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Groups come together to protect Austin’s animals

Thursday, November 5, 2009 by Josh Rosenblatt

The issue of animal welfare was pushed front and center last week at a city-sponsored meeting of local animal rights activists. The meeting, the first of its kind called by the city, was sponsored by the city’s Health and Human Services office to establish consensus priorities among the city’s various animal welfare agencies, a group that has had trouble finding common ground in the past.

 

Representatives from non-profit groups like Austin Pets Alive!, ASPCA Mission: Orange, www.FixAustin.org, Oak Hill Animal rescue, and Action for Animals, as well as the city’s Animal Advisory Commission, gathered to discuss approaches for turning Austin into a “no kill city,” where euthanasia would only be used in cases involving extremely ill or aggressive abandoned, homeless, or lost animals. As it stands, policy at the city’s Town Lake Animal Center states that any stray animal that has not been claimed at the shelter after 72 hours can be euthanized.

 

It’s a policy that doesn’t sit well with many local activists, who have criticized TLAC for not pursuing a no-kill approach aggressively enough. According to many in the animal-welfare community, the center’s declining euthanasia rate (6161 dogs and cats were killed this past fiscal year, as compared to 9946 in 2008 and more than 15,000 10 years ago) is attributable more to the volunteer work of groups like Austin Pets Alive!, which encourages adoption through public outreach, than that of TLAC.

 

In addition, TLAC was recently sued by advocacy group Cats Across Texas, which claims the shelter does not comply with health code, mixing different breeds and intermingling sick animals with healthy ones.

 

But in the end, says Health Department spokeswoman Carole Barasch, these groups agree more than they differ, which is why the city decided it was time to get them together to discuss shared goals. “There’s a lot of common ground here,” Barasch told In Fact Daily, “and there’s more common ground than not. Everyone in these groups wants to make Austin a more humane city. So we wanted to see if we could get some consensus and create a collaborative effort among stakeholders.”

 

Health & Human Services Director David Lurie also felt the time was right to call the meeting because the city is preparing to move TLAC to a new location at the Levander Loop (Airport Boulevard and US 183). “As we’re starting to plan for our new shelter two years down the road,” Lurie said, “we thought we should look over all of these proposals so that we’ll be positioned to minimize the amount of intake into the shelter and, for those animals that end up in our shelter, maximize adoption.”

 

Representatives from several of these groups spoke at the meeting, which was facilitated by Larry Schooler, the city’s community engagement coordinator. These groups were charged with presenting proposals on decreasing shelter intakes and increasing live outcomes, which would then be voted on by those assembled before being presented to City Council.

 

First to speak was Larry Tucker, chair of the Animal Advisory Commission, who presented proposals that were written in response to a Jan. 15 City Council resolution directing the group to “evaluate and make recommendations on policies and programs proven to be effective at reducing the killing of homeless animals, including but not limited to, policies and programs related to reducing intake and increasing live outcomes of sheltered animals.”

 

Tucker said that the city’s first priority should be improve the city’s adoption programs by increasing the use of off-site adoption locations, employing training techniques to solve treatable behavioral issues in impounded animals, and ending the practice of killing healthy and non-aggressive animals when cage space is available. The also want to improve the city’s volunteer foster program, expand its feral cat capture-neuter-release program, and provide more free or low-cost spay/neuter services.

 

Dr. Ellen Jefferson, president of Austin Pets Alive! and founder of EmanciPet, told those gathered that APA’s priorities continue to be increasing off-site adoptions and improving care and customer service at TLAC.

 

According to the group’s Web site, APA saved nearly 1800 dogs from shelters over the last year through off-site adoption programs. They believe that with more city involvement, off-site adoption could help bring Austin’s kill rate down substantially.

 

Jefferson also spoke about the problem of bottlenecking that she sees at TLAC and how reducing that bottlenecking would help increase live outcomes at the shelter. She said that the number of staff and volunteers at TLAC is too small (the shelter cut one of two rescue coordinator positions this year), resulting in slower behavioral, medical, and surgical evaluation of sheltered animals, less-efficient adoption processes and customer service, and a decrease in transfers to area rescue groups, all of which means fewer cages available for new animals being brought into the shelter and therefore a higher kill rate. She proposed that the city allow APA volunteers to work at TLAC to improve efficiency at the shelter and decrease euthanasia rates.

 

She also proposed more free and low-cost spay/neutering services to help decrease shelter intake.

 

After the presentations, the group voted unanimously in support of APA’s and AAC’s proposals and directed Schooler to write a report that he will then present to City Council.

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