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HHS approves “no kill” plan but calls for yet another meeting

Tuesday, March 2, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

It’s been a long week for the Animal Advisory Commission (AAC) and city staff, who spent last Wednesday and Friday, and much of this past weekend, trying to come to an agreement on an implementation plan to reduce animal intake and increase live animal outcomes in the city. And though the Council Health and Human Services Committee voted once again to send staff back to the drawing board yesterday, they also voted to move Austin one giant step closer to becoming a “no kill” city.


Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez and Council Members Laura Morrison and Randi Shade serve on the committee.


On Nov. 6 of last year, City Council unanimously approved a resolution directing staff to work with the AAC on a plan to reduce the killing of animals in the city by 90 percent. The goal is to get to a point where euthanasia is only used in cases involving extremely ill or aggressive abandoned, homeless, or lost animals. The resolution instructed staff to come up with ways to implement the recommendations of the AAC.


Problems arose last week when staff presented their plan to the AAC and commissioners learned that several of their most significant recommendations were not included in the draft implementation plan. The AAC voted to instruct staff to revise their plan to include those recommendations that were left out. 


Assistant City Manager Bert Lumbreras presented staff’s newly revised implementation plan to the HHS committee. According to Lumbreras, 31of the recommendations are consensus recommendations, including the funding of a behaviorist position to create programs that help sheltered animals with behavioral issues (thereby reducing an animal’s chance of being euthanized), the enhancement of the city’s animal foster care program, and the enhancement of the city’s free animal sterilization programs.


Staff’s plan also included a recommendation to outsource off-site adoption programs to area animal welfare groups, an idea they initially resisted. 


However, according to AAC Chair Larry Tucker, the three items staff chose not to include in their presentation to the committee are perhaps the three most vital for reducing animal intake and increasing live outcomes. “Everything is intricately interwoven,” he said, “and when you take those three items out, then it’s like a recipe and you’re taking key ingredients out.”


The first involved preserving the Davenport building and the other buildings on the current Town Lake Animal Shelter site (including kennels and outlying buildings) for use as a “safety net” to handle potential overflow when the new shelter at the Levander Loop opens in November 2011. Tucker told In Fact Daily that, according to research, when a new, state-of-the-art animal shelter opens, intake often jumps up to 25 percent because pet owners believe that their pets will live better lives there and that their chances for live outcome are better. Without the Davenport building, and the other buildings on-site, he said, there could be a run on available space.


“While waiting for shelter to be built,” he said, “all the buildings should be utilized until we achieve no kill.”


Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Director Davie Lurie defended staff’s decision, however. In his presentation before the committee, he said that they had considered the recommendation but decided that 1) the new shelter would be adequate for city needs; and 2) there were too many risks involved. “An assessment we did in 2007,” he said, “related to infrastructure, deteriorating conditions, flooding, and so forth would still mean a challenge for us. We would have to do some work on these kennels to get them up to speed, as well.”  He also said that there is the potential for other uses of that property that would need to be considered.


The second AAC recommendation staff did not endorse concerned the outsourcing of all of the city’s animal adoption services to an area nonprofit animal welfare organization, namely Austin Pets Alive (APA), whose comprehensive adoption plan is the one the AAC had in its original recommendation. Under the terms of that comprehensive plan, the organization would increase efficiency of spay/neuters programs and make-ready programs dealing with adoptable animals, overhaul customer service, increase public-access hours, provide a behavioral program for adoption dogs, etc.


APA President Ellen Jefferson told the committee that the APA comprehensive plan is the only plan that will allow the city to reach its goal of reducing the killing of animals by 90 percent in 18 months. At no additional cost to the city, she said, the plan would save 4,000 lives a year. “We have an army of volunteers,” she said. “We’re eager to help; we know that we can do it. We just need to you to say ‘yes.’”


Lurie told the committee that though staff would be open to other outsourcing opportunities in the future, the best thing would be to focus on outsourcing the off-site adoption program and, when the Davenport adoption center is ready, in November 2011, outsourcing its operation to area animal groups. “We think that’s the area where outside expertise could be brought into the mix to help us be successful and (allow us to) gain some experience,” he said.


Plus, he argued, the city has to follow the proper procurement process as it relates to the outsourcing of work.


In response, Jefferson said, “We ask that the procurement process begin when the (no kill) implementation goes through in October.”


The last area of contention between the AAC and staff was perhaps the most sensitive, as it concerns a proposed immediate and permanent moratorium on the killing of any animal (except for humane reasons or aggression validated by a behaviorist) when there are empty cages and kennels available.


The AAC’s position was clear: A moratorium is both a moral necessity and a workable possibility right now for the city.


In his presentation, Lurie reiterated that the goal of staff was the same as everyone else involved in the process: turning Austin into a no-kill city. However, he said, certain issues related to the running of a municipal, open-intake shelter convinced staff that a moratorium wasn’t the right thing to do at this time. 


“There are a whole host of disease-related and stress-related issues that we need to take into consideration,” he said. Many veterinarians advocate not running shelters at maximum capacity because it increases the chances for disease and leaves no space available for possible emergency situations.


Martinez was unconvinced by staff’s reasoning. In a passionate defense of the moratorium he argued that without the push to try everything to create more live outcomes, there would be no incentive to get animals in shelters adopted. “If we’re keeping 50 percent of our cage space vacant,” he said, “there’s no incentive for our staff to say, ‘We’re hitting capacity.’” Upon hearing this, the crowd of 50 or so – many of whom were from APA and other animal welfare groups – applauded.


“So I want to challenge that notion,” Martinez continued. “I want to challenge that test. Prove me wrong. Prove that it will create disease and problems and issues, but let’s challenge ourselves and push ourselves to that point. To me, it’s an arbitrary number to say we’re going to keep 20 or 30 percent of our cages open. I just don’t understand the rationale behind it when we haven’t tested whether it will cause more problems or will cause more live outcomes.”


Lurie, however, advised patience. He pointed out that the recommendations in the report would help the city get closer to its 90 percent goal and also put city facilities in a position where a moratorium would actually be feasible. “Putting a moratorium at this stage, without the capacity, is sort of like putting the cart before the horse,” he said. “For example, the recommendation says, ‘Except for humane reasons or aggression validated by a behaviorist.’ We don’t have a behaviorist. Our focus is on building the capacity so that we can achieve (our shared) goal.


“We should act on the recommendations in this report and build on them, so we can get to a point where we don’t have unwanted or unnecessary euthanasia.”


In the end, the Council committee disagreed and voted unanimously to approve staff’s plan but to direct staff to work with Tucker to reinsert all the recommendations made by the AAC. They also voted to move forward with placing the selection of a contractor for the new animal shelter on the next available Council meeting agenda. 


The committee will hold a special called meeting on Thursday to hear staff’s newly revised implementation plan.

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