For the last 8 years, the City of Austin has been the largest No Kill City in America, where 97.5% of the animals that enter Austin Animal Center’s (AAC) doors leave alive.
Even though we as a city have been extremely successful in saving lives, AAC is going through a difficult time with a 20% increase in animal intake between 2018 and 2019. AAC is currently facing a “space crisis,” meaning every kennel is inhabited by one or more pets and there is no space for incoming animals. Each summer, like in most lifesaving shelters, AAC faces a similar situation; this year, it is exacerbated by the higher-than-usual intake. Despite this, AAC is committed to not killing animals simply because kennels are currently full. I am writing today to help provide some context for this complex situation.
History: For the last 100 years, the national shelter system has been built on fear-based-killing. The animal shelter world is lightyears behind most other industries when it comes to data collection and analysis that could lead to critical lifesaving advancements. Single instances with individual animals where things go wrong (or could go wrong) cause people to make rules for all animals. It’s an industry where very little innovation has occurred; therefore, progress can't be measured against the past. There is also limited funding for future innovation, keeping the industry relatively stagnant.
Even in Austin, a city that has become the poster child for the highest save rate possible, fear mongering occurs when there is a hint of anything that is not perfect. People can be quick to recite false conclusions that have been said for the last 20 years—as long as I have lived in Austin—even if they defy data analysis and critical thinking. In this case, when AAC is taking in more animals than last year, the obvious fear-based accusations that appear no matter what issue is at hand are:
So, let's address them.
Does No Kill Work?
AAC has been able to maintain an unprecedented save rate after decades of killing the majority of the animals entering the shelter. It can appear to be magical, or a fluke, because it is that unprecedented. But the reality is that it is a very carefully laid out set of processes and programs that make our city No Kill. It is the adherence to those practices that has kept and will keep Austin No Kill, not the good fortune of a person or the whim of a do-gooder. That does not mean it is easy. In fact, it has been difficult from day one, and it’s difficult today. The key is that whenever there is an obstacle, we find a solution other than death.
Is more spay/neuter the solution?
We interpret this to mean that there is a belief that there are “too many” pets in Austin. This is a fear-based belief built on well-intentioned messaging from national humane organizations over the last 40 years. Unfortunately, the message that spay and neuter will stop shelter killing has done animals, especially those who end up in shelters, a major disservice. This argument assumes killing in shelters is inevitable because there will always be too many pets and that achieving live outcomes for them all is simply impossible. The message tells us to focus our efforts on "fixing" the community; rather than saving animals who are the byproduct of a situation that has left them homeless, like poverty, behavior history, and medical conditions.
I used to firmly believe spay/neuter was the only solution to stop pets from dying in shelters. The reason I don’t anymore is because the data does not support this claim, and there is no real way to measure when you have reached the finish line. Here is what we can and have measured: The shelter intake per capita in Austin Animal Center, the only public open intake facility in Austin, has decreased from 2.79% in 2001 to 1.34% in 2017. When the city was focusing most of its efforts on spay/neuter 12 years ago, AAC was at a 45% live release rate with a higher intake per capita than today. When the city focused more on live outcomes, the live release went to 97.5%. Spay/neuter is important for community health and wellbeing, but this data shows us that our success in lifesaving has been a direct result of our focus on outcomes, and intake has actually slowed down compared to the increase in human population.
Are there not enough homes in Austin?
This idea was also borne from national messaging over the last 40 years and is based on fears that could not be quantified. The good news is that now we have the 3 pieces of data that debunks this myth:
Statistically, there are plenty of homes. The marketing to make these homes aware of the shelter has to increase and continue to be a major focus of any shelter with the intention to adopt out all their animals. The higher the save rate, the more marketing needed because of the increased complexity of animals surviving.
Are rescue groups and nonprofit shelters bringing in too many animals from other communities?
This one makes me chuckle, because nearly every person who asks it is actually from a community outside of Austin and probably brought their pet with them when they came here. I know this is true for me! Yes, rescue groups and shelters bring animals into Austin for adoption every year, including APA!. They always have, even while the save rate astronomically climbed. I can't speak for other entities, but I can tell you that APA! does this for many reasons:
We are committed to pulling animals from or who are about to be brought into AAC. It is our largest source of animals to date. That said, we do also accept animals that are at-risk of euthanasia from other shelters as Texas is the largest killer of pets in the entire country, by almost double that of the next largest state. We believe that it is our ethical obligation to help save the pets we can, with always our priority being Austin’s save rate. The total number of animals we have pulled from Austin Animal Center is 36,799, and the total number we have pulled from other shelters is 38,864, including Harvey, combined. This year, we are on track to save roughly 4,000 from Austin and roughly 6,000 from other nearby shelters.
Does APA! help AAC enough to keep Austin a No Kill city?
APA! specifically set up a system that would allow AAC to do the maximum work that they can do, by only taking in animals that were slated for death, rather than duplicate efforts. So, if the city could only save 50% of the animals, and the rest were put on the euthanasia list, we knew that any animal we saved from that list would incrementally increase the save rate. In the beginning, we did not even look at animals that were finding live outcomes at AAC because they did not need us.
Today, we continue that role in partnership with AAC and believe it is important for the city to continue to do the most work they can do with city funding, and we continue filling a safety net role for the animals that may have to die due to lack of resources. That being said, we are fortunate enough to have a License Agreement with the City of Austin to operate the old AAC shelter, Town Lake Animal Center, in exchange for taking in 3,000 animals annually. The vast majority of these are still pets with medical or behavioral challenges that would put them at risk of death or being killed at AAC without our safety net.
As AAC has improved its own operations and now saves a huge number of animals itself, the number that APA! takes now from the “euthanasia list” is less than 3,000. However, we reach 3,000 by helping the city deal with space issues when they crop up, like this weekend. And especially by taking kittens and bigger dogs that without exiting AAC quickly, would cause the city to be forced to slate them for euthanasia. With the steady increase in AAC intakes this year, APA! has also increased 20% from last year in AAC animals pulled to APA!. Without APA!, AAC would have a 75.6% save rate, or a low 80s save rate if you only count the ones that are quite immediately at risk. However, with APA!, AAC has a 97.5% save rate. There is no other entity that supports the city in this magnitude.
APA! spearheaded the No Kill effort in Austin. We developed a live outcome track for nearly every type of animal that previously was killed in the municipal shelter. We developed the Neonatal Nursery ICU to handle the bottle feeding kittens that couldn’t live overnight without feeding at AAC. We developed the Parvo ICU to handle the puppies exposed to and positive for Parvovirus, who, without us, would be killed at AAC due to contagious disease. We developed a full scale Ringworm Ward to ensure that the volume of ringworm cats that come in every year to AAC are guaranteed a live outcome from AAC.
We developed the APA! Medical Triage and Wellness Clinic to handle many of the emergencies that come into AAC every day, that AAC does not have the resources to treat. We take all the Feline Leukemia positive cats and have a large Behavior Program that was built for and is still almost exclusively used for AAC dogs with behavior issues that they do not have the resources to remedy. We have started from scratch and now raise—without any government funding—over $4M of our annual budget to house and care for just the more complicated animals that AAC does not have the resources to save.
All of these programs have caused a massive increase in the live release rate in Austin, and have started a trend in America where shelters no longer feel they cannot save these lives.
What still needs to happen in Austin to prevent crisis?
Austin is on the cutting edge of lifesaving. That means that no other city is dealing with the same problems that arise at this save rate, so we cannot look anywhere else to find solutions. Austin has not completely cracked the nut of shelter care of large dogs. Most cities give large dogs a time limit on how long they can stay at the shelter before they are killed. In our city’s commitment to lifesaving, Austin Animal Center does not do that. The length of stay of the large dogs is what is backing up the flow of pets out. This is a process problem that needs the city’s attention as it cannot be fixed by APA! alone.
APA! takes the dogs from AAC that develop the more difficult behavioral issues, many of whom have very long length of stays. We also take a large amount of big dogs with no problems other than being big, which is their Achilles heel in a shelter. AAC has instituted programming to help the dogs that remain at AAC cope with shelter stress with playgroups and volunteer support. Unfortunately, a lot more needs to be done.
These dogs need more behavioral support, more marketing support, and more customer service support. They need more programming to help them stay in their homes with the owners who already love them, rather than be turned into the shelter because of landlord restrictions, pet deposits and training needs. Most pets are within 0.2 miles of their home when found so we need a citywide grassroots action plan to encourage people to knock on doors, hang signs and use systems like NextDoor or Craigslist to help reunite pets that appear to be lost rather than bring them to the shelter.
We need data collection and analysis on this issue so we can develop bigger picture strategies for large dogs. We need to ensure that the open Chief Animal Services Officer position is filled by someone eager to solve this and capable of doing so. Austin can be the leader on this issue nationally and we need to make it so.
We support Austin Animal Center wholeheartedly and will always step up to help animals at risk of death in our community. We will also always push a little, to keep improving the system, and we will always advocate for what is right for animals, here and everywhere else.