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City clarifies shelter policies

Tuesday, June 28, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

A clarification about the ownership of shelter animals should keep the city out of legal trouble, though some City Council members had reservations that the changes were moving too fast.

Kristen Auerbach, who is the deputy chief animal services officer at the Austin Animal Center, explained that the ordinance is based on a recent ruling by the Texas Supreme Court. In that case, a dog was impounded by the city of Houston and transferred to a rescue group after the mandatory impound period was over. The owners attempted to claim their dog from the rescue group, unsuccessfully, but subsequently won the court case against the group.

Auerbach explained that the implication of the ruling is that each city must have an ordinance that stipulates animals are owned by the city after a mandatory stray period. To address that, Austin’s new ordinance clarifies that after the existing three-day hold period, animals become the property of the city. The three-day period does not apply to surrendered animals, and the ordinance does allow animals to be transferred to another group earlier, if it will save an animal’s life.

The ordinance was approved by Council last week in a vote of 10-0-1, with Council Member Ora Houston abstaining.

Houston questioned why the ordinance was being treated as an emergency. “I hear about the legality, but we get sued every day at the city of Austin,” she said. “So that’s not a fear factor for me.”

Council Member Don Zimmerman said that his concern was that in cases of natural disasters, the three-day period might not be enough. He unsuccessfully pushed to have the ordinance sent to the Public Safety Committee for more deliberation.

Austin Pets Alive! Executive Director Ellen Jefferson explained that the ordinance would allow her organization to legally treat pets that had been handed over by the city. Having faced legal problems for just that in the past, Jefferson called the new ordinance “critically important” and said it was urgent for the rules to be spelled out. She explained that the risk of lawsuits could cause them to lose veterinarians at the shelters, who need the legal ability to treat animals in their care.

During Thursday’s meeting, some animal advocates expressed concern that the ordinance, as written, left open the possibility of animals being transferred to foster homes or to shelters in counties that are not no-kill.

Assistant City Manager Bert Lumbreras clarified that animals would be transferred only within the county and explained that the ordinance was integral to Austin’s no-kill policies, not contrary to them.

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