AUSTIN (KXAN) — The majority of the Austin Animal Advisory Commission approved a resolution of no-confidence in Austin Animal Center’s chief animal services officer, Don Bland, during a meeting Monday evening. The recommendation will now be forwarded to the Austin City Council for consideration and potential action.
The vote followed testimony given by volunteers, staff members and commissioners who advocated both for and against the resolution.
An initial draft resolution specified concerns directed at both the chief animal services officer as well as the shelter’s management team. The final, approved resolution was amended to pertain only to Bland in his role as director.
Concerns noted in the resolution include AAC’s alleged alienations with partnership organizations and volunteers “which has contributed to shelter overcrowding and lack of volunteer support for shelter pet care and adoptions.” The resolution also addresses allegedly “misleading” and “incomplete” monthly reports provided to commissioners on current statuses within the shelter, and partnerships with allegedly controversial dog trainers for behavior support efforts.
Commissioner Jo Anne Norton said she was “alarmed” by the resolution, saying AAC’s leadership is run by a team and not a single person. She said current staffing volumes aren’t out of line with other city departments, a hiring process she said was too lengthy.
She also noted issues she had with the document, including discrepancies in the resolution on the days AAC is closed to the public.
Commissioner Lotta Samgula, a current AAC volunteer, said she was prone to support the resolution from her volunteering capacity due to her feelings of disregard for lay-level shelter volunteers and staff from management. However, she voiced concerns about whether this resolution was in line with the commission’s purview.
Commission Chair Craig Nazor that, given that Austin City Council implemented the city’s No-Kill shelter policy in 2011, it is within the commission’s jurisdiction to evaluate how current leadership’s actions support or hinder reaching No-Kill threshold requirements.
Austin’s initial No-Kill requirement was a 90% live rate, meaning less than 10% of animals in AAC’s possession were euthanized. In 2019, that live rate was raised to 95%. Earlier figures presented by Bland Monday evening reported a live exit rate of 96.7% from the shelter in May.
Julie Marquis, a former AAC shelter volunteer, said the center requires more funding to help ensure the most animals are assisted humanely. In addition to requests for increased staff levels, she said the shelter needs to be open seven days a week, as more daily closures translate to fewer adoption and fostering opportunities.
Marquis highlighted a 2015 city audit reported AAC was understaffed to meet its then-live exit goal of 90%. Since, she said both Austin’s population and its live outcome goals have increased.
David Loignon, a volunteer with AAC for eight years, said the past several months’ space crisis at the shelter isn’t the worst it’s facing. He said leadership is the primary issue, noting a lack of inclusion in conversations or reception to voiced concerns.
“It’s really hard to keep giving so much time, effort and energy to a place where senior management treats you with disdain and with contempt,” he said.
The space crisis Loignon referenced is an ongoing concern at the shelter. An AAC Facebook post from June 3 highlighted a 60-dog surplus at the shelter among its medium and large dogs, hosting 332 dogs versus a capacity of 272.
“We’re stretched to our breaking point,” the post read in part. “With the latest COVID spike and continued hiring difficulties, our limited staff and volunteers are struggling. The animals are struggling. We are now full on cats and kittens too.”
Shelly Leibham, a current cat volunteer at AAC, said she can’t support the resolution as written, adding critiques made against leadership flows down to staff and volunteers.
“We’re not the only shelter dealing with a space crisis,” she said, adding: “I’m not saying there aren’t legitimate concerns about shelter leadership, but I cannot support a resolution that calls for a wholesale firing of an undefined management team.”
In a statement, Bland said AAC is committed to Austin’s No-Kill promise and has created programs to support this endeavor.
“Right now, shelters across the United States are struggling with medium/large dogs, decreased adoptions, and decreased foster/volunteer numbers.,” Bland said in the statement. “The leadership team at Austin Animal Center has a combined 124 years in animal welfare and has helped the shelter navigate a global pandemic and national hiring shortage while remaining well above 95% save rate. We are focused on continuing this important work in the months and years to come.”