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Animal center staff struggles to find qualified behaviorist

Friday, October 22, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

City officials are in the process of filling the new animal behaviorist position at the Town Lake Animal Center, but they’re learning that finding qualified candidates isn’t easy. Or cheap.


The animal behaviorist position was established by City Council in March as part of the Implementation Plan to Reduce Animal Intake and Increase Live Animal Outcomes – the so-call “No-Kill” ordinance. Under the terms of that plan, the city will fund a behaviorist position “to create programs that assist sheltered animals that have behavior issues and to create programs that reduce shelter intake.”


The shelter took in 23,500 animals last year. Seventy-two percent of those animals left the shelter alive, compared to 45 percent in Dallas and a just 10 percent in San Antonio, according to Acting Animal Services Officer Filip Gecic. There are 400-500 animals at the center at any given time.


Gecic says the new behaviorist position is a vital part of the city’s goal of achieving no-kill status. He said that high live outcome rates at shelters in San Diego and Reno, Nev., could – to a large degree – be attributed to the fact that both those shelters have an animal behaviorist on staff.


Gecic, who updated the Council’s Public Health and Human Services Committee on the progress of the hiring process at their meeting Tuesday, told In Fact Daily that the job is tied in to several other parts of the plan.


For instance, a behaviorist can help limit intake by educating those looking to get rid of their pets for the wrong reasons. “If an animal is brought to the shelter because of some behavioral issues,” Gecic said, “we want to have a system where we can offer resources to people so they see that they can actually retrain their dog, not just relinquish it to us.”


On the live outcome side of things, he said a good animal behaviorist will be able to reduce the number of animals being euthanized for displaying violent tendencies because often those tendencies are both misunderstood and treatable.


“There are many shades of grey with aggression, where animals might have a lot of fear-based aggression that is often related to the environment and stress of the shelter,” Gecic said. “And the behaviorist position would create programs that could help remedy that type of aggressive and consequently cut down on killing. Most animals only exhibit aggression if they were abused or have behavioral patterns that were taught to them out of ignorance or mistreatment.”


Gecic said that whoever is hired will also be responsible for creating “programs that involve volunteers and staff so that we can interact with the community on a larger scale – where we can schedule seminars and classes.”


Unfortunately, the candidates that have applied for the position thus far have not met the standards set up by the hiring committee. “We had an extremely extensive hiring process for this position, knowing how important it is,” Gecic said. “So we had five members on the hiring committee – one veterinarian, myself, an HR person, one behaviorist from the community, and a shelter volunteer. Five different perspectives to make sure we found the right person to fulfill our requirements.”


Of the two candidates who made it to the second round of the hiring process, however, neither met those requirements. Gecic said both did fine during their interviews but failed to impress the hiring committee when they were asked to spend an hour and a half with an actual dog from the shelter. As a consequence, the city is reposting the position and looking into hiring a temporary behaviorist.


Gecic told the committee on Tuesday that the reason why he and his colleagues are having such a hard time filling the position is because the city is offering a starting salary of $74,266, which is not enough to lure qualified candidates away from the private sector.


“Our sense is that it’s not paying enough for the high-level behaviorist in the community,” Gecic said. “We have some experts in town but they were not interested in applying. It wasn’t meeting what they were making as private trainers and behaviorists.” In fact, no one from Austin has applied for the job.


In response to a question from Council Member Randi Shade, Gecic said that many of the best would-be candidates can expect to make upwards of $90,000 in the private sector.


“I’m sure with this position, looking at the municipal level of funding, (the city) figure is quite appropriate,” Gecic told In Fact Daily, “but we weren’t able to get any municipal behaviorists from other towns to apply, so we were getting researchers or teachers teaching topics loosely related to the position but who weren’t really shelter behaviorist practitioners.”


Gecic has asked the Human Resources Department to look into the possibility of raising the salary for the position and said he expects a response this week.

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