Point Austin: Animal Passions
If the dogs recognized their spokesmen, they'd run the other way
That was the somewhat muddy conclusion of last week's City Council meeting, conducted in a more circuslike atmosphere than usual, as proponents and opponents of the animal-shelter move (more of the latter) packed the chamber and cheered and booed their respective positions on the dais and the lecterns. The council voted, as anticipated, to move the shelter to Highway 183 East and Airport Boulevard (Levander Loop, also the site of the city's Health and Human Services campus), with the proviso that a building on the current site will be retrofitted to become a satellite adoption center (in theory, one of several more eventually to be established throughout the city). If staff finds that plan won't work, said friendly amender Lee Leffingwell of the motion made by Will Wynn and Betty Dunkerley, then it's back to the drawing board.
Only Mike Martinez voted against the move, explicitly less because he questions the chosen site than to express his disappointment in the process – particularly the failure of staff to fully inform the council on the alternative site search. And he pointed out that because the Levander Loop site will require a conditional-use permit, the whole debate will inevitably come full circle, first to the Planning Commission and then to the council itself.
So more entertainment is on its way.
Where Were You Then?
I've got no hard position on the shelter relocation. If the fight over it (including a pending lawsuit) finally creates the momentum for the city truly to make effective its nominal "no-kill" policy – perhaps even with an enforceable, publicly supported spay/neuter ordinance and certainly with broader adoption programs – it's all to the good. Despite much emotional rhetoric about animal welfare, local results reflect that animal protection is not really a high official or citizen priority. We still breed many more animals than we are willing to care for, and we still kill many more animals than we save. (Since as a state and nation we also let millions of children go without health care, how we treat animals shouldn't be any surprise.)
The current shelter donnybrook, rather than reflecting effective affection for animals, is in fact a case in point. Although expressed in flowery speeches about saving animals from certain death, on the ground it's largely been a war between advocacy factions who spend most of their time arguing over who loves animals more. Where were all these high-minded rhetoricians when their voices might have mattered, during the long run-up to last year's bond election – especially during the dozens of public meetings by the Citizens Bond Advisory Committee, when hundreds of Austinites from all over the city argued successfully for affordable housing (first and foremost), streets and infrastructure, a new central library, even skate parks, and on and on and on? Shelter advocates were largely missing in action, and they now claim that "location" was never discussed in those meetings, so they've been deprived of a voice and a public process.
Well, in keeping with the utterly arrogant and condescending refrain in which they publicly berated staff and council last week: That is not true. In fact, it's pure-dee Texas bullshit. It was during those endless CBAC meetings that I first heard the words "Levander Loop" applied to an intersection I had always thought of as 183 and Airport. It was initially suggested during the meetings as a potential site when the CBAC, trying valiantly to make the dollars stretch, asked if building elsewhere might be less expensive. Had the FixAustinites risen with one voice – indeed, with any voice – to denounce the proposed exile as the equivalent of banishing the poor foundlings to Siberia, Calcutta, or the Jersey docks, the proposal would never have gotten off the ground.
Advocates claim that since they were already split on the location issue, they decided to hold their tongues before the CBAC for fear of jeopardizing shelter funding altogether. Well, that worked out real well. But to compound their silence, their own failure to speak out then is being histrionically blamed on the city now.
But that failure is a trifle, compared to the shamelessly cynical attempt to cry "racism" at the Eastside proposal. The new animal shelter, said FixAustin and its allies, would be a wonderful, humane, welcoming, adoption-friendly asset on the west side and a racist, inhumane, isolated, animal slaughterhouse "imposed" on the Eastside. "A real tragedy for the neighborhood," FixAustin's Ryan Clinton told the TV cameras, after he had failed to get yet another plum for the west side by berating the council and staff as liars and incompetents and racists. Even before the meeting was over, opponents were already spinning the decision as moving humane "adoption" to TLAC and leaving only vicious "euthanizing" to Levander Loop – although there was nothing at all in the council's action to exclude adoption from the main shelter, for which it will inevitably remain the primary site.
There was collaborative hypocrisy from the self-appointed neighborhood advocates, who loudly and repeatedly insisted that the Health and Human Services Department campus had "always" been designated for affordable housing in the neighborhood plan – only to have city Zoning staffer Greg Guernsey consult the plan directly and quietly confirm that the site is designated and zoned for "civic purposes" and has been so since the 2003 adoption. It's true there is a crying need for affordable housing all over the city – hence the hopeful millions to that purpose poured into the bond package – but that doesn't mean that every legitimate city need must be set aside, and every tract of land must be reflexively commandeered, for largely still-phantom "affordable housing" projects. Worse still, if every single city project proposed for the Eastside is to be reflexively denounced as "racist," the word will even more rapidly lose all meaning.
Although the council finally arrived at what seems like a workable compromise, it's likely that the grandiose arguments that regularly roil the interactions of those warm-hearted denizens of the Animal Advisory Commission will continue to entertain a wider audience, until shovel finally meets soil on wherever the shelter finally lands. As a reporter, I suppose I can only welcome the diversion; speaking as a citizen, it seems mostly a damn silly way to waste everybody's time.