Monday, March 21, 2016 by Vicky Garza

Animal Services punts spay and neuter proposal

The Animal Advisory Commission voted down a proposal last week that would have allowed animal shelter staff to spay or neuter an animal the first time it is impounded. Instead, the commissioners will wait for the results of a six-month study that will be conducted by Austin Animal Services.

Discussion of the agenda item, which was quite contentious at times, took up about half of the two-hour meeting, which was held at the Austin Animal Center, away from the South By Southwest hubbub.

It ended with a 3-6-1 vote, with commissioners David Lundstedt, Isabel Mier and Angela Means voting in favor and Commissioner Lisa Mitchell abstaining.

Mitchell later told the Austin Monitor: “I don’t believe the motion is ripe for consideration in the absence of solid data.”

Currently, city code states that “the city manager or the manager of an animal shelter may sterilize an animal if it has been impounded two or more times.” The proposed language would have changed the regulation such that an animal could be sterilized upon first impoundment.

At the previous Animal Advisory Commission meeting, commissioners had asked city staff for a report on sterilizations over the last three years. However, the Austin Animal Services Department is short one analyst position and is relying on Health and Human Services to pull that information, said Tawny Hammond, Chief Animal Services Officer. Hammond said that staff was working on getting more information.

Hammond, in the meantime, along with Deputy Chief Animal Services Officer Kristen Auerbach, presented the information that staff was able to retrieve from Fiscal Year 2015.

Last year, 24 cats and 519 dogs were returned to their owners unsterilized after the first time they were impounded. Of those, two cats and 216 dogs were impounded a second time, with the two cats and 204 of the dogs sterilized before they were returned. The ones that were not sterilized were given waivers for various reasons: The animals were of old age, in poor health, from outside Austin or had been stolen.

Owners are charged $30 for impounding if they agree to have their pet altered and $150 to reclaim a pet if they choose not to elect for the surgery.

However, Auerbach said, “Fees have not been consistently applied, and we’re not sure they were offered spay/neuter surgery.” For example, many reclamation fees were waived during flooding.

“We’re not saying the past has been all messed up, but there is no field manual for what we’re doing,” said Hammond, who is in her eighth month on the job. “We don’t have proof of consistency.”

Additionally, said Auerbach, “in the data collection, we realized there is a lot of info we don’t have.” She would like to know what breeds they are, where they’re coming from, why people aren’t sterilizing them or if they were even offered sterilization when they reclaimed them the first time. There could be other factors at play in pet owners’ decisions, such as lack of education, she said.

“I have an interest in finding out more from a study, but a bigger interest in making the change to first impoundment,” said Lundstedt, who wanted to move forward on changing the current code in conjunction with conducting the study. “In my opinion, if we would have had spay/neuter required on first impoundment, we wouldn’t have had 216 dogs going unaltered between first and second impoundment.”

He added, “I don’t see anything in the data that it would be a bad thing to implement. I feel like our motion is being sabotaged by a study.”

“I respectfully disagree, David,” said Mitchell. “The data doesn’t show me what I need to know.”

“I think it’s worth doing data,” agreed Commissioner Kristen Kjellberg. “I practice evidence-based medicine, so I want to make evidence-based decisions.”

Kjellberg, a veterinarian, said that she’s been working very hard for a long time to build goodwill in the community. “I can’t tell you how hard it was to put a microchip in an animal because people were untrusting,” Kjellberg said. Additionally, there are medical considerations that need to be taken into account, she said.

Commissioner Mike Kaviani added that he was concerned about the unintended consequences the change could bring about. “When we have the data, we will actually know what needs to be fixed,” he said.

Further stating his case to the contrary, Lundstedt said it was “irresponsible for a city to advocate the principles of ‘no kill’ and not do everything they can to spay/neuter.” Changing city code so that the surgery would be required on first impoundment would be “a step to show that we’re doing something,” he said.

“A study shows we care,” countered Commissioner Robert Shaw.

“I’d like people to leave with a good relationship, feeling the city works with them rather than feel(ing) the city forces stuff on them,” said Commissioner Palmer Neuhaus.

According to the city staff’s report, there is some disagreement among animal welfare groups on this issue. The Austin Humane Society has voiced support for the change to first impoundment, but Austin Pets Alive! and Emancipet have requested further information before stating an opinion.

Just before the commission voted, Hammond stated that her department wasn’t taking a stance and that “we’re going to collect this information no matter what; we’re going to improve our data collection.”

Starting March 15, people who choose not to have their pet sterilized after first impoundment will be asked to fill out a one-page survey. “The main piece of data we’re hoping to collect is why people opt not to have their pets spayed or neutered,” said Auerbach.

The Monitor confirmed that Austin Animal Services started the pilot study on Tuesday and will provide the commission with a monthly update on its findings.

Photo by Eli Duke (kittens spooning) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Animal Advisory Commission: The Animal Advisory Commission advises the Austin City Council and the Travis County Commissioners Court on Texas Health and Safety Code compliance regarding animal shelters and on animal welfare policies.

Animal Services: This is the city department tasked with running the city's animal shelter, providing care to more than 20,000 animals a year, and maintaining Austin's no-kill status.

Health and Human Services Department: This city department promotes community health through programs like WIC, maternal and child health, birth and death certificates, restaurant inspections, and grants administration.

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