Austin renews no-kill policy amid calls to improve conditions for animals

Austin
Austin Animal Center at capacity

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin leaders elected to maintain the city’s no-kill status and upped the standards by which that effort is measured. 

Austin City Council unanimously approved a resolution last week which renewed the city’s commitment to a no-kill policy and increased the city’s baseline save rate from 90 percent to 95 percent of animals. That means for every 100 animals that enter the shelter, the city expects at least 95% will leave alive. 

Several animal advocates, as well as current and former volunteers from Austin Animal Center, have stepped up in the past few months to say that while they support a recommitment to a no-kill movement, they worry not enough focus is being placed on the quality of life for the animals taken into the shelter. 

What advocates and volunteers say

For example, AAC volunteer Tom Rott, who walks dogs six days a week, explained that in his experience, about half to two-thirds of the dogs get walked every day. The others — referred to as N’s  (meaning they’ve had no walk)— don’t. Rott explained that while it is fairly rare to find a dog that hasn’t been walked in two straight days, he can’t recall a single day in the past year-and-a-half where there haven’t been N’s who needed walking when he came in.  

“I truly believe a dog needs to get out of a kennel at least once a day, so I walk between 20 and 25 dogs per day and basically try to get as many dogs out as I can,” Rott said. 

He called the council resolution “silly” and “political.”

I personally believe we are on the right path for not euthanizing dogs for space alone. Personally I would have much preferred to see less of the back clapping and more of the [realization that] “Hey, we have dogs in the shelter now that have been there for three years, we have dogs that are not being walked on a daily basis, we have continuous resource problems, Rott said, speaking to his experience volunteering with AAC since 2016. I think that there is a lot that can be done in terms of approach to management that would be significantly more beneficial for the animals in our care than a commitment to something that — for me — is just a political exercise to pat ourselves on the back and move forward.

I think there are leaders in the community that are more focused on the national reputation of no-kill than the actual care of our animals, Rott added. He would like to see more effort put toward strategizing how to best get animals adopted, something he believes the shelter has shifted away from in recent years. 

Several Austinites who, like Rott, are worried about the direction of the shelter and how animals are being treated, have voiced their concerns during several council meetings this year. AAC volunteer Lotta Smagula explained to the council on Thursday that while maintaining a high live-outcome rate at the shelter is important to her, she sees this council resolution as simply symbolic. 

The Austin Animal Center has consistently been exceeding the 90 percent required by the resolution and has been for years, we will not achieve a higher live outcome rate by reaffirming a resolution.

AAC’s numbers reflect this as well. 

The live-outcome rates for August, September, October, November and December January of 2018, as well as January of 2019 all, hover around 99 percent. 

Smagula called for council instead to focus on plans for keeping animals out of the shelter, giving staff more tools to do their job, and promoting spay and neuter efforts.  

Erin Van Landingham, who fosters dogs for Austin Animal Center, explained that while the effort to increase live outcome rates is “valiant” she also feels there are more specific things the city could be doing to take care of animals. 

“It would behoove the city to focus more on helping the dogs that are in the system already be adopted — like long stay dogs behavioral dogs– so that we can keep at that high staus of no-kill,” Van Landingham said. 

She and her husband began fostering dogs with AAC two years ago and have successfully found homes for 22 of those dogs.  Van Landingham would like to see city support for things like getting daily kennel breaks and banning breed restrictions at apartment complexes.

“We have seen firsthand the overcrowding in Austin Animal Center and we’re trying to help alleviate that by housing the dogs in our home and giving them socialization while they are part of the shelter system,” she explained. She noted that the longer a dog is in the shelter, the more stressed and less likely to be adopted it becomes.

Eileen McFall, who was an AAC volunteer from 2016 to 2017, agreed that while raising the live outcome rate is a good thing, “I think they also need quality of life standards, they also need to measure the shelter performance by standards for the quality of life for animals in the shelter and in the community.”

McFall explained that she was removed as a volunteer in 2017 because she did not record the minimum number of hours out of protest to shelter policies. She has since started her own rescue which pulls high-risk animals from AAC. 

McFall would like to see AAC screening and counseling more adopters for animals. 

“While the animals are in the shelter, they need walks, attention, and behavior modification programs, dogs are sitting there for months,” she said. 

McFall actually moved to Austin from Central California because she wanted to be part of a no-kill community. 

“I think AAC is understaffed, but they have wonderful, wonderful employees,” she noted. 

Austin Animal Center at capacity 

Photo credit: Alyssa Goard/KXAN

The Austin Animal Center is still currently at capacity, with animals being housed in the multi-purpose room and offices. 

We are not quite at red-alert level, it’s one of those things where a high-intake day could put us back in a heartbeat, said Jennifer Olohan, Public Information Officer with the Austin Animal Center. 

She explained that while AAC relies on volunteer support for dog walking, they also have two part-time, paid dog walkers now as well. 

Especially when we’re in the situation where we are [now] where there are so many dogs, we rely on volunteer support to get them out, Olohan said. 

She clarified that on days with a low number of volunteers, this could mean some dogs don’t get walked. 

“The further and further we get into this live outcome percentage, the more help we need from everyone,” Olohan said explaining that the need for more adopters and fosters is only increasing. 

“Austin is the first large city to do this”

At the city council meeting last week, Dr. Ellen Jefferson, executive director for non-profit and  Austin Pets Alive!, acknowledged to the council members: “You will likely hear today we need to do better for the pets saved, and we absolutely do.

We are just on the other side of stopping the killing and it’s been a huge mountain to climb, that means there’s a whole new path in front of us that’s uncharted territory, and we need to improve that path to improve that not-killing process, Jefferson continued. 

She laid out the history of no-kill policy in Austin, explaining that back in 2007, Austin was saving only 45 percent of the animals coming to its shelters, and even that rate was better than most other Texas cities. In 2010, Austin passed the resolution to bring the baseline rate for animals saved to 90 percent, committing the city to a no-kill vision. 

The resolution is simply about not going backward in the meantime; if we kill our problems we will never figure out how to solve them, she added. 

Jefferson noted that more than a million animals are killed each year in U.S. shelters, with Texas contributing to about one-tenth of that amount. 

Austin is a safe haven, she emphasized. 

David Lundstedt, the chair of Austin’s Animal Advisory Commission was also present at Thursday’s council meeting in support of the council resolution. 

“I thought it was a very nice thing I think it’s necessary council re-commit themselves from time to time since they come and go,” Lundstedt said. 

“It’s not a declaration that we’re going to achieve 95 percent, we’ve already surpassed that,” he added. “90 percent is so far the rearview mirror that we felt 95 was a good, safe number to put in that resolution.” 

Lundstedt also has been paying attention to the volunteers and advocates who’ve asked the city to do more than just keep animals alive. 

“Some of the people who spoke against [the city resolution] had good points about the community needing to step up, things like not turning to breeders for puppies,” he said.  

“But I think they missed the point when they referred to what we’redoing at the shelter as a numbers game because– number one, it’s not a game, it’s animals lives,” Lundstedt said. 

He noted that the animals at the shelter are taken care of, “as best as the shelter can do in incredibly difficult situations and with a  very understaffed and underfunded budget.”

Lundstedt noted that the average stay for animals at the shelter is two weeks. 

“No dog is treated poorly, but it would be great for dogs to get more opportunities to be walked,” he added. 

Lundstedt explained he joined the commission back in 2008 before the city had committed to no-kill and the number of animals leaving the shelter alive was around 50 percent. 

“Austin is the first large city to do this, so everything we experience is the first time anybody has experienced this, it’s a daily struggle to deal with so many animals,” he said. “So far I think they are doing a splendid job, though there’s always room for improvement.”

The search for a new shelter director

After Lee Ann Shenefiel stepped down as Austin’s interim chief animal services officer [CASO] in January the city moved Kimberley McNeely, the acting director of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department, over to fill the role until a permanent CASO is hired. 

The person in this role becomes the shelter director at AAC and all sheltering, enforcement, and prevention work with the Animal Services Office. They would oversee 11 employees, 450 volunteers, and an annual budget of $13.9 million. The city has not started recruiting for the job yet, Austin Assistant City Manager Chris Shorter is calling for public feedback in the hiring process. 

Those wishing to weigh in can fill out a survey via  SpeakUp Austin at https://www.speakupaustin.org/animal-service-director-profile, call 3-1-1 and ask to provide input on the Chief Animal Services Officer, or you may email your feedback to HealthEnvironment@austintexas.gov using the subject “CASO”.

No word yet on when a new shelter director would be slated to start working, but a city spokesperson said to expect to hear more on the process in the coming weeks as it’s a priority for ACM Chris Shorter. 

Animal Advisory Commission chair David Lundstedt said he’s sure there will be lots of applications, but he’s under no illusions that this will be an easy job. 

“I’m pretty worried about it because it’s just such a high-stress job,” he said, noting that a friend of his noted the amount of criticism the shelter received at the city council meeting. “She said,  ‘Why would anybody want that job?'”

“Hopefully we will be able to find someone who is really committed and has nerves of steel who can take it,” Lundstedt said. 

Tom Rott, the volunteer at AAC, worries that as the city has prioritized no-kill, that sometimes elements of making animals’ lives comfortable in the shelter get forgotten. 

He praised interim shelter director Kimberley McNeeley for being willing to do work “at the ground level” at the shelter and show that she cares about the volunteers. Rott hopes whoever takes the position permanently does the same. 

“I think we will be much more successful at helping the animals in our care by getting someone who is a good leader and a good manager than someone who is focused on nationwide no-kill, pat-ourselves on the back scenarios,” Rott said. 

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