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Animal Services chief responds to department audit

Tuesday, December 15, 2015 by Jack Craver

Austin is a leader in animal shelter and care, but the common metrics used for auditing animal care facilities have not kept pace with its no-kill policy, Chief Animal Services Officer Tawny Hammond told the Audit and Finance Committee on Monday.

“We have to have standards and accreditation for no-kill communities,” she said. “We need to have measurable goals. What does success look like?”

A recent city audit noted that while the agency has succeeded in its goal of releasing 90 percent of its animals alive, it is falling short on a number of measures established by national best practices. The audit was released in April, prior to Hammond’s takeover as head of the Animal Services Department, so her official response was delayed until now.

According to the audit, “Animal Services does not have sufficient facilities and resources allocated to meet the City’s live outcome goal and remain in line with State requirements and industry best practices.”

As a result, shelters are overcrowded, many animals are not receiving consistent care and it often takes too long for personnel to respond to citizen reports of injured or aggressive animals, according to the audit. Nor does it do enough to safeguard medications, a problem that could lead to misuse or bring the agency into conflict with federal regulations.

“The auditor did a great job,” Hammond told the Austin Monitor after the meeting. “They’re using national animal care and control standards. There are some components in there that are very applicable, but not totally. So one of the things we’re working on across the country is developing standards for what Austin’s doing, and that is not killing for convenience or space.”

The overcrowded facilities, explained Hammond, are in some ways a result of the no-kill policy, which Austin implemented in 2010. “Most other communities are euthanizing 50 percent of their population,” she said. “They’re lucky if they’re saving 25 percent of their population.”

Council Member Pio Renteria asked whether the agency could build more space to accommodate more animals. Hammond said that strategies aimed at expediting adoptions and preventing animals from being orphaned is the key to reducing crowding. She suggested increased cooperation with private organizations to spay and neuter more animals, including by setting up satellite locations throughout area.

“I don’t think we can build our way out of this,” she said.

Council Member Ora Houston similarly raised concerns about whether there was enough staff to respond to calls from citizens at all times. “When animals get hurt on the weekends, they just lay there until they die,” she said.

Hammond responded that the agency had staff on duty from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week and one staffer who works until midnight, but she conceded that her 22 employees are stretched thin when responding to calls. The agency serves Austin as well as all other communities in Travis County that do not have their own animal services. She added that officials from the county, who partner with the city to provide staff to the agency, have expressed openness to contributing more staff.

One resident, Zoila Vega, attended the meeting to criticize Hammond’s leadership, saying that Animal Services responded late to her call about an injured dog and that Hammond had disrespected the county by supporting plans to end a joint city-county contract with Texas Wildlife Services for coyote management. Vega’s speaking time had been donated by Michael Fossum, who last week told the Public Safety Commission that ending the program, as the Animal Advisory Commission has recommended, would compromise safety.

Hammond said her position in favor of establishing a new program was not based on disrespect. She said the current policy, which members of the Animal Advisory Commission believe emphasizes unnecessary killing of coyotes, is not based on science or best practices. She cited a long-term study on Chicago’s management of its urban coyote population.

Reached by the Monitor, David Lundstedt, chair of the Animal Advisory Commission, said that a number of city committees have expressed interest in examining his commission’s recommendation that the city and county hire their own biologist to oversee a new strategy on coyotes, instead of contracting with TWS. The vote by the county to renew its contract with TWS doesn’t mean the city won’t be able to eventually implement an alternative policy, he said.

“I certainly don’t feel like that was a setback,” he added.

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