHS can build the new facility doesn't necessarily mean it should."
BW spoke with several individuals who voiced similar concerns over spending more than $11 million on a facility they described as "over the top." To a person, each insisted on anonymity before agreeing to publicly express their misgivings.
"As I understand it, the IHS board [of directors] has a lot of well-connected, wealthy people, who have taken on the IHS as their personal project—which is good in a lot of ways," said one source familiar with the animal care community, "but those same people are on other boards around town, have a lot of political connections and seem to have quite a bit of influence within the community. So people are afraid that speaking out will have ramifications."
Rosenthal described the proposed campus as something that will "surpass the current standards of animal welfare" and serve as "a model of 'best practices' in animal sheltering."
Literature for the capital fundraising campaign describes the complex as including dormitory housing for student veterinarians, a dog park, an expanded adoption center including a dog-specific adoption and housing pavilion, an open air pavilion, and a veterinary medical center and teaching hospital. Future phases would add a wildlife rehabilitation center, large animal housing, pet food pantry, additional dog housing and further expansion of the medical facilities. The complex would also include ample parking and abundant landscaping, featuring both a stream and a large pond.
Rosenthal cites property constraints at IHS's current Dorman Street facility as the catalyst for the new development. While a remodel of the current facilities is "possible," at least according to the capital campaign website, refurbishing existing buildings would not allow for the full spectrum of upgrades the IHS believes is necessary.
One source, who said she was seriously considering donating to the IHS capital campaign, added that the proposal may have been a bit too much. Again, speaking under condition of anonymity, she added: "I love the Humane Society. I think they do a great job and I can see that [the current facility] might need to be expanded. But when I looked at their capital campaign proposal, I could not believe how opulent it was."
The proposed facilities go "way beyond their [stated] needs," she said. "I mean, $11 million for a dog park? To me that's not an efficient campus."
Yet another source with ties to the animal welfare community voiced concerns related to the proposed clinic facilities, saying "the new state-of-the-art hospital [would be] duplicating services that already exist in the community—and that doesn't make sense." Furthermore, the "practice of providing [a broad range of] services to full-paying clients is very out of the ordinary, at least as far as mid-size cities like Boise go," he said.
Examining 10 mid-size cities with similar populations as Boise, BW found just one other shelter clinic—Pet Pal, in St. Petersburg, Fla.—that built facilities to offer the same comprehensive services to the general public as the IHS does, also without regard to income.
According to Pet Pal Executive Director Scott Daly, "We started out as a spay and neuter clinic, but expanded in 2009 and now operate as a full-service clinic."
Just like the IHS, Pet Pal operates as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization and faced considerable push-back from local veterinarians when its full-service clinic opened its doors.
Although it took several years, private practice veterinarians located in close proximity to the shelter clinic now "actually like us," said Daly.
"When people are standing in their clinic saying they don't have any money [to pay for services], they tell them 'try Pet Pal, see if they can help you,'" he said. "And that's when [the attitude] began to change."
While Daly admits full-service shelter clinics are not the norm, he went on to say, "It's starting to happen more and more, at least in [our area]. The only problem is that it's not easy.
"When we first started out, it was horrible," said Daly. "The first couple of years [after expanding our clinic] were really, really hard for us in terms of operating in the black."
That was a concern BW heard repeatedly: How will the new IHS complex pay for itself?
"On the surface, it sounds like a good idea to build an incredible new facility. But when you talk about using $12 million to set it up, how can that not be a drain on future resources?" asked a potential donor. "It is going to cost a fortune, even just taking care of the [landscaping], which could go to animals instead. It reminds me of using corn for ethanol—it sounded like a great idea at the time, but when you really look at the numbers, it turns out to be a terrible idea."
Daly echoed that concern. "They'll spend [$11.5 million] to build it, but then they have to run it—and that's the scary part," he said. "You could fail. And if you fail, you've failed the donors, you've failed the community, and you've failed the animals."