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Public grills final animal services officer finalist

Thursday, December 16, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

Animal rights activists, stakeholders, and curious onlookers finally got the chance to meet the fifth, and last, finalist for the city’s animal services officer position. Tuesday night, following daytime interviews with city staff, Abigail Smith answered questions from the public about how she will run Austin’s animal-services system should she be hired to do so.


Smith, who was unable to attend the first finalist meet-and-greet in November for personal reasons, joins Linda Haller, Laura Hinze, Ellen Jefferson, and Julie Seal on the city’s short list for what promises to be an extremely demanding, and scrutinized, job (See In Fact Daily, Nov. 10).


Whoever she may be, the new director will lead a staff of 86 and oversee the transition from the current Town Lake Animal Center to Austin’s new animal center at the Betty Dunkerley Campus on Levander Loop next fall. Perhaps most significantly for the 30 or so in attendance last night, the new director will orchestrate the effort to make the city “no-kill.”


In March, City Council adopted a no-kill implementation plan to reduce animal intake and achieve a live animal outcome goal of 90 percent within 18 months.


On that front, Smith may have a distinct advantage over her colleagues. As the executive director of the Tompkins County SPCA in Ithaca, New York, for the last four years, she has experience overseeing the operations of an open-admission no-kill shelter, something that none of the other candidates have and that many Austin animal rights activists demand more than anything.


Still, some at last night’s event had concerns about Smith’s ability to transition from a small shelter to the biggest shelter in Central Texas. The Tompkins shelter took in approximately 3000 animals in 2009; the Town Lake Animal Center took in approximately 23,000. That means that Austin put to sleep twice the number of animals Tompkins even saw last year.


So how would Smith deal with that jump in numbers?


“It’s not an issue of volume; it’s an issue of capacity,” Smith responded. “And if you’ve got programs that are in place that are designed to handle your no-kill flow then you’ll have a big enough program to handle the volume. For me, you take the concepts and implement them in a bigger way.”


Overall, Smith said, the city is in a good position to begin the no-kill implementation process, but she stressed that it will take a lot of work and a lot of money to get the job done.


“I am concerned about financial resources,” she said when asked about the city’s chances for achieving no-kill status by next September. “I think that the city is in a really good place to start. I think there is room to grow and that the community will need to subsidize that funding. In order to achieve these goals and sustain them, you’re going to need community support. Those are donor dollars.”


“We need to really organize around what community groups, who are already supporting the program so much, can do to work together to do even more: a coordinated, collaborative effort.”


No date has been set for City Manager Marc Ott to make his decision.

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