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Animal Services Officer hopefuls grilled by staff, stakeholders, public

Wednesday, November 10, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

Candidates for the city’s new Chief Animal Services Officer got a thorough going-over on Monday.


Early in the day, the four candidates – chosen as finalists from a group of almost 80 applicants – interviewed with the city’s executive search committee and a stakeholders’ committee. That was followed by a meeting Monday night where they were introduced to members of the community in a forum where they could discuss issues and answer questions.


The new director will be taking over the position at a crucial time. She will lead a staff of 86 and oversee the transition from the current Town Lake Animal Center to Austin’s new animal center next fall at the Betty Dunkerley Campus on Levander Loop.


The first candidate to face the public was Julie Seal, the former director of charitable development for Anova, an organization in Santa Rosa, Calif., assisting children with autism and learning disabilities. In 1995, Seal founded the first animal welfare organization in Phoenix. According to Seal’s biography, that organization facilitated the adoption of more than 9,000 “non-adoptable” animals in 10 years.


She also worked as the development director for the Sonoma County Humane Society and vice president of development for the Arizona Humane Society. 


Seal told the audience that she hopes to bring the community together in service of a common goal.


“One of the biggest challenges – which is also one of the greatest opportunities – is bringing this community together,” she said. “Bottom line, we all have the same goals. We want to celebrate every adoption; we want to save as many lives as possible. We want to become no kill. We need to focus on what we have in common and move in that direction.”


Austin Veterinarian Ellen Jefferson, the only local candidate among the four, faced some tougher questions. As the founder of EmanciPET spay/neuter clinic and the current president of Austin Pets Alive!, Jefferson has been at the center of many disagreements among members of the city’s animal welfare community over the years.


Jefferson was asked by one woman how she intends to foster a good relationship with other rescue groups in the city, adding that she had “shown bias” in previous dealings with them.

Jefferson took issue with the claim that she had shown bias or created discord among rescue groups, saying she doesn’t care how animals are saved, as long as they are. “My role would be to engage as many rescue groups as possible so people take as many animals as they can,” she said. “It’s critically important that the shelter director is open to every single group that’s out there and tries to make the shelter a welcoming place.”


The third candidate was Linda Haller, a former animal service officer in the Orange County, Fla., Animal Services Division and, most recently, the director of shelter operations at the Hawaiian Humane Society in Honolulu.


Haller used her time to promote education as a vital part of improving animal welfare in Austin. She even went so far as to take issue with the phrase “no kill,” saying it “gives a misconception to the general public. We need to explain to the public that we are doing euthanasia, not hiding the fact. We need to educate people about what we’re doing and being very open about what we’re doing. That will make the difference in terms of how much the public trusts us.”


The final candidate was Laura Hinze, who since 2003 has served as the operations director for PAWS Chicago, a group that operates the largest spay/neuter clinic in the country. She said that her experience in the corporate world has given her the ability to effectively run a shelter by honing her ability to “work to mission” and team-build.


She told the audience that she is interested in the job because it would offer the opportunity to work in an environment with clear, set goals and to do good for the community. “The opportunity that I see here with the statement the city has made to move to no kill is much easier than trying to push for (no kill),” Hinze said. “There are metrics and standards that the code is speaking to that give everyone an opportunity to see how we’re going to win.”


Though the crowd seemed generally friendly, there was some concern about the field of candidates. Amy Mills, executive director of EmanciPET, told In Fact Daily she would have liked if the city had found someone with experience running a shelter as large as Austin’s. 


According to Larry Tucker, the chairman of the Animal Advisory Commission and a member of the stakeholders committee, Mills might just get her wish. Tucker told In Fact Daily that the fifth finalist, Abigail Smith, who took her name out of consideration for the job on Friday, is the executive director of an animal shelter in Ithaca, N.Y. He said that shelter is not only comparable in size to the Austin shelter but is completing its tenth year as a no-kill facility, with a save rate of 96 percent. Tucker said the stakeholders had asked Assistant City Manager Bert Lumbreras to evaluate the possibility of extending the application process to allow Smith to be reconsidered.


Tucker said he does not know whether Smith, who is dealing with family issues, would be willing to come back.


The four candidates were recommended by Heidi J. Voorhees, a recruiter who was contracted by the city to conduct a nationwide search for a new animal shelter director following the reassignment of Dorinda Pulliam in May. During the two months the job was posted, the city received 79 resumes from applicants in 24 states. Voorhees narrowed that number down to eight, and the search committee settled on five to invite to Austin for interviews.


City Manager Marc Ott will make the final decision.

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