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Animal Advisory Commission debates citywide microchip mandate

Wednesday, February 16, 2022 by Kali Bramble

Members of Austin’s Animal Advisory Commission butted heads this past Monday over a proposal that would mandate the use of microchips for all pet owners in the city.

Following a study by volunteer researchers at UT Austin, the commission’s microchip working group encouraged recommending the mandate to City Council. The ensuing debate suggested that the conversation is far from over.

“Our working group has looked at a lot of data,” Chief Animal Services Officer Don Bland said. “All of it points to animals getting home.”

Among the issues plaguing shelters as the city grows in population is an increasing number of lost animals who fail to reunite with their owners, an added stressor for shelters already struggling with overcrowding. In a shelter system with limited resources, staffers insist that microchipping is the only guaranteed solution.

The UT study analyzed shelter intake and rate of return data to draw the unsurprising conclusion that microchipped animals are twice as likely to be returned to their owners when lost. However, Commissioner Ryan Clinton argued that the results weren’t sufficient to extrapolate the need for a mandate.

“Just a few numbers are doing a lot of the work in the conclusions being drawn here,” said Clinton, noting that Austinites have shown no resistance to microchipping when given the opportunity. “If the problem is there’s so much demand out there that we don’t have the budget to supply for, we don’t solve that problem by criminalizing pet ownership.”

For Bland, the results of the UT study were less relevant than data from other cities measuring the impact of microchip mandates.

“Dallas implemented a mandate back in 2017. Prior to that they were averaging a number of 176 returns a month. By 2019, they were averaging 938 returns per month,” said Bland, who cited similar results in Port St. Lucie, Florida, and Reno, Nevada. “Toss out the UT data and we would still be making this recommendation.”

Still, commissioners were skeptical about the efficacy of a mandate. “If we’re going to make something a mandate, the devil is always going to be in the details,” Commission Chair Craig Nazor said. “Ordinances, like our leash laws, don’t always work out the way we intend them to. The trouble is usually enforcement.”

It is the question of enforcement that Clinton found so troublesome. “When you criminalize something, there is an enormous cost to the community, and we see time and time again that this overwhelmingly burdens people of color and the poor.” Clinton also recalled Austin’s effort to institute a mandatory pet registration back in 2005, calling it a “colossal failure.”

Bland responded that other cities enforcing mandates take a “non-punitive” approach, with maximum fines for noncompliance in the range of $50 to $100. “The goal is just to get the animal microchipped … in courts with minor infractions, if you get in compliance within a certain time period, they’ll just throw it out.”

Others were still unconvinced. “Was there any discussion over providing more access?” asked Commissioner Palmer Neuhaus, who noted the popularity of the Austin Animal Center’s existing free microchip service. “If people are this receptive, why are we mandating it instead of making it more available?”

Photo by Joelmills, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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