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Animal shelter audit calls out overcrowding, management issues for no-kill facility

Tuesday, September 26, 2023 by Chad Swiatecki

An audit of operations at the Austin Animal Shelter has found that the no-kill facility is often beyond its capacity and lacks the data, staff and processes to meet the city’s 95 percent live-release goal.

A draft copy of the audit, which was called for last summer by City Council, produced four broad findings, including that the shelter’s goal of managing 16,000 animals per year and providing humane care for animals is in conflict with the live-release goal that was instituted by Council in 2019. Its other findings: The shelter is not finding enough homes for animals and is overcrowded as a result; relationships with the shelter and stakeholders including the Animal Advisory Commission are strained and affect working conditions; and the shelter lacks data to track its activities or make the best operational decisions.

While the shelter has reliably met the 95 percent threshold for dogs and cats – though it has fallen below that mark when all species are considered – the audit found that goal has occasionally caused the facility to close its acceptance of new animals needing shelter. Also, the lack of an overall strategic plan has caused its goals to come into conflict regularly.

The audit offered six recommendations: Work with Council and city staff to find a balance in goals and policies; establish a collaborative strategic plan that identifies the resources needed to achieve its goals; take steps to address health and safety for staff and animals; improve training and monitoring of staff; begin rebuilding relationships with stakeholders and partner organizations; improve the accuracy and consistency of all data involved in shelter operations.

The audit is one of several items on the agenda for Wednesday’s meeting of City Council’s Audit and Finance Committee.

The audit suggests that some of the issues with the shelter, which the Animal Services Office oversees, are a result of the deterioration of relationships with Austin Pets Alive! (APA) and the Animal Advisory Commission.

APA is the shelter’s largest transfer partner, and in 2022 a revision to its contract with the city cut the number of animals it was required to intake by more than half. That reduction from approximately 3,000 animals per year to just under 1,400 in 2022 caused the shelter to at times house more than 500 animals instead of its ideal capacity of 350.

Last summer, the animal commission passed a vote of no confidence in chief animal services officer Don Bland, though an outside consultant found the shelter’s euthanasia policies are “in line with best practices for the animal sheltering industry” and “perhaps the best policy we have encountered in all of our evaluations.”

That finding appears to run counter to community opinions about the shelter, with the audit noting current and former shelter directors reported multiple instances of trauma and harassment: “They said they were called names like murderer, told to die in the street and threatened. One person shared an experience in which they were followed home after work and had to call the police.”

The auditor also referenced the high turnover in shelter leadership since Austin became a no-kill city in 2010, with eight interim or permanent directors including Bland, who has served in the role for four years.

In a memo responding to the audit, Bland wrote that the shelter will take steps to improve staff development and training. Bland said crowding at the shelter creates challenges in caring for animals, adding “ASO will establish a schedule to ensure cleaning protocols are updated, including the work done by our vendors.”

He also appears to support creating a new strategic plan for the shelter, writing, “a new strategic plan is warranted. The plan will guide the shelter in balancing open intake while maintaining a specified live release rate.”

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