City Hall Hustle: The Animal Kingdom

One more round of changes proposed for the shelter plans

Galvanized by a literal life-and-death issue – not to mention simmering internecine feuds – Austin's animal rescue community is a rowdy and impassioned bunch, with sniping between different orgs over how best to save impounded cats and dogs from euthanasia (increasing, in city parlance, "live outcomes") not uncommon. However, as we make progress toward becoming a "no-kill" city (that is, in which 90% of rescued pooches and cats survive), infighting in the animal community has recently dwindled.

Now their vitriol is directed at city staff.

Maybe it's abated, as this Thursday (March 11), City Council is primed to land a one-two punch that should make animal advocates happy: approving $12 million for a new animal center on Levander Loop in East Austin and adopting a 34-point plan to usher Austin into the no-kill future.

Last summer, the Council-appointed Animal Advis­ory Com­mis­sion sent council a spate of recommendations; in November, council directed staff to develop an implementation plan with the AAC and to have it ready by March 1. (The directive, astute Hustle readers may remember, resulted in some outré interpretations from city legal, concerned that the AAC was suddenly being vested with heretofore-unheard-of-but-apparently-godlike "programmatic powers" to develop initiatives, an exercise in legal-pad scribbling council tossed on the scrap pile; see "City Hall Hustle," Nov. 13, 2009.)

On March 1, the plan came before council's Public Health and Human Services Committee: Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez and Council Members Laura Morrison and Randi Shade. And while the "Recommendations for the Implementation Plan to Reduce Animal Intake and Increase Live Animal Out­comes" reflected much consensus between the AAC and staff, it arrived with four sticking points: wrangling over a mission statement codifying the no-kill goals, whether to temporarily keep the current Town Lake Animal Center open once the new center is completed, outsourcing adoptions to nonprofits, and, most pressingly, over whether to create an immediate moratorium on euthanasia whenever there's available kennel space. At the meeting, Martinez was adamant on the last point, telling Health and Human Services Department Director David Lurie: "It's an arbitrary number to say we're going to keep 20 or 30 percent of our cages open. I just don't understand the rationale behind it when we haven't tested whether it will cause more problems or will cause more live outcomes."

Following a special-called PH&HS committee meeting Thursday, March 4, the plan is a go, with the committee backing the AAC's position on the four items. "Staff felt, quite honestly, that some other things needed to be put in place before the four remaining items could be implemented," says Martinez. Some were relatively simple to resolve, like crafting a mission statement; council encouraged HHSD leadership to write one only addressing animal services. Others, like the euthanasia moratorium, proved more controversial. "Staff didn't really give us a compelling reason not to implement a moratorium, other than to say we believe it will create an unhealthy environment at the shelter and that the potential for disease spread is increased. And while that very well may be true – that the potential is there – there is no proof to that. I didn't feel like that was compelling enough to not implement a moratorium if there was cage space available."

Similarly, staff balked at recommendations to keep the Town Lake Animal Center open six months after the new center comes online and to outsource adoption programs to local animal nonprofits. But Martinez says a request for adoption proposals needs to get under way "right now, so we can realize the full budget impact when we make a decision this fall about next year's budget. That's truly what many of these recommendations hinge upon, whether or not we fund them in next year's budget. This is just the plan – this does not come with money to implement the plan – so we need to get this plan adopted today. We need to begin our due diligence as to how much exactly it's going to cost – and to how much it's going to save – so we can make the necessary budget decisions this fall."

Cost is certainly an issue: the recommendations come to an estimated $1.1 million. Just hiring an animal behaviorist is priced at $74,000. But Martinez says that of the roughly 7,000 animals euthanized last year, "we killed over 3,000 animals because of behavioral problems, and we don't even have a behaviorist on staff. That, to me, is a no-brainer in terms of an investment." Moreover, one argument is that an increase in live outcomes might save money in the HHSD budget by reducing euthanasia costs – by one estimate, as much as $500,000.

"It's really important for us to get this right," Martinez says. "If the citizens trusted us with $12 million to build a new shelter" – a reference to the Levander Loop contract before council – "why wouldn't we have the best possible plan in place before we even start construction?"

Bark at

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Town Lake Animal Center, Animal Advisory Commission, City Council, Mike Martinez

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