AUSTIN (KXAN) — After an audit and external review of the Austin Animal Center were released last week, KXAN sat down with Chief Animal Services Officer and director, Don Bland, to respond to the concerns found in it.

Bland pointed to overcrowding at the shelter as a major issue and said he wants the City of Austin to lean on public feedback to form next steps. He also responded to harsh criticism from Austin City Council members.

The conversation is edited for conciseness.

KXAN’s Grace Reader: This is the first time that folks are really hearing from you after that audit came out. So first, I want to open it up to you to just respond to what you saw in it.

KXAN's Grace Reader sits down with Austin Animal Center Chief Animal Officer Don Bland
KXAN’s Grace Reader sits down with Austin Animal Center Director Don Bland (KXAN photo)

Chief Animal Services Officer Don Bland: We appreciate the auditors and the work that they did, they did a lot of work. You know, there’s only so much they could touch on, it would have taken them more years to fully develop an audit that covered everything. So we appreciate it, you know, their public meetings with the public, pick their top priorities, and they got to focus on those. And I think that it was overdue, and I really appreciate the work that they do.

Reader: Let’s talk about some of the things in that audit. They started their report with the grounds here, inside and outside, they talked about cleanliness and organization. What’s being done to fix some of the things that they found?

Bland: There’s always two sides to everything. And I’m not going to go into trying to explain, you know, photos and things like that. But we have standard operating procedures for how we care for the animals and our cleaning procedures, and everything that goes along with that, as well as our volunteer training procedures. These are all documented.

And we have been working for many years under overcapacity issues. So on the best day, everyone is has a lot to do taking care of animals. And when you have more animals than you have cages for, it even compounds that.

We need to do a better job of making sure everyone is trained, and follows those procedures, and they understand what those procedures are. And so that’s, you know, some low hanging fruit that we can fix very quickly, and make sure that everyone is is on the same page.

Reader: Overall, this report and the audit together both really talked about the rub between some of the city’s policies — being being able to take care of animals effectively, and the live release rate that the city of Austin has set — is that’s something that you have seen and agree with?

Bland: It’s a juggling act, and what can we do to have the best outcomes, because no one wants to euthanize healthy dogs when we just have space issues. So we’re always trying to balance that. And I know that it’s difficult because there’s different philosophies in the community. Some people, all they care about is picking up every dog off the street, bring them here, and they don’t care what we do with them. Well there’s other people that care what we do with them when they get here. And so we have to balance that and that’s difficult.

Since the pandemic, adoption has been down nationwide, and we’ve talked about that previously. And while we have maintained our live exit rate, all the other major cities in the Texas, they’re in the 70 and low 80 percentiles. They’re they’re juggling just like we are, we have just been fortunate that we’ve been able to maintain ours.

Reader: When City Council moves forward, what are your recommendations to them on solutions when it comes to making those things fit?

Bland: I think that there’s got to be a lot of system input. I think that we have to look at what the citizens want. And I think that we have to look at all citizens. I know that there’s, you know, there’s the animal welfare citizens, and then there’s the citizens that you never hear from until they need you. But I think everyone needs to weigh in on what we as a city need to do.

Reader: If you were a member of the public, and were going to go into one of these meetings, what would your recommendation be? You’re sitting at the helm here, you’ve got more information than most, what would you recommend the City does?

Bland: I think that we have to take what our city goals are, what our city resources are, what the public wants, and what we’re able to achieve and look at what’s the best balance we can achieve. Is that 95% [live release rate]? And we need additional research in terms of staff and kennels. So, you know, it’s going to be a lot of things to look at, and a broad spectrum. And I think we have to pick what we can do and achieve must win win for everyone.

Reader: In the audit and finance committee [meeting] last week, council members had some really harsh words both for this department and for you, and I want to give you the chance to respond.

Bland: I think that animal welfare is very passionate. And when people are giving feedback, that passion comes out. And, you know, any feedback is good feedback. And I just want to focus on, you know, I don’t want to focus on any negativity, I want to focus on the positive aspects and what we can do moving forward. And I think that, you know, that’s where we’re at.