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Animal commission asks Council to make changes at city-run shelter

Wednesday, August 11, 2021 by Amy Smith

The Animal Advisory Commission voted Monday to ask City Council to immediately implement a set of recommendations to alleviate logjams at the Austin Animal Center in an attempt to ward off the specter of animals being euthanized as a management solution to a shelter space crisis.

The commission’s action further exemplifies the growing tension between commissioners and the animal center’s leadership.

The recommendations, crafted by a commission working group, are a direct response to a June memo from Chief Animal Services Officer Don Bland to Mayor Steve Adler warning that euthanasia was a possibility if the shelter was not able to get a handle on its space crunch.

Austin has been a nationally recognized no-kill city since 2010. The no-kill policy, which continues to have the strong backing of a majority of Council members, relies on partner rescue organizations and volunteers to ensure its success.

The working group, led by Commissioner Palmer Neuhaus, produced a report identifying several problem areas along with recommendations for mitigating the issues. The report identified the shelter’s spay/neuter function as “the single greatest source of bottleneck” and suggested a practice of sterilizing healthy animals within 48 hours of taking possession of them.

Additional recommendations address rebooting the shelter’s public resources, such as keeping the intake unit – the Pet Resource Center – open seven days a week; providing drive-thru hours for microchip scanning and pet food and other supplies; and staffing animal protection officers for seven-day work weeks.

“Staff shortages should be mitigated with robust volunteer integration wherever appropriate,” the report states. The recommendations also call for the city to designate the shelter as an essential service that’s allowed to keep staff and volunteers on-site at capacity levels.

The working group found the animal center’s new space-saving initiative to transport dogs to out-of-state shelters problematic. A dog targeted for transport is marked as “unavailable” to the public, which eliminates the possibility of a local adoption or rescue by a partnering organization. Animals slated for transport should be marked as unavailable for no more than 24 hours, the report recommends.

The report noted that the Austin Animal Center’s programming has been on the decline for the last two years and recommends a more robust return to staff- and volunteer-driven enrichment programs.

The commission requested weekly access to all data collected on sterilizations, space count reports on all kennels and a running tally and other information on dogs and cats marked “unavailable.”

In its written response to the commission, the animal center pushed back on several points. To accomplish sterilizations within the recommended 48 hours, the shelter would need to eliminate emergency services for stray and owner-surrendered animals. “Without this emergency medical care, these animals would be at risk of euthanasia,” shelter officials wrote. “These emergency services are an integral part of our operations and has made a significant impact on the live outcome rate.”

Keeping the Pet Resource Center open seven days a week would result in increased intake and reduced kennel space, the animal center said, adding that staffing would pose a problem and that it’s impractical to rely on volunteers to handle such an emotionally charged responsibility.

Animal center officials also rebuffed the recommendation to limit the “unavailable” designation for dogs marked to be transported to shelters in other states, citing several logistical problems with the change and the fact that the new transport program is still being refined.

The commission, however, did not accept shelter officials’ rationale for not accepting the recommendations. Several commissioners expressed their distaste for the new transport program altogether, noting that pets were recently shipped to communities in Colorado and Wisconsin that have higher kill rates than Austin.

“Our recommendation on this topic does not change,” Commissioner Monica Frenden said each time she summarized the center’s response to each recommendation.

The motion to send the recommendations to Council garnered a 7-3 vote, with commissioners Lotta Smagula, Jo Anne Norton and Luis Herrera dissenting and two commissioners absent.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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