The city of Austin has maintained no kill status for more than a year via a partnership between the city shelter, Austin Animal Services (AAS), and non-profit groups Austin Pets Alive (APA) and Austin Humane Society (AHS). On Friday, there was a catastrophic failure of commitment when AAS killed 17 dogs due to overcrowding. Today, AAS is threatening to kill 23 more dogs unless 40 pets are adopted by 9 o’clock tonight. I could not be more disappointed to report this news.
One of the major factors contributing to the overcrowding situation is the city’s decision, made several years ago, to move the shelter to a new location which is very difficult to reach and contains 60 fewer kennels. Decreased adoptions and capacity were easily foreseeable as a consequence of this recent move, particularly in light of the fact that AAS does not do offsite adoptions. Nathan Winograd advised the city against the move in 2007, and today says:
I discussed how most communities were trying to relocate from remote areas to more populated centers, while Austin was considering taking a step backward by doing the exact opposite, “taking the shelter from a prime location and placing it in a more remote location, … an action which is contrary to the prescription for a No Kill Austin.”
I debunked the arguments made by those urging the move including the ASPCA, HSUS, and the pound’s notorious former director who killed 100,000 animals during her tenure that the location of a shelter should not be based on adoption potential or that fewer kennels in the new shelter were acceptable because the animals themselves weren’t adoptable, and I concluded [a letter to the city advising against the move] with what turned out to be a prophetic warning:
[I]t is clear that the relocation is not in the best interests of saving the lives of animals. I have no doubt that due to the surrounding publicity, there will be a momentary spike in adoptions regardless of where the new shelter is built. But that spike can only be maintained by rebuilding the animal shelter on its existing location. In my opinion, relocating Austin’s animal shelter would be a death sentence for dogs and cats who would otherwise find loving homes.
Despite the admonition, the City approved the relocation.
While adoptions are down, intakes are up – another foreseeable challenge. Abigail Smith, Chief Animal Services Officer, says in the city’s latest press release:
Last year was a quiet season and we saw significantly less kittens and cats, most likely due to the drought.
The country has been through a very mild winter. Now it’s spring – kitten season. The fact that there hasn’t been a drought is a surprise to no one. AAS should have been planning for more kittens than last year and aggressively marketing animals via offsite adoptions. They were apparently doing neither. Remarkably, the city issued a press release on Saturday asking the public for tips on how to handle the increased intakes. Like, We don’t know how to do our jobs – do you?
In order to gain some perspective on the issues at hand, I spoke at length with Lorri Michel, a local attorney and member of Fix Austin – the group who worked so hard to bring no kill to Austin. Ms. Michel is very upset about the latest developments and explained her view on how things went wrong while underscoring her belief that all three animal groups remain committed to no kill. She believes that AAS has come to “rely too much on its non-profit partners” and adds, “The city should be stepping up its marketing efforts.” She would also like to see Abigail Smith take ownership of foreseeing trends which lead to crises at the shelter.
Ms. Michel does not lay blame exclusively at the city’s feet:
There has been a loss of focus by APA and AHS on saving Austin’s animals.
The article in the Statesman indicates that “[a]bout 20 pets from outside the area were housed at the nonprofit [APA] as of Monday”. And while the article does not draw this conclusion, it seems obvious that, had those 20 animals not been imported, APA may have had space for the 17 dogs killed at AAS on Friday. Ms. Michel appreciates the desire to help other communities but believes Austin’s animals must come first. Both APA and AHS have reportedly agreed to stop importing animals until the current crisis has passed.
The city’s press release from this afternoon does not give me much faith in its commitment to no kill. Not only have they needlessly killed animals, but they are threatening to kill more within hours. Worse still, they are setting up the possibility of continued killing for months ahead:
Since February 2011 the City has been able to maintain its No Kill goal of saving 90 percent or better of the animals. This year because of the high level of animal intakes versus those animals that are being adopted and rescued the City’s No Kill goal will be difficult to maintain for May and possibly into the summer months.
Ms. Michel however was more optimistic. She believes this setback is an important lesson for the city and for every community interested in saving pets. That lesson is that no kill is not so much an “achievement” in the finite sense but rather a continuing, daily effort which must be nurtured in order to be maintained:
As sad and absolutely tragic as it is for the animals who were killed, it will not be in vain.
I truly hope that is the case. Austin has earned a lot of credibility due to the hard work of saving animals’ lives over the past year. I want to see them get back on track – today, if possible. And it is possible. All they need to do is stop killing animals.
If anyone knows who the 23 dogs are that are on the kill list at AAS tonight, please let me know. I will be happy to help network every one of them.