Monday, September 21, 2020 by Savana Dunning

Animal Advisory Commission to vote for new animal shelter pilot program

The Animal Advisory Commission is voting on a recommendation Monday for Austin to adopt a decentralized, foster home-based approach to animal services.

Although the Austin Animal Center is considered an essential service by city ordinance, the shelter has had difficulties managing its continued intake of animals with fewer staff members and adopters. To combat this issue, the commission is considering a proposal by Austin Pets Alive! for Austin to join 30 other cities in piloting a new animal services model called Human Animal Support Services.

The HASS program was developed in June by American Pets Alive! – the parent organization of the local rescue nonprofit – after nation-wide pandemic shutdowns began to affect municipal shelter operations. The program seeks to limit animal intake to physical animal shelters by increasing foster system participation and offering remote services for those who need help with strays or sick and injured pets.

“The goal is to have any animal that is capable to come in, get checked in, get their vaccinations, go out as fast as they can to foster and only take in animals that are maybe sick, injured, might have behavioral problems and whatnot,” Commission Chair David Lundstedt said. “What we’ve found over the years is that it’s definitely cheaper to keep an animal in a foster home and it’s also proven that animals get adopted from a foster home quicker.”

The HASS model is finder-to-foster, meaning those who find stray pets would turn them in to a nearby foster home. The decentralized model also has animal shelter employees provide support services for those who may need to surrender a pet, instead of having them come to the shelter.

Although the program has been discussed since June and materials were present in meeting backups in July, the advisory commission had yet to take action on the issue until August. At the commission’s July meeting, several community members called in expressing concerns over where the proposed program places liability should an animal injure someone. Many said it places an undue burden on community members and exacerbates the stray animal issues experienced by underserved communities like in East Austin, where the majority of stray animals are found.

Austin Pets Alive! Director Ellen Jefferson said HASS was actually designed to address the inequities in municipal animal care that come from having one centralized animal shelter.

“(The current shelter model) is still 100 percent reliant on people being able to check the internet and actually go to the animal shelter to claim their pet,” Jefferson said in an interview. “The neighborhoods that contribute the most strays are also the ones with the least amount of resources to be able to access the shelter.”

Jefferson gave her official presentation on HASS to the Animal Advisory Commission in August. After Jefferson’s presentation, several commissioners had questions regarding the program that Jefferson could not answer, due to technical difficulties. The commission voted to create a working group to explore the concept further.

The commission created a YouTube channel where it has hosted recordings of the working group meetings. The videos, which have less than 300 views combined at press time and comments are turned off, feature hours of discussions between members over whether it would be feasible to implement the program in Austin.

At the commission’s Sept. 14 meeting, Lundstedt went over a few of the concerns addressed by the working group. He said the group established that the city would still be legally liable for animals in the foster-care system and recognized the possibility that the city might have to make a few ordinance changes, depending on how the program develops. Commissioner Palmer Neuhaus agreed, saying that the details of Austin’s no-kill policy were not addressed until after it was established. Commissioner Craig Nazor, who said he plans to support the proposal, also cited Austin’s pioneering of the no-kill effort, saying the city should continue to lead in innovating animal services.

“Let’s keep moving, because if you think what we’re doing now is as good as we can do, I’m sorry, I don’t think it is,” Nazor said. “And that’s not being mean, I think everyone’s doing a good job, I just think we can do better and this is our best chance of us being able to do that.”

Commissioner Andrea Schwartz, one of the commissioners who originally expressed concerns when the HASS program was first presented, said while she supports the model’s ideas, she doesn’t see it as being a feasible option for Austin.

“As a boots-on-the-ground volunteer for 18 years, I’ve seen what lack of staffing means,” Schwartz said. “I’ve seen how a great program suffers without the staff to make it work. As I’ve said, I’ve been a soldier for no-kill for nine years. I’ve seen how much more humane it could be with enough staff to make it work and that is my concern … HASS would be adding more services. If we’re going to add more services, we need to add the commensurate staff to make it successful.”

Commissioner Ryan Clinton, who also participated in the working group, also suggested that HASS would require an increase in animal care providers in order to function properly.

Jefferson said since Austin Pets Alive! was established to “fill in the gaps” for Austin Animal Center, the proposed move will not affect the nonprofit’s operations or services. The commission plans to discuss and potentially vote on the proposal on Sept. 21.

This story has been changed since publication. The proposed pilot does not recommend any changes to open intake, as was originally reported.

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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 Pets Alive!: An animal shelter with unique rescue programs targeting animals that would have been euthanized.

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