Last night the City of Austin hosted a Town Hall as an opportunity for their largest animal stakeholders, and anyone else in the community, to participate in the hiring of the new Chief Animal Services Officer. Questions were submitted by audience members and each of two candidates spent about 40 minutes answering them. At the end, the Assistant City Manager made it clear that regardless of feedback, he would make the decision between these two.
After losing to other cities the City Manager, the Interim Assistant City Manager, the Assistant City Manager, the Chief Animal Services Officer and the Deputy Chief Animal Services Officer, the most recent loss of Interim Chief Animal Services Officer Lee Ann Shenefiel in January realized some of our worst fears. Like a slow moving prophecy, the city had lost the last major tier of institutional knowledge about how Austin became No Kill, how it has evolved and where it needs to still go.
Between January and now, we have supported and helped the interim animal services team who has spent the last few months trying to grapple with the real problems that are faced in a city shelter of this size. There has been acknowledgment that this task has been more difficult than expected. During this time, there has been an understandable learning curve but a less understandable undoing of many processes that were the glue of No Kill policies. We have seen a focus on operations which was needed to alleviate dog overcrowding but we have also seen agreements that were previously executed and signed, re-examined and put on hold for months. We have seen documented Standard Operating Procedures around euthanasia decision making disregarded and a consequential plummet in save rate for cats – all while our council has tried to create (and did pass, thanks to Council Member Leslie Pool’s office) a higher level policy to protect our status as a 95%+ live release rate city.
We implored the City to have a robust stakeholder process during the hiring of the next Chief Animal Services Officer. We attended stakeholder “Town Hall” meetings before the process began that collected feedback from us, the organization that funds and cares for ~20% of the city’s intake, as well as anyone else in the Austin community interested in the animal shelter. We submitted a shared philosophy statement, signed by the Interim Chief Animal Services Officer and Austin Pets Alive! in an attempt to document what makes Austin so successful, knowing that turnover was imminent. We shared the Economic Impact Study that shows No Kill has brought in over $157,000,000 to the city and is a major factor in attracting large companies to Austin. We shared written agreements about how the American Pets Alive! Maddie’s Lifesaving Academy, funded with a $4,000,000 grant, operates between Austin Pets Alive! and Austin Animal Center to help other communities learn how to be like Austin and contribute to Austin’s own operations. It is our understanding that none of these materials made it into the hiring packet and we were not invited to participate in any meaningful conversation to help vet candidates for the city or help the candidates truly understand what we do here in Austin.
However, here we are, on the proverbial eve of a selection between two candidates who seem like good earnest people but who lack experience in organizing and operating a government facility or staff or volunteer or foster roster of this size (even outside of animal sheltering). Both lack community experience in a city this size. Both have animal welfare experience but have not saved anywhere near the percentage nor number of animals that Austin does and is mandated to do, even though their communities had much lower intake. Neither had good answers for how they would handle overcrowding of kittens or envision minimum standards of care for long stay dogs. Neither indicated they were eager to be a part of our community by simply researching what exactly happened here. However, Ms. Cadotte said that within the first 60 days she will change SOPs, revisit the City Council Approved Implementation Plan and make “hard decisions” about animals. In our world, “hard decisions” is code for killing.
I personally, along with many other APA! personnel, have spent the last few years trying to prevent Chief and Interim Chief Services Officer resignations, spending endless hours even on mornings, nights and weekends onboarding and collaborating with each new person, and supporting AAC to the best of our abilities. We have jumped every time there is a crisis and helped with data collection, strategy build-outs, disease outbreaks, overcrowding and bad press. Now we have been asked to take a back seat and deal with the consequences of this decision? For us, that could mean an insurmountable amount of work to prevent deaths that the city is responsible for preventing.
If you have similar concerns to ours, I’m asking you to URGENTLY email the city council members (here is a link to reach all of them) as well as the city manager ([email protected]) and the assistant city manager ([email protected]) to ask for a new process and express your concerns about:
Austinites have a lot to be proud of. We are the only large city that can say emphatically that we do not kill our pets. Even so, there is a lot more work that needs to be done to solidify that status and keep improving the lives of pets that enter our shelters. We cannot get this decision wrong. The cost could be more than Austin’s animals can bear.
Ellen Jefferson, DVM