AUSTIN (KXAN) — A city-led audit and independent report conducted on the Austin Animal Center were presented Wednesday and revealed failures in the shelter’s open intake operations and poor conditions for animals staying at AAC, despite the shelter meeting its “no kill” policy threshold.

The City of Austin produced its own audit of AAC, as well as hired Tim Crum with the National Center for Animal Shelter Evaluations to produce his own independent report. These analyses focused on three critical questions surrounding operations at AAC:

  • Why are there space issues at the shelter?
  • Are the animals being treated properly?
  • Is the City of Austin’s live release status sustainable?

Keith Salas, assistant city auditor with the City of Austin, presented findings to the city’s Finance and Audit Committee Wednesday. Through their research, the city’s audit team found the shelter isn’t operating as an open-intake facility, nor is it providing the level of care city leadership would like to see from it.

However, the reports did acknowledge AAC is maintaining its live release goal, with more than 95% of animals passing through AAC leaving the facilities in some capacity and not being euthanized.

Missed goals for animal adoptions, returns

AAC established goals in 2022 to adopt out 7,700 animals, transfer 4,500 animals to other animal shelters or partnering agencies, return 3,000 animals to their owners and euthanize fewer than 2% of animals at AAC. There was an undetermined goal for the number of animals to be fostered, as well.

AAC only met its goal of euthanizing fewer than 2% of animals within the shelter’s system, euthanizing 1.98% of animals in 2022. It saw 7,091 animal adoptions, 2,738 animal transfers, 1,334 animals returned to owners and 2,866 animals fostered through AAC.

Some of the issues highlighted with low animal turnover and euthanasia rates include prolonged-stay animals — are animals who have been in AAC’s care for extended periods of time — developing mental and physical problems. The audits also revealed AAC might have been encouraged to adopt or transfer out dangerous animals who had prior bites in their history due to those low rates, Salas recounted in the audit overview.

Inadequate space, poor animal living conditions found in shelter

The extended stays and crowded conditions at AAC also meant there was less room for animals in serious need, as well as a lack of space and attention provided to animals staying in the shelter.

The reporting also detailed changes in the city’s agreement with Austin Pets Alive! that resulted in a lower number of animal transfers in 2022. Salas said since APA! operates on city-owned land, the nonprofit has agreed to take a certain number and types of animals from AAC.

Findings revealed animal intakes were routinely restricted or closed throughout the duration of the audit process, in turn impacting the number of animals served by AAC.

Beyond the immediate capacity levels, Salas’ detailing of the audits acknowledged short-term confinement enclosures, cages and crates were frequently being used as primary enclosures for animals. Enclosures should be large enough for animals to comfortably move or stretch; that wasn’t the case during the audit process, Salas said.

Animal enclosures were also supposed to include plenty of room and separated space for where the animals eat and sleep, but pictures shown to the committee Wednesday revealed multiple dogs sleeping in one kennel designed for a single cat, sleeping on top of each other, their food and animal waste.

Photos taken around the facility found algae growing in outdoor play pools and water bowls, as well as extreme temperatures among the acceptable thresholds. Temperatures are recommended to remain between 60 degrees and 80 degrees; a temperature reading of the artificial play lawn found it was 176 degrees warm.

Salas said he saw staff placing towels on the ground to prevent animals from stepping on the scalding turf.

This volume of overcrowding and conditional issues can lead to illness spreading among animals, Salas said, pointing to the distemper notice AAC issued last week that resulted in restricted intake levels.

There were also issues found in AAC’s data management set, including a lack of complete and accurate data and inconsistencies in tracking.

Reactions from AAC staff, city leadership and committee members

AAC Chief Animal Services Officer Don Bland said he was pleased with the depths auditors went in evaluating current conditions, adding he looked forward to working with the Austin City Council and city leadership on the path forward.

He noted adoption levels have dramatically reduced since the pandemic, and rescue partners AAC has historically worked with have focused their efforts elsewhere to Texas cities that have lost their “no kill” shelter statuses.

In a statement provided to KXAN on Thursday, Bland also said, “We appreciate both the Office of the City Auditor and the National Center for Animal Shelter Evaluations for the immense amount of time and effort put into these reports. We look forward to working with the City Manager’s Office and City Council to address identified issues and recommendations to strive for success at the shelter.”

Council Member Leslie Pool, who serves on the committee, said the shortcomings revealed in the audit are the primary responsibilities imposed on the chief animal officer and AAC’s leadership team. She said she was disappointed there was such a “fundamental disconnect” between the expectations of the office and the recommendations laid out in the audit.

“We have fallen so short,” she said.

Bland noted the shelter will be receiving four additional animal care staff members in the upcoming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. He said this will help AAC staff and service the number of kennels currently in its purview.

Council Member Mackenzie Kelly, also on the committee, requested the committee and council receive regular updates from AAC about implementing the recommendations found in the reports.

Those recommendations included work among the council, AAC and city staff to establish a policy that balances the city’s no-kill shelter goals and community intake needs. It also recommended Bland develop a strategic plan for AAC that helps identify structural issues with resources, outlines ongoing concerns and that his team periodically verify AAC data for its accuracy, completeness and consistency.

Kelly said there needs to be accountability for the operations at the shelter, conditions she called “entirely unacceptable.”

“Those animals have no voice, and so we have to be the voice for them. And it is unfortunate that it has come down to this. We have to advocate for them,” she said, adding: “Those conditions described are nothing less than abhorrent, sickening and entirely unacceptable.”

Austin Assistant City Manager Stephanie Hayden-Howard oversees animal services. She said Wednesday, as the 10th largest city nationwide, other cities similar in size to Austin have begun building out their animal service facilities to include satellite sites to help address capacity levels. She said as the city continues to grow, it’s important to forecast out and try to keep up with those growth trends to help meet AAC’s performance measures.

Pool said she was concerned by the continuous conversations held between AAC and council members, adding “money doesn’t make good management.” She noted her personal concerns with AAC leadership and said while expanded facility resources might need to be an option, throwing money at a situation doesn’t necessarily address its root causes.

Interim City Manager Jesús Garza said he agreed pouring money into AAC isn’t the automatic solution. However, he said he didn’t feel it was altogether fair to lay blame on management.

He said work needs to be done to speak to all advisory commission members, staff and seek input from all involved parties “to get to the basic truth.”

He added his intent to have a review of key city services mid-fiscal year to weigh in on possible changes in core service investments citywide, in anticipation of fiscal year 2024-25’s budget process.