Gimme (Animal) Shelter

Swirling city politics, site selection, and – oh yes – animal welfare

Town Lake Animal Center Director Dorinda Pulliam
Town Lake Animal Center Director Dorinda Pulliam (Photo by John Anderson)

Oh, a storm is threatening

My very life today,

If I don't get some shelter

Oh yeah, I'm gonna fade away.

– The Rolling Stones

"You've got a great location. An unparalleled location! So why would you even think about moving it?" asks Ryan Clinton of FixAustin.org.

"I am 100 percent convinced that moving the animal shelter will have no impact on adoptions," counters Town Lake Animal Center Director Dorinda Pulliam.

In a nutshell, those are the two sides of the simmering controversy over where the city of Austin should build its new animal shelter. (For background, see "Proposed Animal Shelter Move Gets Community Howl­ing," June 15.) Citizens who believe it's best for the animals to keep the shelter at the more central Town Lake site – rather than relocate to a Health and Human Services Department campus at 183 and Airport – are now on high alert. Demolition and design are proceeding for the new site; city staff members have interviewed architects and made a recommendation, and council is expected to make a final selection at its Sept. 27 session.

Some animal advocates, notably the relative newcomer FixAustin.org, have been charging that public dialogue on the relocation decision has been intentionally stifled, for political and bureaucratic reasons. FixAustin.org, a nonprofit advocating for the animal shelter to fulfill its 10-year-old council directive to become a "no kill" facility, has criticized the city for inadequate public input. Pat Valls-Trelles, a member (and recently deposed chair) of the city's Animal Advisory Commis-sion, says the com­mis­sion was prevented from even putting the relocation on its agenda. "I believe there was a coup to stifle public discussion on this issue," says Valls-Trelles, who points the finger at Pulliam and her bosses, HHSD Director David Lurie and Assistant City Manager Bert Lum­bre­ras (who, oddly enough, is a voting member of the commission). "A discussion that could and should have taken place didn't take place." Others say the commission, notorious for infighting, was simply too dysfunctional to handle the matter appropriately. [Web Update: On Tuesday night, the council-appointed Animal Advisory Commission finally took a public vote on the issue; the Commission voted 5-2 against moving the animal shelter and passed a resolution recommending that council not immediately proceed with hiring an architect. In the minority were Lumbreras and Leffingwell appointee Babette Ellis. On Wednesday, the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association sent a letter to council supporting a 60-day moratorium on the project, citing 11 east-side neighborhood associations and groups also calling for a moratorium.]


Jumping Rationales

To help rectify that problem, on Aug. 6, members of the City Council's Public Health and Human Services Subcommittee – Lee Leffingwell, Mike Martinez, and Betty Dunkerley – heard a staff presentation on the shelter relocation. Before packed council chambers enlivened by sign-carrying demonstrators, animal advocates finally got to voice their concerns. Staff presented an estimated budget: It showed a project on the Town Lake site costing $10 million more than the $12 million in bond money available – which, magically, was exactly the right amount to build on their preferred Airport Boulevard site.

Animal advocates urged council members to question the budget numbers as just the latest justification-after-the-fact for what staff has already decided to do. Earlier justifications for the move – now refuted and no longer claimed by staff, said Clinton and Chandra Lewnau, an attorney and TLAC volunteer – are becoming a long list. They include: 1) "keeping the soccer moms happy" (Parks and Recreation Depart­ment soccer and ball fields programmed by the West Austin Youth Association surround the current site), 2) "it's in the 100-year floodplain" (recurrent flooding problems are due to remediable drainage problems, and it's actually in the less limiting 500-year floodplain), and 3) "most homeless animals come from East Austin" (FixAustin.org crunched the city's stats and found that Southwest and South Austin produce the most sheltered animals).

"The jumping rationale is what's created this suspicion," said Animal Advisory Commis­sion member Tom Oliveri. One fear: The site is wanted by developers for condos, and the city is scheming to sell off the dedicated parkland. Asked about this popular paranoia, PARD Assistant Director Stuart Strong responded that if the shelter moves, the department has absolutely no intention of letting the land be used for anything other than parkland. He knew of no private developer designs on the site. Leffing-well seconded Strong's "over my dead body" assertions, saying, "They'd have to kill both of us" to put private development there. Strong also noted that the com-munity would get to vote on any such transaction: "The City Charter says council does not have the power to lease, sell, or otherwise alienate dedicated parkland without a public referendum." And he chuckled at the political folly of putting such a private condo scheme before the voters, noting, "Austin is very protective of parkland."

One potential compromise that's recently gained traction at City Hall is the idea of keeping a west-side adoption center on the site, in the current administration building. "We're all very interested in that," said Pulliam, who sees particular potential for a cat-adoption center. Other communities fund city-run adoption centers in multiple locations; Austin relies on rescue groups (who save many animals from shelter deaths) and PetSmart parking lots. But Pulliam did express concern that potential adopters would see a smaller pool of pets; those seeking dogs at Town Lake could no longer conveniently "shop" in the stray runs as they do now.

City Staff wants to relocate the Town Lake Animal Center to this location east of Airport Boulevard. A vocal contingent of animal advocates and neighborhood groups oppose the move.
City Staff wants to relocate the Town Lake Animal Center to this location east of Airport Boulevard. A vocal contingent of animal advocates and neighborhood groups oppose the move.

For now, the PARD is quietly staying out of the catfight. If and when the shelter moves, said Strong, the department will conduct a master-planning process with public input for how that parcel might be redeveloped. While another athletic field would fit right in, the desire to preserve several dozen trees argues against that. Strong said a use related to the nearby Town Lake Trail or Lance Armstrong Bikeway could make sense. While the PARD guesstimated the cost for a master plan and site redevelopment at $1.5 million, no funds are budgeted or visible on the horizon. It's also unclear which department would pay demolition costs for the old shelter. (Conveniently, the HHSD omits that line item in the "$10 million cheaper" cost of relocation.)

Already on the HHSD campus is the headquarters of EmanciPet, a nonprofit spay/neuter clinic and mobile clinic; the city contracts with EmanciPet to "fix" animals for the shelter and for residents east of Congress Avenue. However, warns EmanciPet.org, in offering rather complicated directions and a map to its building, "IT IS VERY IMPORTANT TO PRINT OUT THESE DIRECTIONS AND TAKE THEM WITH YOU! IT IS VERY EASY TO GET LOST!!!" – not exactly a ringing endorsement of convenient access for a new shelter.


The No-Kill Controversy

Council's 1997 No-Kill Millennium reso­lu­tion set a goal of ending the killing of "adoptable" animals at Town Lake Animal Center by the end of 2000. The slippery slope, points out Pulliam, is the modifier "adoptable" – defined in many different ways. She said that by TLAC guidelines, only 33% of animals taken in are adoptable. The rest are classified as "treatable" or "nonrehabilitatable."

"We're saving 50 percent, so that's higher than the adoptable 33 percent," she asserts. Rather than focusing narrowly on adoption ("that's just 4,000 of the 25,000 animals that go through each year"), Pulliam believes the real solution lies in reducing intake. Toward that end, she points to recent advances in public education, spaying/neutering programs, and a new feral-cat program.

Pulliam also points to Austin's selection by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals as one of five Mission: Orange cities as evidence that our shelter is well-regarded nationally. In February, the national ASPCA made a three-year commitment to Aus­tin. The ASPCA will lend its support and invest up to $200,000; the multifaceted program's goal is to increase the municipal shelter's adoption rate by at least 10% by the end of 2007 and to achieve a 75% "save rate" by 2010. Compared to the current 50% save rate, an increase to 75% could save the lives of 3,000 pets a year.

Animal-welfare advocates critical of Pulliam – FixAustin.org has publicly given her a vote of "no confidence" – are dubious of the ASPCA's collaboration model. They call for Austin to implement the program model advocated by the San Clemente, Calif.-based No Kill Advocacy Center and its director, Nathan Winograd. In a 10-page letter posted at FixAustin.org, Wino­grad denounces the shelter relocation, declaring, "Relocating Austin's animal shelter would be a death sentence for dogs and cats who would otherwise find loving homes." But the California expert's opinion is a broad directive against "moving the shelter away from prime retail, commercial, and residential corridors," rather than a locally informed analysis of the pros and cons of each site.

In fact, no dog in this fight has hard data on which to base its assertions. While FixAustin.org believes the move "is certain" to lead to "fewer adoptions, even more killing, and higher operating costs," the group's position is as speculative as the city's. Still, the burden lies with the city to conduct due diligence, given the potentially life-or-death stakes. To date, staff members have shared no formal study or impact analysis showing how the outlying location would affect adoptions, visitors, volunteers, euthanasia rates, or spaying/neutering.


Not Enough Bond Money

Pulliam says cost is her key driver: She fears the $12 million in bond funding to build the shelter is not enough, and the cost goes up every month the project is delayed. "I'll build it anywhere council tells me to," she said. "But I only have $12 million, and that's the most important thing in this whole equation."

As it stands, Pulliam is unapologetically determined to get her project built as fast as possible on the HHSD campus. A 17-year city veteran, Pulliam is not squeamish about quashing community slowdowns from her vocal detractors and East Austinites – People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources and the Govalle/Johnston Terrace Combined Neighborhood Planning Team – who have been advocating for the large HHSD campus to be used instead for affordable housing. Advocates Susana Almanza and Daniel Llanes had supposedly cut a deal with Council Member Mike Martinez – a promise of affordable housing on the site in return for melting their opposition to the shelter relocation. But Almanza and Llanes spoke publicly against the move at the council subcommittee meeting anyway, earning Pulliam's ire.

Pulliam and other staff had requested $22.3 million from the Bond Election Advisory Committee for the new shelter; that got slashed by more than a third in the final bond election, as the committee juggled competing city needs. Mike Clark-Madison, a member of the Facilities Subcommittee, said the animal advocates now criticizing the relocation never addressed the committee. He confirmed that, as Pulliam and HHSD have asserted, the $12 million allocation was premised on the cost-saving relocation. The new location was referenced in the bond brochure issued by the city but not cited in the ballot language seen by voters. "We knew the $12 million wasn't enough, but we had no idea this would be such an issue," said Clark-Madison. "Other groups and advocates were perfectly willing to tell us why staff were wrong," added Clark-Madison. "They knew it was in the bond package – so why didn't they show up? If they'd made the arguments back then that they're making now, it probably would have shaped the decisions of the bond committee."

Valls-Trelles explains, "I made a very conscious decision not to create any controversy during the bond election," so as not to jeopardize voter support for a new shelter. "We're famous for infighting – so no debates or dissension in the animal community over this was desired." She also says she was verbally guaranteed, by City Manager Toby Futrell, that a relocation decision would go through the Animal Advisory Commission and be aired during a "full public discussion." After the bonds passed, said Valls-Trelles, "Futrell said the bond-money meetings were the public discussion" and that relocation was a done deal.

At the request of Leffingwell, this Thursday, Aug. 23, the full council will get a staff presentation on the animal shelter's management and performance (not location issues) – which are the real underlying concerns of no-kill animal advocates. Leffingwell – who says his "used" rescue-dog golden retriever is his best dog ever – may propose a broader review of the shelter policies, budgets, and procedures. But given the divisiveness over this issue, he sighs, "No one will be happy."

Even if council doesn't challenge staff now, the community should have another chance to weigh in. Greg Guernsey, director of the Neigh­bor­hood Planning and Zoning Department, said the animal-shelter project (if more than 1 acre) will, upon site-plan filing, trigger a conditional-use-permit process. The CUP process (the same one required by the Big Box Ordinance) requires a public hearing – and gives council the power to stop a project.

Unfortunately, Austin's animal advocates have not been able to collaborate optimally with the shelter – sad, given their common interests. The advocates' antagonism toward the shelter, which has dragged on for well more than a decade, clearly is part of the "infighting" problem – and one the city now needs to own. Possible solutions: more council-level attention, a new director highly skilled at building community consensus, or city-sponsored facilitation sessions to build trust and productive agreements. Some community advocates also want more council-level oversight, with audits and increased staff accountability.

Worst-case scenario: Site selection for the animal shelter could drag out longer than site selection for Water Treatment Plant No. 4. Woof.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Town Lake Animal Shelter, FixAustin.org, Health and Human Services, Animal Advisory Commission, No Kill

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