Does Austin Need Fixing? Ask Reno.

Animal shelter reform has meant less euthanasia in Reno – why not in Austin?

Town Lake Animal Center Director Dorinda Pulliam (r) examines a stray cat.
Town Lake Animal Center Director Dorinda Pulliam (r) examines a stray cat. (Photo by John Anderson)

Is Reno, Nev., outstripping Austin in an undeclared race to reduce animal shelter kill rates? That's the thrust of a report issued last month by the animal welfare advocate organization FixAustin.org. (The report, "Reno v. Austin: Animal-Shelter Reform Efforts in Two Expanding U.S. Cities Produce Dramatically Different First-Year Results," is posted at www.fixaustin.org .) In a press release, FixAustin founder and President Ryan Clinton characterized the report as a "dramatic rebuke of Austin's shelter-reform efforts, which have been led by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals." According to the report Austin, killed 1,361 more animals in 2007 than in 2006, and Reno killed 2,752 fewer animals. FixAustin says the key remedy would be significantly beefing up Austin's anemic adoption programs. "Austin's shelter is barely beginning to start a very limited off-site program after years of criticism." Clinton told the Chronicle.

"Reno v. Austin" is partly an adversarial call to arms and partly an infomercial for the No Kill Advocacy Center and its founder, Nathan Winograd, who as a paid consultant promotes his "No Kill Equation" nationwide as the only way to reduce the number of shelter deaths. In Winograd's "battle" parlance, the FixAustin report contrasts one "camp," the reactionary "traditional sheltering establishment," with the other camp, a progressive "new regime" – which holds that there would be no such thing as "pet overpopulation" if shelters focused more on adoption. Noting the ASPCA was founded in 1866, the FixAustin report argues that in all this time, the SPCA "has not succeeded in ending the killing of healthy and treatable sheltered animals in any U.S. city." Hence, Austin should "look to new leadership in shaping its sheltering practices." To FixAustin, the quick fix is following "the man with the plan," as the organization refers to him on its website.

Reno indeed has reason to be proud: According to the Nevada Humane Society (www.nevadahumanesociety.org), adoptions have increased 53% for dogs and 84% for cats over 2007, as compared to 2006. Meanwhile, the number of dogs killed has decreased 51% and of cats by 52%, according to the NHS' "How We Did It" report. But who, or what, deserves the credit for Reno's successes? According to Winograd, he does. In a July 2007 letter blasting the planned relocation of the Town Lake Animal Center from Downtown (site of greater "human traffic") to the Levander Loop in East Austin, he gave himself an early plug: "[A]fter only a few months of launching an ambitious No Kill initiative which I created, Washoe County (Reno) Nevada ... is saving nine out of ten dogs and almost eight out of ten cats in one of the fastest growing counties in the state." According to NHS Director Bonney Brown, those numbers are not only holding up, but they've improved with a slightly higher "save rate" in 2008. "July has been our best month yet for pet adoptions," at 862 pets (including dogs, cats, and small animals), compared to 791 in July 2007, Brown told the Chronicle.

Winograd did have an influence in Reno. Hired in 2006 to evaluate shelter practices, he also conducted the search for a new NHS director, recruiting Brown. True to the No Kill Advocacy Center mandate to effect a "regime change," NHS strove, with continuing input from Winograd, to get "the right people on the bus" (as its website states) by throwing under the bus – firing – one-third of its staff, according to Brown's figures; another third got off the bus by quitting. Was there a litmus test for deciding who'd stay and who'd go? "People who don't have a commitment to lifesaving aren't going to fit," Brown said, adding that employees were evaluated on how their attitudes and performance served the "bottom line": lifesaving.

But when asked whether Winograd deserved the glory for the animal lives saved last year, Brown said, "We are grateful to Winograd," but cited other factors in Reno's own no-kill formula. For one, opening a new shelter in February 2006 spurred adoptions, Brown said; she thanked the community, which had voted for a tax increase to build the shelter. Adoptions increased also because of improved customer service, the expansion of evening and weekend adoption hours, and an increase in volunteer ranks from 30 to more than 1,200 additional volunteers. To boost volunteerism, Brown noted, the NHS budget did not change, "but we did look carefully at every program for lifesaving impact and reallocated some limited resources." In addition, the NHS website invites volunteers to join "if you agree all life is precious" and saving lives is "worthwhile." Finally, Brown credited a "new partnership" with the Washoe County Regional Animal Services as being an "important part" of the reported successes – in fact, the overall lower kill rates are derived from a composite of statistics from NHS and WCRAS, which was not assessed by Winograd. According to those statistics, the kill rate in 2006 was 16.9% for dogs and 46.7% for cats; in 2007, the kill rate was 8.2% for dogs and 22.4% for cats, as Brown pointed out.

Indeed, via the partnership – just two years old – the Nevada Humane Society now handles owner-surrendered animals and most adoptable animals, which are transferred there by Washoe County Regional Animal Services, which houses the rest itself, including the undesirables or unadoptables. Per the new contract, WCRAS may not arrange adoptions but works with rescue groups "who take the adoptable, injured, ill, and behaviorally unsound," according to manager Cindy Sabatoni. WCRAS' historically low euthanasia rate, between 26% and 32%, dropped to 13.6%, of both desirables and undesirables, as of July 2008, according to Sabatoni. NHS killed almost 9% of its dogs and cats in 2007, according to NHS/WCRAS statistics.

According to Sabotini, state-of-the-art animal control measures have been paying off, too. WCRAS' in-car computer and microchip scanners have been enabling delivery of strays back home, averting trips to the pound; computer software that allows Washoe County to post locations of strays upon pickup, searchable by ZIP code, revised every hour on www.petharbor.com, has led to a steady decline in shelter deaths over four years, she said. As a result, Reno may also brag about having one of the best pet/owner reunification rates in the country – but it hasn't happened overnight, and the effort predates any involvement by Winograd and his No Kill Advocacy Center.

In addition, a decision to curb capture of feral cats, while expanding trap-neuter-release efforts, had an impact on the kill rate numbers, according to Brown. "One thing that really helped reduce the number of feral cats dying was when the [county] officers stopped doing the actual trapping for people free of charge [in mid-2007]. ... Citizens do their own trapping and bring the cats into animal services themselves. Those cats we work to adopt out through the barn cat program," Brown said – which means farming out sterilized feral cats to control rodent populations. According to WCRAS Director of Field Services Mitch Schneider, by no longer trapping feral cats, animal services is treating them more like wildlife, which saves lives by "dramatically" reducing intake. Budget restraints also had an impact, however. "We were forced to reduce our service level," said Sabatoni, "as the number of calls for service increased significantly," with a new, more efficient dispatch system.

By contrast, Austin has not made a distinction between feral and tame cats for seven years, according to Town Lake Animal Center Director Dorinda Pulliam. "It's moot whether they're feral or tame – they're still unwanted," she said, adding that not finding a solution, like a new home or a barn, "leaves them at risk." Most of the "unwanted" are kittens: "If we'd labeled those babies feral, then they may have lived out their lives in the wilds, [been] run over, eaten by a coyote – or euthanized. I don't care if the cat's living on the streets or in your house; we're going to try to save it," Pulliam said. Moreover, most of our cats are "nice cats," meaning tame, Pulliam said. So, why do "nice cats" and nice dogs have to die? Pulliam attributed the cause to "indiscriminate breeding" and named as primary solutions expanding spay/neuter programs and finding strays a home.

That Reno and Austin should be pitted against each other came as "news to us," said Karen Medicus, former executive director of the Humane Society/SPCA of Austin and Travis County, now on assignment for the national SPCA's Mission: Orange program, which has granted about $600,000 over three years to fund Austin programs. "We are not competing with Reno or any other city in so-called 'shelter-reform efforts.' Austin's demographics and resources are unique," Medicus said. "It's not who's the guru and who's not," she added, taking a swipe at Winograd, who in his 2007 relocation report faulted her "ignorance" and "phantoms of wishful thinking" for Austin's failing to become "no kill" fast enough.

The ASPCA had considered preparing an official rebuttal to the FixAustin report, Medicus said, but then reconsidered. The way Medicus sees it, Austin has moved forward despite the influx of additional strays. "While our Austin partners experienced several challenges in 2007 that led to an increase in euthanasia (13,292 vs. 11,931), relative to intake, the percentage of pets euthanized actually decreased (50 percent vs. 52 percent); 21,124 cats and dogs were altered through low-cost and TNR services, almost 31 percent over the previous year; and, adoptions increased by 5.6 percent in 2007 (6,816 vs. 6,453 in 2006)," Medicus wrote. Furthermore, Medicus countered that "adoptions alone aren't the only measure of success." Positive outcomes, she said, require "reducing intake, increasing returns to owners, making affordable/free spay and neuter possible for all animals, and creating a safety net for the community's animals – all things that the ASPCA is helping to make possible."

Mission: Orange released its semiannual report in June 2008; the program is midway through a three-year stay in Austin. "The year-to-date statistics show that we are on track and moving forward," Medicus said. "Adoptions are up by 7 percent; the live release rate is up 7 percent, too. Intake has decreased by 10 percent and euthanasia by 24 percent, translating to 1,558 more animals saved," she added.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

euthanasia, FixAustin, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Town Lake Animal Shelter

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