What Happened to the No-Kill Millennium?
Austin's plan to end wholesale euthanasia at Town Lake shelter remains a distant dream
A 7-week-old kitten weighs about a pound; its veins are the size of vermicelli. So if you're administering a lethal dose of sodium pentobarbital, an anesthetic agent blue as a summer sky, you'll probably inject directly into its round, spotted belly. If you have five cages of kittens to kill this morning, you don't have time to go looking for slippery little veins.
A kitten with a hand gripping the scruff of its neck and a needle in its belly will squeal in terror, but once you've pulled out the needle and placed it back into a cage with its siblings, it will shake its head and start to get on with its kittenish business. Then it starts to look woozy, and begins to stumble around. It licks its lips, tasting the chemical absorbed into its system. Soon, it becomes too sedated to stand. The animal collapses, and when its lungs become too sedated to inflate, it stops breathing.
The euthanasias begin shortly after 10am on a Wednesday in early October; by 10:32 the shelter is down about a dozen cc's of pentobarbital, and 20 cats are dead. They lie stretched on their sides in a neat pile heads toward the buzzing refrigerator that holds the medicine, feet toward the freezer that holds the dead. Margaret Shroyer, one of the two vet techs on Room 10 duty today, grabs a black garbage bag, opens it beside the table, and gently prods the bodies, still floppy, inside. As she works, Shroyer asks what kind of article she would appear in. I answer it's about the city's progress on its No-Kill Millennium resolution, a plan developed in 1997 to end the euthanasia of adoptable animals at Town Lake Animal Center. Shroyer, still bagging cats, laughs a little bitterly at the irony.
"Let's just say," she shrugs quietly, "it hasn't taken full effect."
Nearly 13,000 animals died at Town Lake Animal Center last year, more than half of the 23,016 animals that came in the door. The euthanasia rate is far less than other Texas cities, where rates run between 70 and 90%. But despite the NKM plan, Austin's rate is not decreasing. It's increasing.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. The NKM resolution held before Austin a vision of a cruelty-free future, where the only animals euthanized at TLAC were those too sick or unsociable to ever make good pets. Nonprofit groups would help educate the public, find more foster homes for animals, and perform more sterilizations. City Council would add new staff and money to Austin's animal services budget, currently about $4 million. But, the simmering of good intentions cooled, and dissipated. "This declaration of a no-kill millennium may have given everyone a fuzzy feeling, but it hasn't done anything to affect the number of animals killed at the pound each year," said Delwin Goss, a volunteer with EmanciPet. "Those numbers are growing."
Austin's changing economic fortunes are in large part to blame. The plan was conceived in the boom years, when council could make grand promises of support: 15 new positions, an unprecedented public education program. Both were cut, however, in the subsequent downturn. The shelter today has no public education program, and the same number of staff as in 1997.
Although it's harder to quantify, shelter employees also say that tough times for people mean tough times for pets: You move in with dad to save money, and either your pit bull or his rottweiler has to go. Or, some cost-cutting families simply decide Fido is an easy cost to cut. "Anything in the economy that impacts people also impacts animals," said TLAC director Dorinda Pulliam.
Another issue is the nature of the plan itself. The NKM document was essentially an 18-page list of good ideas that could be tackled separately by the many branches of the animal-welfare family tree. "It gave an opportunity for small groups and individuals to get things done without having to interact with each other," said Babette Ellis, a 14-year member of the Animal Advisory Commission, who helped put together the original document. "The kennel clubs, cat fanciers, and the spay-neuter groups could all be part of the document. That's what was so enlightening." But the downside of the decentralized NKM plan is that small groups wax and wane with their volunteers' zeal and grant dollars. Lately, many of the original NKM partners have waned. This is not to dismiss the many groups still at work, from feral cat managers to spay/neuter groups to shelters and sanctuaries like PAWS of Austin or the Humane Society, but it does suggest that the plan needs, at the very least, an update.
The NKM plan is not without its successes. Cheap spay and neuter surgeries are now much more readily available than a decade ago. Rescue groups, which foster and find homes for TLAC animals that would die for lack of space, now save the lives of 13% of the animals coming in the door. And although the 26,000 animals TLAC received this year is a little higher than it was in the boom years, it isn't any higher than it was in 1994, when Austin was a much smaller city.
Still, given the upward-creeping euthanasia rate, the Animal Advisory Commission, which recommends animal policy ideas to City Council, decided it's time for a change. "I think we need to start over," said commission vice-chair Kathy Hamilton of the NKM document. "I don't think there's a lot there that can be salvaged."
The question now is where to go next. Everyone agrees that more education and sterilization are key. But there's one big area where everyone doesn't agree: Spay/neuter groups and most of the Animal Advisory Commission want council to pass an ordinance requiring pet owners either to fix their animals, or to buy pricey licenses to keep them intact. Others, particularly hobby breeders and dog show people, have made clear they'd rather eat high-end puppy chow than allow government to get between their pets' legs. They argue that only education and outreach will make a lasting difference. So far the debate has been acrimonious, with the opposing sides (including AAC commissioners) snapping and snarling and holding each other in open contempt.
"There is very much a feeling of 'us versus them' and a big lack of communication," said Peggy Jennings, an Australian cattle dog enthusiast. "It just makes me sad to see so much hostility and so much misunderstanding when there are so many things we agree on."
Austin may never be a no-kill city. But if it hopes to find a way to at least be a less-kill city, the animal community must first bridge the chasms between different factions' priorities and principles, down to the way they define the problem.
To Spay or to Breed?
The Animal Trustees of Austin wellness clinic on Cameron Road opens at 9am. By 9:20 on a recent Saturday the wait for low-cost vaccinations was already two hours long. The patients scratched, yawned, and occasionally barked. A mid-20s man with the terra cotta skin of an outdoor laborer sat alone, clutching a silky black lab puppy and rubbing his chin in its soft fur. Several women held jittery chihuahuas, and an ATA volunteer on "triage" duty roamed the waiting room to dole out health and grooming advice.
John Maldonado walked in about 9:30, a large man clutching a very small dachshund in one blue-tattooed arm. He was intercepted, triaged, given a heartworm-pill tutorial, and warned not to let Honey, the dog, go into heat even once. "That will markedly decrease her chances of breast or uterine cancer," said volunteer Melinda Carter. "It just makes her a healthier animal."
"I don't plan to breed her," said Maldonado immediately, engulfing Honey's tiny head in an affectionate pat. "There's too many dogs out there."
Not all patients are so compliant with the clinic's goals. The morning Maldonado was at the clinic, the chihuahua-clutchers waiting nearby said they couldn't bear the thought of taking their babies out of the gene pool unreproduced. "There are one or two each morning that are absolutely adamant," said Carter disapprovingly. "I have to fuss with little-dog owners a lot."
The problem is that it doesn't take long for a few unfixed animals to become a lot of unfixed animals. That's why many ATA workers want a tool stronger than triage to get more people to fix their animals sooner. After all, ATA and EmanciPet, Austin's other cheap spay/neuter clinic, have together fixed a good 80,000 animals since 1997, yet Austin's no-kill goals slip further away.
"We're seeing the numbers [of euthanasias] increasing, even though we have a number of voluntary programs going on," said ATA veterinarian Amy Kasprisin, who has led the AAC's Mandatory Spay/Neuter ordinance effort. In addition to the availability of low-cost surgeries, Austin already encourages spay/neuters through differential licensing a license for an intact animal costs $20 a year, compared to a one-time $5 fee for a sterilized one. But employees at ATA and EmanciPet talk to enough people whose animals receive only the care the law requires a rabies vaccination to know that voluntary measures only go so far. "Normal, responsible people do the right thing, but laws exist because some people don't do the right thing," said Ellen Jefferson, director of EmanciPet. "Some people don't care how many animals are killed at the shelter."
The ordinance the AAC initially developed is a much stronger nudge in the spay/neuter direction. All dogs and cats would have to be fixed unless their owners buy an intact license for $100 a year. Whelping a litter would require another $500 permit. Violators would face escalating fines starting at $100 that would be waived if the animal is fixed. If it were enacted, the proposed ordinance would be one of the strongest (i.e., most expensive) of the couple dozen cities that currently have them, but its supporters say its strength is justified by the severity of the problem. "I'm sympathetic to [breeders], but I'm also sympathetic to those animals killed here every year," said TLAC volunteer Chandra Lewnau.
As evidence that MS/N works, supporters point to ordinances in Washington and California. Since 1991, when King County, Wash., passed an MS/N ordinance, shelter intake dropped from nearly 21,000 to 12,701. The number of animals euthanized was halved, from about 14,000 to about 6,000. San Mateo County, near San Francisco, passed a similar ordinance in 1990, and euthanasia rates dropped 70%. "I'm a simple person and look for simple answers," said Goss, the EmanciPet volunteer who strongly supports MS/N. "If someone else has developed an answer to a problem, I look at it."
Goss cited in particular the King County experience; however, significant differences exist between that program and what has been proposed for Austin. Walt Washington of King Co. animal services credits the ordinance's success to a door-to-door effort to sell licenses ($60 for an unaltered animal and $20 for a sterilized one; plus $50 for a hobby kennel). These teams have primarily been an outreach effort; when canvassers do give tickets, it is for refusal to buy a license, not refusal to sterilize.
The ordinance the AAC has proposed for Austin lacks such an enforcement vehicle, making San Mateo a closer model. Unfortunately, says Scott Delucchi of the Peninsula Humane Society and SPCA, San Mateo's ordinance simply doesn't work. "I can't say the ordinance had a big impact," he said. "In some cases I'd say it actually hurt us."
Delucchi explained that the ordinance was passed in only three of 20 municipalities in the county. While the past 15 years have seen drops in the intake and euthanasia rates in the cities where it was in effect, those rates also dropped in the cities where it was not. Delucchi doesn't dismiss MS/N ordinances entirely, but he recommends others learn from San Mateo's example. "Unless it has a door-to-door component, it doesn't have teeth," he said.
On the other hand, an ordinance that does have a door-to-door component will likely face the bared teeth of many a liberty-loving, cojones-defending Texan. And any ordinance will face the opposition of a group of animal lovers who insist that MS/N simply punishes the wrong people.
Dueling Animal Lovers
If your dog is named something like Silverhills N'dust Cobalt, chances are you're not too fond of MS/N. Cobalt is a champion Australian cattle dog owned by Peggy Jennings. He has silver-tipped fur, a handsome, compact body, champion bloodlines, and all his parts intact. Jennings is one of the many hobby breeders who each month jam AAC meetings and irritate the hell out of many in the spay/neuter camp. (And vice versa.) However, the fanciers insist their vision for solving Austin's animal problems is as valid as MS/N and, ultimately, more effective.
First, let's be clear: A hobby breeder is not someone who breeds his chihuahua because it's cute. These people are serious. They research bloodlines to try to weed out unhealthy recessive genes; they think nothing of flying across the country to breed a champion bitch to exactly the right stud. By extension, they consider most purebreds utterly unworthy of reproducing the idea is to better the breed, so only the very best genes should be passed along. As such, they hold in contempt the "puppy mills" that crank out multiple litters per year of pups whose official-looking "papers" typically carry as much weight as degrees from online universities. "They make a living from selling dogs!" said schnauzer fancier and breeder George Armstrong in disgust. "I think that is so wrong."However much they dislike puppy mills, the fanciers argue that MS/N ordinances can't stop them: To avoid regulation of any sort, most puppy mills are already located outside city limits. Within the city, irresponsible pet owners the source of many surplus animals already aren't licensing their animals, and raising the fees isn't exactly an incentive to do so. That leaves the highly visible show dog community as likely targets of any regulation, even though, they argue, their dogs aren't the ones causing the problem. Peggy Jennings, for example, sells every dog with a contract that it will be sterilized, and if that family cannot keep the dog, it will be returned to Jennings. Some fanciers have been open to a compromise.
"It's not the concept of a spay-neuter ordinance I object to," said Jerry Dunham, who fancies Great Danes. "But the high fees are punitive to people like us."Dunham organized a series of meetings to explore a compromise ordinance, such as one enforced only on dogs and cats that are picked up by animal control. But his effort hasn't been embraced by many of Austin's other fanciers, in part because a
popular theory in the community holds that MS/N ordinances are a plot by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to end pet ownership in America. Their answer to the question is education and better enforcement of Austin's existing regulations, such as the leash law and licensing requirement.
For now, the MS/N opponents appear to be winning the political battle since the AAC recommended approval of the proposed ordinance in March, no council member has been willing to touch it. That's in part because of the fanciers, in part because of the opposition of the Capital Area Veterinary Medical Association (its president says vets don't want to get caught up in enforcement), and in part, according to one council aide, because of fear that the public simply won't go for it. However, all of Austin is still losing the fight to keep animals alive. Whatever happens on the MS/N front, it's likely that more than spay/neuter is needed to solve the deadly arithmetic of animals and space calculated each day at Town Lake Animal Clinic.
You're in a small room lined with stainless steel cages, fluorescent lights buzzing overhead. You hold a clipboard with a list of 53 animals: 14 cats and 29 dogs. It's their third day in the shelter. It's 2:30. By four o'clock you'll have seen them all, ranked them on a seven-point scale, and, with three of your coworkers, decided their fates. This is the "disposition walk," the way the shelter buffers the pain of one of its most difficult jobs, and (hopefully) stocks the adoption kennels with the cutest, healthiest, widest variety of animals. Ones who will be snatched up quickly to make room for more.
You start with the kittens in their stainless steel cages, then you walk down the long row of kennels where the stray dogs are kept. The roof is metal and the floor is concrete, so when dogs bark or chain-link doors clang, it echoes around painfully. Your list of dogs includes 12 pit bulls, six labs, and four German shepherds. It includes only three little dogs, all of whom have already been spoken for by future adopters. Today, adoption has room for four cats and nine dogs. Those animals will get vaccinations, a name, and a cage on the adoption side of the shelter, where they can stay as long as it takes them to find a home. As for the rest, you just want to keep as many alive as possible. Rescue groups can take a few. You can double up some cats. You can give a few animals an extra day in the stray runs, and hope there's room for them in the adoption program tomorrow. For some, the sick or abused or unsociable, death is probably the best option. For others, it's the simple, inevitable result of too many animals and not enough room.
Or maybe it's not so simple. The TLAC employees who walk dispo every week say they know exactly what kind of animals there are too many of, because those are the ones they have to sentence to death. What they see is a whole lot of kittens, and a whole lot of juvenile big dogs. Fully half of all felines TLAC serves are kittens less than four months old, while 60% of the dogs are more than a year old. "You really start to see a pattern there of the numbers being caused by different things," said Pulliam, the TLAC director who walks dispo twice a week. "The cat issue is still too much breeding. The dog issue is disposable dogs." And not just any dog: Last year TLAC euthanized 18 adoptable (defined as friendly and healthy) golden retrievers and 632 pit bulls. Two Welsh corgis and 251 German shepherds. Twenty-three Australian cattle dogs and 564 Labs.
In addition, more than half the dogs that die would never be considered "adoptable" in the first place. These are not dogs from the world of canine spas and natural doggie snacks: They live chained up in the back yard, eat scraps, have never visited a vet, and aren't looked for if they go missing. Or, they were adopted as puppies by people who didn't realize dogs must be trained, and who gave them up when they grew to be 60 pounds of uncontrollable tail and teeth. These are not problems that spay/neuter alone can solve. "The only thing that will change [that] is not legislation, but deep-seated social change," said TLAC adoption coordinator Amber Rowland.
In looking at the successor to the NKM plan, Pulliam wants two things: a program to spay/neuter feral cats and more education programs for dog owners along the lines of TLAC's rabies clinics, in which attendees get free vaccinations in exchange for sitting through a lesson in basic grooming, training, and pet care. Another model is the dog-training seminars some TLAC volunteers have given AISD students as a (presumably) fun afterschool activity. "We want to get at-risk kids bragging about their pit bulls because they can sit or roll over, rather than because he has testicles and can eat your face off," said Pulliam.
The idea that the entire dog problem can't be solved by a spay/neuter solution wasn't warmly received when Pulliam introduced it at the October AAC meeting. In fact, she was immediately corrected loudly and simultaneously by at least three commissioners who pointed out that the absolute number of dogs coming in is nearly twice as high as cats, and that even if the trend is to give up dogs at an older age, the problem is still, ultimately, one of surplus animals. "I think the only way we're going to get out of this problem is spay/neuter," said Commissioner Pat Valls-Trelles.
Others on the commission disagree. Babette Ellis agrees that education in responsible dog-ownership should be a well-funded priority, and she believes getting a $22 million new shelter included in the city bond package expected to go before voters in May is the most critical step toward a less cruel Austin. (Not to mention a safety imperative.) "A new shelter will have space for education and ongoing seminars," she said. "You can do a lot when you sit down with people and talk to them. When you hand them a ticket" as under an MS/N situation "it's different."
Obviously, any education program would include a spay/neuter component because no matter how different the dog and cat problems may be, at the end of the day there are still too many of both. When all the dispo decisions were made that Wednesday afternoon, 11 cats and dogs had new names: Felix and Oscar, Sterling and Stella, and so on. Twelve others would die Thursday morning. The rest were extended, put on rescue lists, or otherwise shuffled around to keep them alive a little longer. Meanwhile, since the shelter had opened that morning, 73 new animals had come in the front door.
Finding a Way
The cats have been bagged and put in the freezer. The stainless steel tables have been spritzed with sanitizer and wiped down. The two cool, shiny slabs wait for the dogs that, one by one, will be brought in on cheap, washable leashes.
Vet tech Chuck Greenlee pulls off his rubber gloves and throws them in the trash. He sits at a computer with a stack of papers the records of the cats who have just been killed to enter his final notes. Greenlee has a buzz cut and libertarian leanings; he isn't sure what exactly should be done to cut down on the number of shots he gives in the mornings he works Room 10. One thing that shouldn't be done, he says, is a mandatory spay/neuter ordinance it's unenforceable, it's not government's business, and it won't get at the whole problem. "A large number of the animals here have been in people's houses one, two, five, 10 years," he says. "Spay/neuter isn't going to do a thing about that."
Greenlee's fingers pound hard on the keyboard, and he flips to the next record. The cat in the picture is an orange tabby, with its front legs stretched toward the camera and a surprised look about its pointy face. Greenlee talks as he types, about the people who judge him because his mastiff is unaltered (even though it's never once been out of Greenlee's control, he says), and who judge him because of the part of his job that involves "cleaning up other people's mess."
"Everyone loves to tell you over beer all night how they couldn't do your job because they love animals too much the implication being that I don't," he says, pound-pound-pounding on the keyboard. "It's extremely annoying. And insulting. I work here because I love animals. A lot."
The people in Austin who love animals include the spay/neuter people and the breeders, the dispo teams that make the tough calls and the vet techs who hold the needles. They include the more than 4,000 people who adopted animals through TLAC's adoption program last year, and even some of those who left their pets in intake, believing them too nice or cute to die. A strength of the 1997 no-kill plan is that it found a way to bridge many of the differences running through Austin's diverse animal community. If a new plan can be developed that meets Austin's ongoing needs, that seems an obvious first step.