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Austin suffers from lack of animal protection officers

Friday, July 15, 2016 by Cate Malek

Although Austin has a reputation as a city of pet lovers, a chronic shortage of animal protection officers may be putting pets, and local communities, at risk.

The city currently has 20 officers, only one-third of the number recommended by the National Animal Care and Control Association’s standards. Animal Services is asking City Council for a budget increase to pay for 10 additional officers, but realistically expects to get only three. This will leave Animal Services struggling to cope with Austin’s rapid growth, staff members said.

“We’re keeping pace reasonably well, but we’re just going to keep falling behind if we don’t get additional officers,” said Lee Ann Shenefiel, the deputy chief of Animal Services.

As Austin has maintained its status as the fastest-growing city in the country, Animal Services has been receiving between 1,000-2,000 more calls a year since 2012. Austin’s population has also grown more dispersed as its residents expand outside of densely packed urban areas. This means that officers are spending more of their time traveling, Shenefiel said.

Animal Services strongly promotes Austin as the country’s largest no-kill city, meaning that 90 percent of the homeless animals sent to shelters are kept alive. But that policy means that shelters are constantly at- or overcapacity.

One of Animal Services’ main strategies is to keep animals from being sent to shelters in the first place. This task largely falls on animal protection officers who are sent into communities to help with procedures such as spaying and neutering animals or basic vet care. The officers also give out ID tags or microchips to help pet owners find their animals if they go missing.

Animal Services’ strategy is similar to community policing, Shenefiel said. When there is a shortage of officers, then their time is spent responding to emergencies such as dog bites or injured animals. If there were more officers, they would have time to proactively work with communities to prevent emergencies before they start.

“The animal protection officers are the first line of defense in keeping down intake numbers,” said David Lundstedt, the chair of the Animal Advisory Commission. He believes the additional officers would pay for themselves over time because they would save the city the cost of intake and sheltering homeless animals.

At an Animal Advisory Commission meeting on July 11, Lundstedt expressed his frustration that the lack of animal protection officers would hit some communities in Austin harder than others. Shenefiel agreed, saying that there are “some areas on the east or south sides where neighborhoods could benefit from having a more routine animal protection officer presence.”

Lundstedt said that the recently passed homestead exemption would take away $3.8 million in the city budget, which could have been used to increase the number of officers.

“(That money) would certainly have gone a long way,” he said.

A complete list of Austin Monitor donors can be found here. Photo by Elizabeth Anderson made available through a Creative Commons license.

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