Tuesday, September 15, 2020 by Savana Dunning

Animal Advisory Commission asks Council to unfreeze hiring for animal protection officers

The Animal Advisory Commission unanimously approved a recommendation for City Council to unfreeze hiring for certain Animal Services staff Monday.

Currently, 12 full-time positions that had been budgeted for in the 2020 budget remain vacant in the Animal Services Department. Four of these are animal protection officers, who are responsible for protecting animals from abusive situations and containing wildlife or aggressive animals.

The department has been in a hiring freeze alongside other city departments that are considered “nonessential services.” Chief Animal Services Officer Don Bland said that the shelter is not considered an essential service under state or federal guidelines, although the city guidelines are a little unclear.

“When the first mayor’s orders came out in March, we were not listed as one of the essential services, but shortly thereafter we got them to put in animals in the next release,” Bland said. “We’re essential in terms of we can have staff on-site to work, they realize that.”

Commissioner Craig Nazor, whose work group came up with the recommendation, said his discussions with former Animal Services Chief Tawny Hammond pointed to a seven-officer deficiency years ago, since the shelter services the entire county. He notes that deficiency has not been corrected.

“We’ve got these good APOs and they’re doing a good job in the middle of a pandemic to keep animals out of the shelter because we’ve got an issue with how many people can help care for the animals in the shelter,” Nazor said. “If we are an essential service, why are we freezing our APOs?”

Commissioner Palmer Neuhaus asked Bland whether the shelter’s operations had improved since March, and Bland said they had, although the shelter has adoption appointments booked through October. He plans to have adoption events like the one that took place Saturday every other week without adoption appointments. The shelter is developing a system that could free up some volunteers previously working customer service to help with other on-site duties.

Bland also said that 13 of the 20 staff members working remotely during the pandemic were also working on-site at the shelter. He said starting Oct. 1, seven others would be working on-site occasionally.

There are seven vacant temporary positions, including an opening for a wildlife animal protection officer for the city, although hiring is not frozen for temporary positions. The department plans for this position to become a permanent position with benefits under a new agreement with Travis County.

Nazor raised the concern that Travis County’s wildlife management team has to make up for the lack of city officers, but Bland said that responsibility is spread among other animal protection officers.

Nazor had another proposal that would recommend Council unfreeze all Animal Services hiring, but the commission did not vote on it.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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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.

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

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