Robin Beaulieu, director of the Jefferson Parish Animal Shelter, opened the door to a small kennel with three stray calico kittens inside and slowly put her hand above their heads, palm down with her fingers curled underneath.
“Let’s see if you’re friendly,” she said.
The kittens looked up in unison, and two took a step back. But the one in the front leaned in for a pet.
“It’s OK,” Beaulieu reassured the animal. “There you go.”
The three calicos came to the parish’s West Bank Animal Shelter in Harvey as part of the Trap, Neuter and Return Program, one of many services on the West Bank that are benefiting from the new, larger facility opened earlier this year.
The parish has scheduled a ribbon-cutting for Tuesday at the $12 million facility on Lapalco Boulevard, though Beaulieu and about 20 of her parishwide staff of 38 have been working there for months now while contractors put finishing touches on the building.
The parish also has an East Bank shelter in Elmwood, but its animal control services operate out of the West Jefferson facility.
“It’s a much bigger space that allows us to care for more animals,” Beaulieu said, noting that just about every aspect of the building is an upgrade over the old one, which was about 60 years old.
It was designed by architects Burgdahl & Graves with the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at the University of California at Davis, which Beaulieu said is “the gold standard” in shelter design.
At 30,000 square feet, the building is 10 times as big as its predecessor on Ames Boulevard in Marrero, with more space and better accommodations for up to 400 animals, mostly dogs and cats, through rabbits, guinea pigs and some wild and exotic animals also pass through.
The shelter recently took in a mini pig, some pygmy goats and even an otter found near Lafitte.
“We have to be very adaptable to what comes in,” Beaulieu said. “We don’t say ‘no.’ We have to care for all the animals.”
Visitors are greeted outside the front door by adoptable cats playing in an outdoor pen, while in the lobby others lounge in sleek wooden cabinets.
Small dogs are in kennels in a room just off the lobby, while the larger ones have kennels that now back up to pull-down doors to allow for fresh air at a moment’s notice.
“The more fresh air you can provide an animal, the healthier they are,” Beaulieu said.
In addition to holding twice as many animals — and more comfortably, at that — the new shelter has separate intake areas for dogs and cats, meet-and-greet rooms for animals and prospective owners, isolation wards for sick animals, an X-ray machine and a storage room converted into a photo studio to aid adoption efforts.
The names of various rooms lean heavily on animal puns. The meet-and-greet rooms are called “Tipawtina’s” and “Pit O’Brien’s,” and an office is marked “Pawroll and Depawsits.”
There is a large classroom that is used for staff programs, but also for the service dog training programs the parish puts on for military veterans.
In many cases, Beaulieu said, it’s the little things that come from just having a better designed building: Cages are easier to clean; the necessary supplies are stored more conveniently.
“The stress level (for the animals) has gone down considerably,” she said.
The new building also has a crematorium for the animals it has to euthanize, which Beaulieu said happens in cases of poor health and serious behavioral problems.
Beaulieu, who has been director for just under six years, said the parish boasts a save rate of 82 percent, and that counts every animal that passes through its East and West Bank shelters, including wild animals. It has dramatically reduced its euthanasia percentages.
In 2010, for example, the parish euthanized 8,075 of the 12,744 animals it took in. By 2013, it put down 5,432 of the 11,222 it took in, and last year it killed 2,069 of the 10,324 animals it brought in.
“Public safety has to be our priority, but the community has been really responsive” to adoption efforts, Beaulieu said, noting the parish has animals up for adoption at Petco, PetSmart and Jefferson Feed stores.
Those partners, she said, “are crucial to our efforts to get these animals adopted.”