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Austin’s reputation as an animal haven may be slowing pet rescues

Monday, July 25, 2016 by Cate Malek

Six years ago, City Council passed a resolution that animal shelters would no longer kill homeless pets for the sake of space or convenience.

But now that Austin has a solid reputation as a no-kill city, Animal Services officials are worried that animal rescue groups and people wanting to adopt are going to other communities to find their pets because they feel animals are in more danger outside of Austin.

The number of animals that pet rescues are picking up from the Austin Animal Center has been on a slow decline for the past three years, according to Animal Services. Officials said that while they understand why people would want to rescue animals that could be killed if they’re not adopted, Austin animal shelters nonetheless rely on people rescuing and adopting pets in order to keep the city’s no-kill policies intact.

“We want the community to know that a no-kill shelter is not no-kill by itself,” Tawny Hammond, Austin’s chief Animal Services officer, told the Austin Monitor. “It’s a no-kill equation that relies on adopters, it relies on volunteers, it relies on support from rescues, and it relies on informed, elected officials. That’s what’s so magical and so powerful.”

Animal rescue groups, which are often small organizations run by volunteers, pick up animals from local shelters and work to get them adopted. Austin Animal Center works with more than 140 local rescues. Hammond emphasized how much the shelter appreciates these organizations.

“Rescues do the best they can, and they’re amazing, and they’re part of the life-saving equation,” she said. But Hammond added that she hears from both rescues and from people in Austin looking to adopt pets that they go outside of Austin because they believe the animals in Austin’s shelters are safe.

“We’re saying to the citizens of Travis County, ‘Yeah, the animals are safe here, but that’s because you volunteer, that’s because you foster, that’s because you adopt,’” Hammond said.

But there may be other reasons the number of animals being rescued is down. Larry Tucker, a member of the Animal Advisory Commission, told the Monitor that he’d like to spend some time analyzing the statistics before jumping to conclusions about why rescues may be taking in fewer animals. He said comparing the numbers from month to month and breaking them down by specific animals may reveal trends that the city has been missing.

“I’m happy to roll up my sleeves and dig into this issue,” he said.

According to Ellen Jefferson, executive director of Austin Pets Alive! – the city’s largest rescue partner – the reasons for the numbers may be complicated. Jefferson told the Monitor that APA’s numbers are down this summer because the number of kittens taken in by the shelter is also down significantly.

“In the summertime, we’re usually hit like a tsunami with kittens because kitten season only goes from May to November,” Jefferson said. But this year she’s seeing hundreds fewer kittens.

The reasons for the kitten decrease are unclear. Jefferson said that APA saw a similar decrease five years ago and prematurely credited the city’s spay and neuter program, but then the number of kittens spiked again a year later. One possibility is that cats are breeding less due to the heat.

Although kittens are down this year, the shelter is taking in an increased number of dogs, especially large ones.

“People tend to think that every animal is the same, and really it’s quite complex,” Jefferson said.

Everyone involved with the issue said that as Austin enters its fifth year as the largest no-kill community in the country, the city is still working out the best ways to implement the policy.

“As a city, we are exploring territory that no other city has gone through,” Jefferson said.

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