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Code revision could allow Austin shelters to euthanize dangerous animals without delay

Monday, September 28, 2020 by Jackson Barton

The Animal Advisory Commission is considering a change to city code that could make it easier for city animal shelters to euthanize animals deemed too dangerous to be adopted by the public.

Commission members discussed adding an exception to the city’s animal euthanization process during their meeting Sept. 14. The new exception would give shelters the option to euthanize a small number of dogs in order to keep employees and the public safe, without permitting previous owners or other shelters to claim the animals.

Jo Anne Norton, a member of the Animal Advisory Commission, said out of the 18,841 dogs and cats taken into Austin animal shelters in 2019, the proposed exception would have applied to three dogs.

“There’s a small group (of dogs) that probably should not be offered for (rescue) because they’re just too dangerous to the public,” Norton said.

A controversial ordinance codified by City Council last October prevents Austin shelters from euthanizing an animal without first giving two days notice to other shelters, previous owners and surrenderers, so they have the chance to claim the animal instead.

Last November, one month after the change in code, an employee at the Austin Animal Center was attacked and seriously bitten by a resident American bulldog. The dog, Snowball, had a prior history of biting and aggressive behavior, according to Jennifer Olohan, Austin Animal Center program manager. Snowball was euthanized the same weekend.

In response to the attack, the Animal Advisory Commission formed a work group in January to review the language of the October ordinance-turned-city code in an effort to protect shelter employees. At the same meeting, the commission also recommended an amendment to the codified October ordinance, giving an exception to the two-day rule in cases where an animal bites a shelter employee or community member without provocation. The amendment has not yet been considered by City Council because no Council member has sponsored it.

Norton said the amendment addressing unprovoked biting could have prevented Snowball’s attack on the shelter employee, because the dog had a history of unprovoked biting and aggressive behavior at the time of the incident.

The Animal Advisory Commission work group proposed another new exception to the ordinance, giving shelters the ability to euthanize an animal for humane reasons or if an animal is seen as an immediate threat to others.

“Since I’m an on-the-ground volunteer at the shelter, I’ve seen some of these dogs. … It’s a very small percentage of dogs, but it’s a danger to the public,” Norton said. “We’ve had people leave because we have these really dangerous dogs and they don’t know what to do with them.”

Norton said some animals received by Austin shelters have suffered such catastrophic psychological damage from past abusive owners that euthanization is a more humane option than rehab.

“We want to come up with a way to be fair to the dog, but come up with a way to be safe and not put these animals in the public,” Norton said.

Norton said the group’s solution would not interfere with the city’s No Kill Implementation Plan.

Since adopting the No Kill Implementation Plan in 2010, the Austin Animal Center pledged and has succeeded in saving more than 90 percent of new shelter animals each year from being euthanized. In March 2019, the pledged save rate rose to 95 percent.

“It’s a very small amount of animals,” Norton said. “We want to make sure whatever we propose is focused on that small amount of animals and there’s no way it could (include) more animals than we think could be a problem.”

The commission delayed voting on the code amendment on Sept. 14. While the work group members included a mock-up of a high-risk assessment form in their presentation, they did not define what the assessment meant in the revised code language itself. Commission members pointed out the lack of a specific definition would allow shelters to determine what the high-risk assessment means individually.

“If your goal was that those objective criteria (included in the presentation) should be the ones that determine whether a dog qualifies as high-risk, they should be in the language of the ordinance change,” Commissioner Ryan Clinton said.

Other commission members were generally supportive of efforts to improve the safety of shelter employees and the public. Norton said that the commission will be revisiting the proposed code revision at the group’s meeting on Oct. 12, and that the solution for public safety could take a completely different approach by next month.

This story was written by a journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin. The Austin Monitor is working in partnership with the UT School of Journalism to teach and publish stories produced by students in the City and County Government Reporting course.

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