Opinion: What’s Really Wrong at Austin Animal Services

Former AAS Chief Tawny Hammond on how Austin can once again be a leader in the no-kill movement

Opinion: What’s Really Wrong at Austin Animal Services

For over a decade Austin Animal Services, located in one of the first and largest no-kill cities in the nation, has been a beacon of hope and shining example for the animal services profession as it continues to evolve to a discipline centered on community engagement for lifesaving policies and programs for pets and their people.

As a former chief of animal services at the city of Austin, Texas, the city auditor's presentation on September 27 regarding the audit and recommendations was painful to witness. Painful because it was preventable with appropriate leadership at the helm of Austin Animal Services.

For the past three years the Animal Advisory Commission has been tracking the decline of Austin Animal Services' performance and calling for action. Given what we already knew, none of what we saw in the recommendations came as a surprise.

What was surprising were the recommendations from the Auditor's Office.

Council Member Leslie Pool astutely pointed out that the auditor's recommendation to the city manager reads like a job description for the chief of animal services.

The auditors would have been well served to look at the performance data going back in time, rather than starting in 2020, which was during the pandemic that disrupted service delivery everywhere.

The intake of animals is down 4,880 or 30% from 2019 and intake is even down from the prior 2022 time period. While intake is at a historic low looking at a nine-year period, the budget and full-time staff levels are at the highest they have been in the history of Austin Animal Services.

Beginning in 2020 forward when the current chief was appointed, vital lifesaving programs and relationships began to decline with the consequence of a backlog of animals in the shelter system. Adoptions, return to home, pets in foster care, and transfer to rescues and especially with Austin Pets Alive! have fallen off dramatically. This means that animals stay in the shelter longer because they don't have lifesaving outcomes, which creates care issues that the report details.

No-kill animal sheltering is achieved through programming and policies created to keep pets moving either back home or into new homes. No-kill isn't achieved at the expense of humane care of animals coming in Austin's care, and positing that the city must make a choice between humane care and lifesaving is a faulty dichotomy.

The percent of U.S. shelters that are no-kill has doubled in the past seven years, from 24% to 57% in 2022. Approximately 43% of counties in the U.S. are no-kill, and that number is growing, as more municipalities realize the brand equity and return on investment that comes with being known as a humane city devoted to a good quality of life for their residents.

According to a study conducted by the University of Denver in 2017, the city of Austin realized an economic impact of more than $157 million over six years because of the implementation of the no-kill resolution.

Increasing the budget won't fix what's wrong.

But capable and visionary leadership will.

The city needs an animal services chief who holds themselves accountable and responsible for implementing the City Council's No-Kill resolution and mandate without compromising the humane care of animals in the shelter.

The nation is watching Austin, a city that prides itself on being one of the best places to live and work. A city that until now was a shining example of animal services excellence.

Tawny Hammond is currently the director of No-Kill Advancement for Best Friends Animal Society and was the chief of animal services in Austin from 2015 to 2017.

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