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Animal Advisory Commission votes down euthanasia code amendment

Monday, October 19, 2020 by Jackson Barton

The city animal shelter must wait two business days before euthanizing a pet and must give other shelters or former owners the chance to claim the pet. A recent vote by the Animal Advisory Commission will ensure the rules stay that way for now.

The commission voted 8-3 not to move forward with a code amendment that would allow the city animal shelter to euthanize animals deemed dangerous without giving notice or a chance of rescue to other rescue organizations or shelters.

Under the proposed code amendment, an animal would need to demonstrate four out of seven dangerous behaviors to be considered for euthanasia without notice. Behaviors included incidents of severe biting, escalation of severity of bite incidents, no warning before bites, returning to normal behavior after bites, aggression toward other animals, aggression toward humans, and the inability for shelter staff to safely care for or transfer the animal.

Animal Advisory Commissioner Jo Anne Norton said the group working on the amendment spoke with animal behaviorists, and that the purpose of the code amendment is to encompass not just unprovoked bites, but escalating behavior that could lead to a bite.

A controversial ordinance codified by City Council last October prevents Austin animal shelters from euthanizing an animal without giving two days’ notice to other shelters and former owners and surrenderers, to give them the chance to claim the animal.

Members of the commission took issue with the proposed criteria as being too broad and heavily informed by past situations involving bites, rather than scientific evidence.

“Usually when you want to do something like this you want to have some kind of scientific knowledge that these things are accurate predictors other than a few anecdotes, and we don’t have that,” Commissioner Ryan Clinton said. “In some ways we’re just kind of guessing.”

Clinton said he would be much more comfortable voting in favor of the amendment if it included the first three criteria –  incidents of severe bites, escalation of severe bites and no warning before bites – which he said were more specific and measurable than the rest. He also said criteria like aggression toward other animals is a false flag because it is relatively common in dogs, and should not be a factor leading to euthanasia.

“Lots and lots of dogs have demonstrated aggression towards other animals if you count squirrels, cats, rats,” Clinton said.

Removing all criteria but the first three would eliminate the amendment’s ability to preemptively single out animals that had not already bitten a human, which Clinton said is good because current methods are bad at predicting canine behavior.

“I’m very fearful of criteria that are not proven to be predictive in a statute that allows shelters to kill,” Clinton said. “I’d be highly reluctant to support anything designed to be predictive but not based on science.”

Norton said removing all criteria but the first three goes against the purpose of the code amendment, which is to predict and prevent biting incidents before they happen in order to protect shelter staff and the public.

“We don’t think just focusing on bites is enough,” Norton said.

The commission already passed an exception to the two-day notice rule in January for dogs with a history of severe unprovoked biting, which Clinton authored. However, that code amendment has not yet gone to Council for a vote.

Norton said in an email she is not sure how she will proceed with the code revision discussion after the vote, but that she’s committed to ensuring the safety of shelter staff and the public.

Since adopting the No Kill Implementation Plan in 2010, the Austin Animal Center pledged to and succeeded in saving the lives of more than 90 percent of new shelter animals each year. In March 2019, the pledged save rate rose to 95 percent. Norton said the working group’s code amendment would not impact the city’s no-kill goals, because it applies to so few animals.

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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