Point Austin: Saving the Animals

City considers outsourcing all animal adoption programs

Point Austin
The good news is that the Town Lake Animal Center's current "save" rate – the percentage of animals leaving the facility alive rather than euthanized – is somewhere north of 70%. (That's a rough estimate, not only because it's a month-to-month moving target, but also because the precise numbers often depend on who's counting and how.) And over the last two years, the annual euthanasia rate has declined from about 50% to 32%, a considerable accomplishment, but even better when measured against the 61% rate of a decade ago. Austin's official policy has been "no-kill" since March – targeting more precisely a save rate of 90%, since roughly 10% of accepted animals are either too ill or too aggressive to save. The progress is worth celebrating, and it would seem that with the current momentum – and perhaps some additional resources – the goal is within reach.

Given that success – thanks not only to the hard work of overburdened shelter staff but to that of the ASPCA, the Austin Humane Society, Austin Pets Alive!, and dozens of smaller volunteer foster and adoption groups around the city – you might think the city would applaud and increase support to the staff. Instead, city staff is currently reviewing a contract proposal to outsource entirely the center's adoption programs – and presumably leave the remaining city staff to deal with that dismal 10%.

The outsourcing is not a foregone conclusion. There was only a single response, from Austin Pets Alive!, to the city's request for proposals. The TLAC is simultaneously seeking a new director, and the daunting RFP reflects that the city is not seeking half-measures. Anyone taking on the job is going to have to address all the "food, water, shelter, behavioral, veterinary and all other services required" by an estimated 13,000 animals a year, with about 50% expected to need medical treatment prior to adoption. Some of the details are unconfirmed – presumably, for example, the contractor will share with city staff the space at the Town Lake center or the new one to be built on Levander Loop, in a relationship likely to be awkward if not uncomfortable.

The animal welfare community is divided (as it is on many things) on whether the outsourcing is a good idea. Members of the city's Animal Advisory Com­mis­sion generally support the proposal, though Chair Larry Tucker said this week it would be fine if the no-kill goal can be achieved without outsourcing. He's "extremely happy" with the progress so far, Tucker told me. "The staff is working superhard – the positive outcomes are directly a result of their efforts and their hard work. So I would say outsourcing could have a quicker result of achieving no-kill status, but if you get an executive director in to implement the same plans, it can absolutely be done without outsourcing." Still, said Vice Chair Dave Lundstedt: "If you're going to achieve greatness, you've got to go out on a limb and be willing to take some risks. What was happening wasn't working; we need something new."

Other animal advocates are more cautious, questioning whether it makes sense to outsource the work just when it's going well. "I don't particularly think that this is the right time for Austin to look at outsourcing," said the ASPCA's Karen Medicus, who has worked closely with TLAC to improve outcomes. "This is like a repeat. Austin did outsource their housing and adoption program for 38 years." The TLAC was actually built by the Austin Humane Society, under an animal welfare contract from the city. It was persistently underfunded, said Medicus, until the AHS finally sold it to the city and left the contract. "Nonprofits get sucked into doing this," she said, "and then governments have budget cuts when revenues decline – and that's typically a place where they cut. Nonprofits get caught in the funding mill."

Also in question is whether Austin Pets Alive! – though highly praised for its work in increasing adoptions, especially through its innovative off-site adoption program – is capable and experienced enough to handle a task of this size. Ellen Jefferson, the veterinarian who directs APA and is now immersed in completing its impressive new South Austin facility, acknowledged that she had hoped the RFP would encompass only the "4,000 additional animals that it would take to get to no-kill." The APA's own current annual save/adoption numbers, from all sources, are less than half the 13,000 called for by the RFP. Still, Jefferson insists: "If we get the job and we're fully funded, we can do it. We will do it."

Jefferson's personal dedication to the task is evident and now being physically realized in the facility taking shape on Manchaca Road just off South Lamar. She bluntly credits APA with all of the city's recent progress in saving animals since APA's work began in 2008. "Rescue numbers for other groups actually declined since 2008," she wrote me. "Since APA takes only the animals that other groups leave behind, it is not because of displacement. In other words, if APA were not involved at TLAC, there would actually be a decrease in live outcomes since 2008." It is APA that has made the difference, she claims: "The City does not have a plan to increase live outcomes to a No Kill level without relying on APA to do the work."

Medicus and other advocates are not so sure. Medicus says APA has achieved its laudable adoption-rate success primarily through temporary foster homes and that the "herd health" issues of housing and caring for as many as 500 animals at a time pose a much more difficult problem. "It's a very extensive and very demanding RFP," Medicus said. "It would take an agency that had a lot of experience and good solid management background and a track record for managing mass housing of animals," she continued. "They may get it now that they have their own shelter and they're getting their feet wet, but they just don't have it now."

It doesn't help that antagonisms among the various animal advocacy groups make it difficult for them to talk to one another, let alone work together. Says Lundstedt, "I have a theory that the people who are really hardcore animal people are drawn to them because they like animals more than people – they can deal with animals, but they can't always deal with people." Jefferson responds that it is APA policy to "stay out of fights," adding, "When­ever a movement is near victory – whether it's civil rights or recycling or whatever – it's only the leaders who are still fighting."

The city certainly has no interest in getting in the middle of those fights. It also needs to tread very carefully before making a major change that, whatever its promise, could well undo the significant progress of the last few years in saving animals.

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Town Lake Animal Center, ASPCA, Austin Humane Society, Austin Pets Alive, Animal Advisory Commission, Karen Medicus, Ellen Jefferson

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