PetSpace: a fancy treat for would-be pet owners

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PetSpace is the latest private animal shelter to open in pet-obsessed Los Angeles. It offers a high-tech and high-design venue for adopting your new four-legged best friend.

Have you thought about adopting a cat, dog or bunny but can’t quite take the leap?

Perhaps a spin on a giant, humanscale hamster wheel under the watchful eye of a giant animatronic cat might tickle your fancy. Or time spent watching doggies get a spa treatment in the Groom Room? Or watching kitties or bunnies play in custom designed adventure playgrounds?

The Wallis Annenberg PetSpace is a high-tech, high-design adoption, education and research center focusing on the human-animal relationship.

It’s in Playa Vista in the heart of Silicon Beach, and it’s the pet project of longtime LA philanthropist and ardent dog owner Wallis Annenberg.

PetSpace, which opens June 24, draws on tech and many of the cool tricks of contemporary exhibition design to seduce you into going home with a pet.

So is this an over the top temple to our furry friends? Or an accessible, fun destination to learn more about the growing expertise on animal-human connections — and maybe leave with a new member of the household? DnA went on a preview tour to find out.

“We have places for celebration, places for play, and we’re really encouraging people who are interested in pets or have a pet that they have at home, just to come with us and play, adopt, learn and grow,” said Jackie Ott-Jaakola, the senior manager of community outreach partnerships at PetSpace.

It’s in a new building that sits opposite Yahoo. It’s a light, bright, colorful, two-story, 30,000-square-foot space.

We started in the lobby. It contains the Wag Shop – a pet-themed gift shop – and a bank of large touchscreens where you input your personal pet experience and can read others’ testimonies about their therapeutic animal friendships, including people who have had traumatic injuries, an athlete who shattered her ankle, and homeless people who found solace in their dogs.

The “pet porch” area at PetSpace, where humans can read to animals. Photo by Avishay Artsy. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The “pet porch” is an informal learning space where people can read to pets. PetSpace will host a Sunday reading with animals program called Paws and Pages. The room has colorful pull-out drawers filled with books and stuffed animals, and an orange plastic slide.

From there we go to the groom room, also signposted “The High Fur Zone.” This is where cats and dogs that have come from the County of Los Angeles Department of Animal Care & Control get thoroughly cleaned up and coiffed. And then we find ourselves backstage, in the PetSpace Health Center.

“The County lets us know the animals that they need and we also work on what space we have available and we choose all different kinds of animals, young, old, healthy, ill,” said veterinarian and animal care manager JJ Rawlinson. “So we take any animal that we can get into an adoptable home.”

Then it’s back into the public space and upstairs. At the top of the stairs is a large gray and blue carpeted wheel; it’s big enough for a person to stand up in. It’s cased in on one side by a glass window and peering in is an oversized cat, with winking eyes and a moving paw.

Frances Anderton bravely tries out the human-sized hamster wheel. Photo by Avishay Artsy. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The wheel was the brainchild of Storyline Studio. That’s a Seattle based exhibition design company. Bill Smith is the principal.

“Everybody learns in different ways and the whole experience is more than just what you see, right? But sometimes you need to touch things,” Smith said.

Storyline Studio designed the animatronics as well as the overall building, and collaborated with local companies Cinnabar and Technifex.

“I think we’ve set the color against the architecture in such a way that I think enlivens the space,” Smith said. “This is one of the things that we’re so passionate about, is that we don’t just design spaces and apply brands to them. The brand, the messaging, what the place is about, needs to be expressed in every way, not just two dimensionally but three dimensionally.”

The PetSpace brand, Smith says, is about the value of the human-animal relationship.

“You have a stressful day, you go home and you hug your dog and everything’s better. I cried myself to sleep when I was a little kid sometimes and I had a dog that made it all better. That’s pretty important. And we see it happening in veterans who are struggling, and they have issues and animals help them. I’ve seen it with my daughters and their horses. It’s a really important thing, I think in our society, especially today. As much as we struggle with various issues, animals are there.”

After meeting Bill we head off to the Adoption Suites.

Claudia Bruno di Belmonte, an adoption specialist at Wallis Annenberg PetSpace, with a chihuahua named Dee. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

You know the rows of cages or hutches you’d normally find in an animal shelter? Well these are the Ritz Carlton version — spacious rooms with floor-to-ceiling glass and at the doorway, a large screen with a blow-up photo of the animal styled for its glamor shot.

We stop at one and see a cute little short-haired terrier named Siri.

Each suite does have a television,” Jaakola said. “They have their own light switches ,so we can dim the lights or raise the lights. They have these unique drains in the floor which are flushing drains so they’re kind of like little doggy toilets.”

A furry orange feline waits for a new home. Photo by Avishay Artsy. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

In case you are wondering why they’ve name a dog after Apple’s Siri, it turns out there’s quite a few nods to the tech industry. They are their neighbors and besides, says Jackie, tech companies are very progressive in terms of letting dogs share the workspace. And PetSpace embraces technology as part of its all-over design.

From there we head to play areas that are customized for cats and bunnies. The cats have a treelike climbing frame growing out of a raised platform where humans can sit and watch the cats play. The bunnies have their own space. It contains a brown picket fence and little hideaways with handles shaped like carrots and a climbing area in orange and green, shaped like a big chunky carrot.

There are also outside play areas. And there’s a lecture space, where the smartest thinkers in human-animal relations will come share their ideas. The programming has not yet been fully planned but this is the arena where current controversies around the human-animal relationships might be discussed.

Now by this point you might ask yourself, is it all a bit much, considering the need for human shelter right now?

The Annenberg Foundation will point out that it gives generously to a variety of causes. It has supported a shelter for homeless women in downtown, and a home for LGBT seniors. It also gives to arts and humanities causes, from KCRW to the Beach House and the Space for Photography. But animal causes are also high on the list, from seeding a proposed wildlife crossing over the 101 freeway, to a program that trains therapy dogs for veterans.

PetSpace is luxurious… but Annenberg believes it’s worth investing to get people to take home Siri — the furry one — or a homeless bunny.