When I moved to Austin in the 90s, the city looked much different than it does today. The population stood under 600,000, what would become a booming tech culture was in its infancy, traffic was manageable, and the city's weirdly famous motto wasn’t even a thing. Austin was also more than a decade away from being heralded as a leading No Kill city in the United States.
I can still feel the revulsion that jolted through me when I learned that 85% of pets—more than 25,000—were killed in the city shelter each year. Wriggly, energetic puppies and kittens. Healthy cats. Sweet dogs who were licking people's faces as they were being injected with lethal doses of pentobarbital. The state of animal welfare in late 1990s Austin sat in stark contrast to the city's identity as a burgeoning epicenter of innovation.
Austinites knew their city could do better, and the community fought and won a battle to become one of the nation’s leading No Kill cities. We went from 85% of pets being killed to more than 95% of pets leaving the shelter alive. Austin’s No Kill status—11 years running—is one of the gems that makes Austin, Austin. And it’s at risk.
Now the 11th largest city in the nation, Austin is at a pivotal moment in history. With rapid growth has come pain points such as affordability, housing limitations, and unintentional neglect of the things that make Austin stand out. The effects of these pain points extend to animal welfare.
From the bats under Congress Avenue bridge that have been dying off year after year, to Austin’s renowned status as the largest No Kill city in the U.S. being under fire, we know that now is the time to protect what so many people in Austin care deeply about.
With a new council coming in, there is tremendous potential for progress to be made or progress to be lost.
To keep Austin No Kill we must develop a comprehensive, citywide approach to animal welfare. There is no other city that has done this, and Austin can and should be the first.
If we lean into progress, it can mean an even larger economic impact than No Kill alone has realized, and it can be a crown jewel of Austin that ties many of the city’s major initiatives together.
On the surface, this challenge appears daunting. But if we look deeper we can see that animal welfare leaders do not have to work alone. Seven out of 10 Austin households have pets and almost all view their pets as family members. This is one of the largest and most passionate groups of people in Austin.
As a city, we need to do more to engage with pet owners and utilize animal welfare issues to secure support for Austin overall. If we band together as a community to implement community-wide solutions, we can ensure that all pets are given the chance to live.
The following steps will bring us closer to creating that approach and making No Kill permanent in Austin:
Conduct a comprehensive study of Austin pet owners.
To better support people with pets, there should be an Austin-wide study to really understand how major systemic societal problems affect pet owners and their companion animals.
We know that pet ownership transcends all demographics. We also know that many pet owners are struggling under the weight of significant financial burdens that have increased because of Austin’s dramatic and rapid growth. Now we need to know more about the specific struggles so we can support residents in ways that keep them with their pets.
When we help pets in crisis we are also helping humans in crisis. For example, over 70% of women in domestic violence shelters report that their abuser threatened, injured, or killed a pet as a means of control. Nearly half of domestic abuse survivors delayed leaving their abuser because they could not take their pets with them. People's worries about pet care can lead them to put off medical treatment, or to leave the hospital early.
There are many more examples, involving people experiencing housing insecurity, at-risk older residents and youth, and groups facing numerous other challenges that demonstrate the interconnectedness between people's and pets' well-being. These clearly make the case for helping pets, while helping the people who love them.
Once we understand more, we can dive deep into solutions to support pet owners with the top problems that humans and pets face together.
Weave pet ownership through a wide range of city communications.
Pet ownership in Austin translates into lower crime rates, and greater mental and physical health of community members, leading to decreased healthcare costs, and a lot more money entering the local economy. Let’s look at the key drivers and obstacles for pet owners, and work on talking to and about them in many more of our citywide communications. More pet owners means a healthier city overall.
Form an economic development task force to make Austin the epicenter of the booming corporate pet industry.
The pet industry is poised to almost double to $240B by 2030. But no city is yet capitalizing on this enormous opportunity.
Austin is a natural fit to become the corporate headquarters for so many pet-related companies as progress is made in this relatively new industry. The city could provide incentives for green programming in areas such as pet food, which is a top contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and for for-profit companies to form partnerships with sheltering nonprofits to modernize the archaic dog pound industry to save more lives. Austin-based companies could be incentivized to develop fireworks that don’t kill native wildlife and create pet products that are earth-friendly and recyclable.
Making Austin the epicenter of the booming pet industry would put Austin on the map in yet another distinct way and contribute to the local economy through conferences, even more pet-friendly businesses, and local spending.
Create an innovation task force to make Austin the home of the first wraparound human + animal welfare system in the world.
Austin has been the largest No Kill city in the U.S. for 11 years. It is time for Austin to lead in a much more comprehensive and effective way. This city should be the home of the next social innovation in animal welfare, where the community, animal services, and human services operate as one.
Right now, animal services tend to be reacting to what has been historically viewed as an “irresponsible public.” When someone is struggling to care for their pets, due to job loss, housing insecurity, or for another reason, they may not know about or have access to options beyond giving up their pet to an overcrowded shelter.
With a comprehensive makeover focused on dignity and preservation of the human-animal bond, the city shelter could instead be the go-to place for support—including crisis boarding for owned pets whose owners are hospitalized or otherwise temporarily can't care for them; support for fighting housing restrictions; pet sitting for people experiencing homelessness who need a safe place for their dog to stay while they attend a job interview or court date; full spectrum veterinary care for low-income pet owners; at-risk youth programs to introduce careers in animal welfare; other workforce development opportunities; and much more.
The city could also be the best in the world when it comes to how our hospitals, our police, our builders, and our fire/EMS services operate, by including pet specifics in training, metrics, and vision.
Tackling comprehensive citywide problems through the lens of pet ownership offers a manageable vein of solutions and can serve as an example for the next lens of comprehensive problem solving.
Bring civic engagement departments and organizations together to find common ground with pet owners.
Pet owners are passionate about their pets. Pets are linked to higher self confidence and increased civic engagement. Pet owners report stronger neighborhood social connections than non-pet owners, with greater degrees of trust between neighbors.
The trust inherent in these connections can be used to create mutual aid channels for pet owners in crisis and to increase civic engagement in areas that are tangentially related to animals, such as increasing participation and recruitment in Austin’s 100 boards and commissions. Every single one touches animals in some way and building excitement about topics that don’t generally drive the most participation leads to a stronger community led by community members.
Task the Austin Animal Advisory Commission with developing a plan for Austin Animal Center to sustainably operate as a No Kill facility, and also to lead, support, and mentor other jurisdictions on No Kill.
In 2010, the City Council approved a No Kill plan that they had tasked the Austin Animal Advisory Commission to create, using cities with an over 90% live release rate as their only resource. That single resolution has now resulted, conservatively, in over $200M in economic impact for the city of Austin and hundreds of thousands of lives saved.This figure is based on a 2017 report measuring the economic impact of the No Kill resolution from 2010 until 2016. At that time, the figure was over $157,000,000. In the six years since, it is fair to estimate that number has at least doubled.
Now the city council can have the same groundbreaking No Kill success by tasking the commission with a similar request—this time two-fold:
1. Create a plan to develop the most important standard operating procedures for saving the myriad lives that enter the Animal Center doors, using only cities/programs that have the same or higher live release rates as models for each type of at-risk animal population or program.
2. Create a plan to teach these standard operating procedures to shelters all over the country. This not only solves the chronic problems that are inevitably associated with saving lives instead of killing them by offering quality assurance and oversight internally, but also positions Austin as the city to watch as No Kill becomes stronger and even more successful.