Town Lake's Future: Fix It or Ditch It

The animal center needs a major renovation, but funds and political will are needed

The Animal Center Committee reviews documents related to dispo duty.
The Animal Center Committee reviews documents related to dispo duty. (Photo By John Anderson)

Like any 50-year-old, Austin's Town Lake Animal Center is getting a little creaky. It's also getting a little cracked, crumbled, and crowded, not to mention that it's painted a weird minty green color last in fashion when Renée Zellweger was in moon boots. State health inspectors agree (with the safety concerns, not necessarily the choice of hue). TLAC passed an Oct. 25 review of the facility, off Cesar Chavez just west of Lamar, but was put on probation because of the condition of its rabies quarantine area. "Although the facility as a whole is functionable [sic], in my opinion it should be looked upon as an embarrassment to the city," wrote inspector Jerry Fineg in his report.

While the idea of a failing quarantine facility calls to mind mad dogs roaming Tarrytown with mouths a-foaming, the issue is by no means so dramatic. The cause of the citation is crumbling concrete, the nooks and crannies of which are practically impossible to sanitize. Inspector Beverlee Nix noted in her review of the rabies area that the problem had not been repaired since she last pointed it out in 2001. "This is something we've noticed for a few years and encouraged them to get those repairs. I don't see evidence that that happened, so I raised my level of concern in an official way," Nix said. She suggested that the shelter "patch, seal, or paint" the damaged areas. According to shelter director Dorinda Pulliam, however, the job is so large it will likely require taking out some of the most damaged walls, using special sealants, and other pricey maneuvers. "There's going to be some big costs associated with this," Pulliam said. "I don't know what big is, but it's not a matter of putting some paint on it."

Plus, repairing the old shelter may not be the best option for Austin's animals. TLAC was built in 1954 as a dog pound to corral loose animals, not as a full-service animal shelter. As the shelter's role has grown to encompass adoption, rescue, and animal care, these programs have been squeezed in – former storerooms were turned into the vet services area, for example. But the shelter is now squeezed to the limit, says Pulliam. There's no real place for public education; there's also no crematorium, so the bodies of euthanized animals go to the landfill. To top it all off, the drains back up in heavy rains, requiring staff to scramble to keep dogs dry. And because the whole shelter is located in the 100-year floodplain, a really heavy rain could be deadly.

The solution some seek is a $22 million new shelter, which could be included in the bond package the city will put before voters next year. The design already exists; it includes room for public education and ongoing veterinary care, and cutting-edge design features such as cozier dog kennels and ventilation systems designed to reduce kennel cough. But, the city's current wish list of possible bond-funded projects is $850 million, and it must be cut down to at most $600 million. It's by no means certain that the shelter will make the final cut. "It's difficult, because every project and every group that came before us and made their pitch was worthy," said Rodney Ahart, who serves on the committee whittling down the bond package.

New shelter dreams aside, Pulliam insists that animals are well cared for despite the facility's condition, and state health inspectors agree, praising the "very good" animal care. "The entire staff works very hard to keep this shelter somewhat presentable," Fineg wrote.

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Jerry Fineg, Beverlee Nix, Dorinda Pulliam, Rodney Ahart, Town Lake Animal Center

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