How Many Cats Did Austin Save Last Year?
By the numbers, shelter and animal advocate efforts show significant progress
By Patricia J. Ruland, Fri., April 3, 2009
What should the City Council – and Austinites generally – believe about the animal shelter and the city's animal welfare programs?
Some critics, most prominently the activist group FixAustin, relentlessly pound the "pound" – their pejorative term for the Town Lake Animal Center – as a shameful, outmoded "slaughterhouse" that kills, they say, roughly half of the animals taken into the facility. The most-cited numbers in general circulation are 10,000 to 12,000 euthanasias a year – although these gross and variable estimates make no attempt to distinguish between the necessary killing of ill or dangerous animals and the killing of those that (for whatever reason) have not been adopted in a reasonable time. In response, the city's animal welfare personnel contend that they are devoted to saving as many lives as possible, and their efforts, at the shelter and in collaboration with other rescue groups, have resulted in the best numbers in the city's history – most prominently, a euthanasia rate no longer at one-half of intake but below 40%, and in fact below 30% in the latest monthly figures.
Indeed, under the common national "no-kill" standard – which means saving from death all "adoptable" animals – current city figures reflect that the shelter is within a few hundred animals a year of the no-kill goal and is even being considered as a national model for its success. Thanks to the efforts of shelter personnel, in collaboration with many local volunteers, it's at least possible that Austin can finally become a "no-kill" city.
Of course, not all animal advocates agree that the city's working definition of "no-kill" is a sufficient standard – some insist that the definition of "adoptable" must be significantly broadened to include, in principle, any animal that can be treated or rehabilitated sufficiently in order to eventually be adopted, or indeed as long as there is room at the shelter. "We ... believe that the city of Austin should immediately impose a moratorium on the killing of healthy, nonaggressive animals," said FixAustin's Lorri Michel, "when there are open kennels at the shelter to give them the opportunity to find loving homes." FixAustin also argues vehemently that any improvement in the city's euthanasia rate is attributable not to shelter policies or staff but to the efforts of independent rescue organizations – most prominently, Austin Pets Alive!, which helps find adopters through public outreach.
The debate over city shelter policies, once largely confined to the internecine and often volatile debates of the city's Animal Advisory Commission, has in recent months become much more public and personal. According to FixAustin, since November 2000, when Assistant Director of Health and Human Services Dorinda Pulliam began serving as shelter manager, the Town Lake Animal Center has killed 100,000 animals. That number represents "1000 [killed] every month, 34 each day, and about 1 every 12 minutes the pound has been open to the public this decade," proclaims the FixAustin website. As a consequence, the organization has been calling for a "regime change" at the shelter and specifically for the city to fire Pulliam. In a Jan. 29 letter to council members and other city officials, FixAustin founder Ryan Clinton wrote: "Pulliam's old-fashioned, 1950s-style shelter management belongs in the 1950s. The world has moved on and left her methods and excuses behind. It's far past time for Pulliam to be replaced by a shelter manager who rejects excuses and embraces no-kill methodology in its entirety."
City officials respond that even while the city has continued to grow, the shelter's kill rates and absolute numbers have slowly but steadily declined. During Pulliam's tenure, according to animal shelter records and those of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the euthanasia rates have dropped each year since 2000, her first year.*[See correction below.] (TLAC's statistics are calculated by fiscal year, so they do not correspond perfectly to those of Mission: Orange, which goes by calendar year.) Records were not kept before 1994, but in that year the Town Lake Animal Center killed 17,390 animals (including wild animals, such as bats). In 1999, the number was 15,166; in 2008, 10,916. That's still a considerable number, but according to the city's Health and Human Services director, David Lurie, at current projections, the kill number for 2009 should be lower than 6,000. And at the end of February, the TLAC euthanasia rate – out of all the animals, of whatever kind and condition, received by the shelter – was at 29%. Even that percentage is somewhat misleadingly high in one sense: The overall intake numbers have also been declining, fewer abandoned animals are being placed in the shelter, so the percentage killed is of a smaller total number.
Shelter staff also notes that TLAC does not euthanize "off the truck," as do other cities such as Houston, which reportedly has a current euthanasia rate of 80%. (See "BARC Sucks," by Craig Malisow, Houston Press, Jan. 29.) Instead, following intake at the shelter, each animal is considered by a case management team to begin to determine how best to handle that animal. And by partnering with other local animal rescue and adoption groups, the center has been able to place with owners a steadily increasing number of adoptable pets (see "How They're Doing It").
That does not mean every animal can – or even should – be saved, although that position is not shared by all animal advocates. For example, by "no-kill methodology," FixAustin means specifically the No Kill Equation program promoted by shelter consultant Nathan Winograd. In an October visit to Austin, Winograd exhorted activists to "take back" TLAC, which he called a "19th century anachronism," saying that he and his NKE could end all the killing "overnight." (See "Winograd Fixes Austin: NKE Knows Best," Oct. 31, 2008.)
Local Winograd supporters also oppose the city's plan to move the municipal shelter (from its current location on West Cesar Chavez, near Austin High) eastward to the Levander Loop (Airport Boulevard and U.S. 183). The opponents describe the new site as too remote, therefore discouraging easy adoption. (The City Council responded in part by deciding to continue to house an adoption center at the current site and possibly others elsewhere.) In recent weeks, opponents have also strongly criticized specific physical plans for the new shelter, criticism city officials say is either incorrect or exaggerated (see "City Rejects FixAustin Charges," March 6).
City officials and shelter advocates say that the critics are misinformed not only about current shelter practices but about the real progress made in recent months by shelter staff and allied organizations. "It's simple. People can believe myth or reality," commented Karen Medicus, team leader of Austin's ASPCA Mission: Orange partnership with the Town Lake Animal Center. In particular, Medicus says, FixAustin and other critics persist in using statistics about the shelter that are both exaggerated and out of date.
Apples to Apples
An arm of the national ASPCA's Mission: Orange program, Austin's formal Mission: Orange partnership consists of TLAC, the Austin Humane Society, Animal Trustees of Austin, and Emancipet and is a collaborative effort to substantially reduce "the needless euthanasia of adoptable dogs and cats." In analyzing the animal shelter's progress since joining the program in early 2007, the ASPCA tries to mitigate the "apples to oranges" syndrome – different reporting methods or standards that make valid statistical comparisons impossible. (A central question, for example, is how narrowly or broadly to define "adoptable" animals.) Throughout the year, Mission: Orange headquarters issues annual and biannual reports to partner agencies designed to "make sure we are accomplishing our goal of saving more animals," Medicus said. "Our numbers are vetted; they are verified; they are current; they are reality."
Summarizing the most recent Austin annual report, which Medicus presented at the Feb. 18 Animal Advisory Commission meeting, she noted: "In one year (2008 vs. 2007), our ASPCA Mission: Orange partnership experienced tremendous success in saving animal lives: 4,419 fewer animals killed in Austin shelters, 3,275 fewer animals entering Austin shelters, 3,681 animals transferred to placement groups (1,154 of those to the Austin Humane Society), and 25,328 low-cost and free spay/neuters performed – proof that the programs and policies put in place by this partnership are effective."
Other report highlights included:
• 25% increase in live-release rate
• 13% reduction in intake
• 33% decrease in euthanasia cases
• 23% decrease in the euthanasia rate
• 9% increase in the number of adoptions
The report also tabulates "live release" rates, that is, the number of animals that not only escape euthanasia but also leave the "sheltering system" – TLAC plus its four major partners – alive. (Some facilities cite "save rates," which include animals not euthanized but which remain in the shelter system. "We don't consider animals 'saved,'" said Medicus, "until they leave the sheltering system alive.")
In 2008, of all animals taken in, Austin released alive:
• dogs, 62% (2007: 56%)
• puppies, 75% (2007: 54%)
• cats, 44% (2007: 35%)
• kittens, 54% (2007: 37%)
Finally, according to the city's database, as of Feb. 28, the euthanasia rate had dropped to 29% of total intake. Euthanasia of "turnkey" adoptable animals – those with no health or other public safety issues but that no one claims within a reasonable time – is at 6%. That means that in the month of January, Austin saved 94% of adoptable animals. Admittedly, intake numbers and thus euthanasia rates historically rise in the warmer months, but, "It's been a good month," Pulliam said.
Another way of looking at these improving numbers, of course, is that Austin is still killing too many animals – including adoptable animals. On that point at least, the shelter's opponents and supporters would certainly agree.
To 'No-Kill' or Not
The term "no-kill" is often used categorically – as though absolutely every feral animal can or should be saved. For example, a Jan. 14 Austin American-Statesman article ("Austin trying again to lower shelter euthanasia rates") defined "no-kill" as saving 90% of animals sheltered – but omitted the essential qualifier "adoptable" animals (an explicit aspect of the city's 1997 no-kill goal). "The theory is to save all the 'adoptables,' and once you achieve that, then focus on saving all the 'treatables,'" said Medicus. "But 'no-kill' is generally interpreted in the U.S. as not killing any adoptable animals."
By that national standard, Austin is closer than one might imagine, or than has been acknowledged by shelter critics. According to Pulliam and Medicus, in calendar year 2008, the city euthanized only 616 "adoptable" animals – "primarily," Medicus said, "because no one wanted them." That's still too many for a goal of zero, but it suggests that the target is not unreachable. Shelter staff says that's significant progress, and it's made it through direct efforts as well as intensive collaboration with city-certified "placement partners" (about 90 rescue groups in all, including general purpose groups as well as those devoted to specific breeds or even species, e.g., ferrets), most effectively by trying to arrange foster care for young, sick, injured, but treatable animals, as well as by reaching out to potential adopters concerning the animals already available for adoption.
The difficulty comes in the other categories. In 2008, of the 8,693 pets killed by the center (another 180 were killed by Austin Humane Society), 3,692 animals were considered to be "necessary euthanasia" or (in no-kill parlance) deemed "not treatable." Included in the "necessary euthanasia" category are those ordered by the vet due to injury, illness, or suffering and those ordered by staff due to bite incidents or aggressive behavior. In the "unnecessary euthanasia" category were another 5,001 animals – of which 1,271 were pit-bull mixes, a set of breeds with a reputation (some say undeserved) for violent behavior (the "necessary euthanasia" category included another 612 pit-bull mixes). In theory, any pit (or other aggressive dog) can be rehabilitated, but that generally takes months and significant resources, and attacks by the powerful dogs remain unpredictable – they have been known to show happy, tongue-wagging faces, then bite aggressively without warning. In addition to the danger itself, that potential outcome also creates liability issues for any agency (or city) that allows pit adoptions. (To mitigate the challenge of what to do with pits, Town Lake Animal Center has joined with the Austin Police Department to create prevention programs aimed at pit ownership. Other treatable but difficult categories include feral cats and newborn kittens and puppies, which generally require 'round-the-clock, hands-on care.)
"Treatability" is itself a malleable and often contentious term. When a dramatic case of animal abuse and subsequent rehabilitation receives headline public attention (as happened with one badly abused dog, Honey, early this year), the story can imply that every animal can be saved – without regard to the actually available level of resources as well as the number of selfless volunteers. If indeed the ultimate goal would become that no "treatable" animal is ever killed in Austin – perhaps nursed instead until adoptable, in a pet convalescent ward, a psychiatric ward, or even a hospice setting – the cost would be considerable if not prohibitive. "In 2008 in Austin," says Medicus, "4,385 treatable animals were euthanized. The medical reasons included everything from orthopedic surgery to mange and everything in between. Just to guesstimate what it would cost, let's say you would need $500 per animal and a physical place for rehab, so just with animal cost alone, it would be somewhere around $2.2 million." Medicus added that shelters are currently not equipped to handle medical-need animals requiring full-fledged monitoring, including quarantine for contagion.
Obviously, if that level of funding from the city were available, it's a safe bet that no one in the animal welfare community would turn it down. Yet such budgeting would inevitably raise the corollary question of the level of city resources available for human welfare programs such as, for example, indigent health care, mental-health care, or family violence prevention – all subject to the hard choices involved in establishing workable public priorities.*Correction: In briefly summarizing long-term trends, we mischaracterized the euthanasia rate over the last nine years, and we regret the error. Although the total numbers of animals killed at the Center slowly declined over the previous decade, the annual change was inconsistent, and as this story reports, the marked improvement in the euthanasia rate (that is, percentage killed of received animals) has occurred over the past year, in connection with the new Mission:Orange partnership. The larger trend is that for most of the Nineties, Austin was killing two-thirds of the animals received at the Center, and is now killing less than a third.
Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at austinchronicle.com/opinion.