Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Citing a poor work environment and inadequate sheltering of stray and abandoned animals, the Missoula City-County Health Department is seeking funding in this year's city budget to help fund the cost of a new facility.

Health Officer D'Shane Barnett on Wednesday painted a bleak picture of conditions at the current animal control shelter, where employees are crammed together, and cats are subjected to stressful and unsafe environments.

“Our animal control facility is inadequate. It's not safe for staff and it's not safe for animals,” Barnett told members of the city council. “We don't have the capacity to meet the need for Missoula County.”

Barnett said animal control employees, including the department's investigators, are packed into a small room that also accommodates cat cages. Cat cages also line the hallway and now sit placed outside the room reserved for dogs.

The stress breeds illness among the shelter's feline population.

“We have such need that we have cat cages literally out in the hallways. These cats have to be out in the hallway with people walking by, and their right next to the dog room,” Barnett said. “We bring cats in and because of the stress associated with this environment, they're actually getting sick. Then we have to keep those cats even longer.”

The department's budget request said the project was estimated at $2.3 million in 2020. But with the increasing cost of materials and labor, it's now estimated at around $2.7 million.

Barnett said the department has around $144,000 reserved for capital improvements and $400,000 set aside in ARPA funds committed by the county. It asked the city for $600,000 in ARPA funding last year, but the request was denied.

It's now asking the city to help finance 60% of the project, or around $1.6 million. While the city has grown in both size and population, its ability to shelter more animals has not.

“We have lots of opportunity for more animal sheltering in general in Missoula,” said council member Gwen Jones. “It causes a lot of stress for both the animals and the people. But there's tons of need and limited resources.”

Barnett said over the years that animal control has taken in and sheltered all kinds of neglected and abandoned animals.

“We've had tropical fish, birds, and all kinds of critters. We had a hedgehog. Outside the city limits, we have people who unfortunately abandon chickens and goats,” he said.

Barnett added that the department has a foster agreement for the horses it recovers.

“We'd stick with that. For now, it has worked very well and met our need,” he said.