Safety Net or Dead End?

The politics of Austin animal welfare

Cats at play at the Town Lake Animal Center
Cats at play at the Town Lake Animal Center (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Joanna Johnson had heard enough.

For nearly 30 minutes, the Town Lake Ani­mal Center volunteer coordinator had been sitting quietly while a seemingly endless stream of speakers took turns explaining to the Austin Animal Advisory Commission what was wrong with her volunteer program. One complained about its poor retention rates and its onerous application and training process. Another spoke of volunteers demoralized by the sight of dogs not being let out of their kennels for 15, 20, even 24 hours at a time. One woman claimed to have video footage of dogs frantically jumping up and down after not being allowed out to empty their bladders.

When all the chastising was through, John­son rose to speak. "I'm not supposed to talk because the city owns me," she said, her voice cracking. "But the reality is that TLAC staff are just as frustrated by the very things they're talking about. Frankly, it's demoralizing to me to be constantly badgered to do more, to enroll more volunteers. I work 60 freakin' hours a week and get paid for 40. I live at the shelter. It's frustrating to feel like I'm never doing enough for the volunteers." Johnson paused to wipe tears from her eyes.

"I get it that we need more volunteers," she continued. "But we also need the volunteers to accept that the physical limitations [of the shelter] have nothing to do with the staff not caring. And people accusing the staff of not caring and of hating the animals has got to stop, because that is wrong. I have never seen a better staff. There are quite a few of us who are fed up with the crap, me being one of them."

Johnson took her seat, and the Animal Advis­ory Commission moved on to the next item on its Jan. 12 agenda. Only one commission member seemed particularly moved or concerned. But anyone who's been following the animal-welfare debate for the last few years could recognize that an outburst like John­son's was a long time coming.

Ain't That Good News?

Last March, it might have been reasonable for an outsider considering Austin's animal-welfare debate to assume that passage of the no-kill ordinance by City Council would at long last cool, if not extinguish, some of the lingering animosities within the community. After all, the passing of the no-kill implementation plan was a unanimous endorsement by the council of the theory that animal shelters could – with the right blend of spay/neuter programs, adoption initiatives, and fostering services – finally do away with the nasty business of euthanizing healthy, potentially adoptable animals and achieve the magical 90% save rate that cities like San Francisco; Ithaca, N.Y.; and Reno, Nev., had already reached. Surely there would no longer need to be personal attacks between rescue groups and TLAC staff, or between rescue groups and city staff, or between rescue groups and other rescue groups. No one would need to accuse TLAC of being a "euthanasia machine" anymore, as Austin American-Statesman editorialist Alberta Phillips had done six months earlier. All the accusations of our shelter director committing murder would stop.


In some ways, things did change dramatically. Gone were the days when an animal left in the shelter for more than three days was at risk of being euthanized. With the adoption of the no-kill plan, a moratorium was placed on the killing of any animal not suffering or overly aggressive, as long as cage space is available. As a result, in February of this year, TLAC recorded a live outcome rate of 88% – not only a 7% increase from the same month last year, but barely a stone's throw from the council-mandated, no-kill-movement-celebrated holy grail of 90%. Shelter intake numbers were down, adoptions were up, and the Radio City Rockettes had lent their name and their legs to the local no-kill cause: All was right with the world.

In other ways, however, things stayed just as rough-and-tumble as they always had been. If there's one thing I've learned covering Austin's animal-welfare community this last year, it's that animal-welfare people are both serious and quite willing to blur the lines of civility for their convictions. In that way, the no-kill debate is like the debate over abortion or guns or immigration: It's a cause for roiling passion. And the debate over how best to implement a plan designed to save the lives of animals is one in which emotions run high, sides get taken, names get called, and jobs get lost.

We Love Animals More

Ellen Jefferson
Ellen Jefferson

Perhaps no player in the local animal-activism world inspires more passion and gets emotions running higher than the Austin Pets Alive! organization. Headed by veterinarian Ellen Jefferson, an Animal Advisory Commis­sion member and longtime no-kill advocate, APA has made its name through its work as a sort of "last-call" rescue group. Before last year's moratorium, the group would consult the shelter's euthanasia list daily and rescue as many animals on the list as it could. It would then either try to find a new owner for the animal at one of its off-site adoption locations or find a foster home willing to take care of it for a few weeks or months.

APA's supporters are true believers in the moral necessity of no-kill, and therefore believe in the need to do whatever it takes to get there. Its detractors, on the other hand, say the group has placed ideology before humanity for years, attacking shelter staff and other rescue groups for not working hard enough to save lives – and sometimes even cutting corners to get to that 90% save rate for the city.

Both sides are right, and both sides are wrong. APA does have a remarkable track record when it comes to rescuing animals and finding them homes. Since 2008, the group has overseen the adoptions of more than 6,000 animals rescued from TLAC. In addition, the group has been at the forefront of the no-kill push in Austin, often pressing the issue in the face of enormous bureaucratic resistance. Jefferson told me that she thinks the reason her group has inspired so much enmity is that seeing no-kill work would mean, for some people, that they had been complicit in a system that had murdered animals.

"It used to be that spay/neuter surgery wasn't done with pain medicine," Jefferson says by way of example. "Then it was proven that pain medicine was necessary, that it improves recovery time, that it's more humane. But people still pushed back. They said that the animals wouldn't feel enough, so they wouldn't guard their incision sites, and then their stitches would fall out. The reason that line of logic was fought for so hard was because if you accept that animals have felt pain – and you've just done 100,000 surgeries on animals with no pain medicine – you're accepting that you inflicted a lot of pain and didn't do the right thing by those animals. So once you make that decision and cross the line, you are accepting that you've been doing something not as humane in the past, when you thought you were."

The same, she says, is true of no-kill: "I think that after you kill so many animals, if you've already rationalized it to a certain degree, why change what you're doing?"

Whatever their merits, comments like that have not made Jefferson a favorite among shelter staffers and members of other rescue groups. Some at TLAC have taken Jefferson and other APA members at their word: "They think we have been willfully complicit in acts of cruelty toward animals by working at a shelter that has been euthanizing healthy, treatable animals, and therefore we are no lovers of animals at all."

The staff members who feel this way agreed to talk to me only on condition of anonymity, either out of fear of losing their jobs or, some said, fear of reprisals from rescue group members. One such staff member told me: "No one who works at Town Lake wants to actively euthanize animals. That's not the number one requested job when people apply there. I've seen co-workers lose it over losing an animal or not being able to rehab an animal or running out of space. No-kill is great, but where do you put these animals that come in? You take in 70 in a busy day. It's like a cat-and-mouse game. You're playing with numbers trying to get animals to have a live outcome."

It's a sentiment I heard several times from the TLAC staffers: Groups like APA and Fix Austin have essentially accused staffers – animal lovers all – of being animal killers who choose the status quo over doing the hard work necessary to make a shelter no-kill.

Jefferson responds that the distrust staffers feel toward her and APA is indicative of what was not being done before APA began its rescue work, before it started pushing actively for no-kill. "We're not welcome at the shelter," she says. "We're there, and we're operating in good faith trying to be a partner, but it's almost like a forced partnership because they didn't ask for us to come and save more animals. I think most staff are happy that we're taking the animals out alive, but sometimes there are people who are not very appreciative of it. I think it's that mentality of, 'We've never needed you before; we don't need you now.' But I think the animals need us."

Apples to Pit Bulls

The dispute between APA and shelter staff runs deeper than simple disagreement over who is doing more to save animals. One staffer, also speaking on condition of anonymity, showed me a shelter report from Nov. 14, 2010, recording that 26 dogs had been moved that day to the shelter's no-holds list, which is a list of those animals that shelter staff have decided are not adoptable but aren't suffering or aggressive. Under the terms of the moratorium, animals on the no-holds list can be euthanized when more animals arrive, if no additional cage space is available.

Ryan Clinton
Ryan Clinton

As it happens, the Nov. 14 list was compiled two days after APA had made the evening TV news for rescuing 20 dogs from the Bastrop County Animal Shelter; those dogs were promptly adopted the following weekend. Meanwhile, shelter records show that of the 26 TLAC dogs put on the Nov. 14 no-holds list, 18 had been euthanized by mid-January, and 10 of those euthanized dogs had been considered and declined, in writing, by APA. Many of these dogs were adult pit bulls that had shown no signs of aggression toward shelter staff.

In other words, the staffer told me, APA had declined to rescue several TLAC dogs that were difficult to adopt or foster, like adult pit bulls, shortly after making local headlines for rescuing 20 easy-to-adopt dogs in Bastrop – a city it had spent little or no time criticizing.

"The hypocrisy is just so unbearable; we're getting lambasted by them for not doing what they can't do either," the staffer told me. "It's ugly when we get accused of euthanizing animals and not being able to place them, when it appears they're not able to either. They declined on 10 animals that should have been saved under no-kill. People at the shelter are hurt because the successes we've had and the amount of work we've done – to get criticized for that effort, and us knowing that it wasn't being compared apples to apples."

Jefferson disagrees. She says APA started working with Bastrop and other shelters around Austin in November 2010 because Austin's save rate has jumped as a result of the moratorium, and those other shelters are still looking at euthanasia rates higher than 50%. In other words, she says, they're what Austin used to be. "We're still trying to save the hardest-to-place animals," she says. "We're dedicating to saving the ones that couldn't be saved otherwise. But a lot of shelters around Austin are killing over 50 percent, the ones that are so easy to adopt you can do it in your sleep. We're trying to reach out and help them save the easy ones."

What of the charge that APA is being hypocritical by attacking TLAC for giving up on certain animals when APA is doing the same thing? "I understand what they're saying, but that's not why groups like APA came out and were speaking loudly about the animals being killed at Town Lake," Jefferson says. "That's because there were puppies being killed at Town Lake, kittens, small breeds that were getting labeled as aggressive when they were just terrified. Those are the animals that we felt like it was wrong to kill."

Jefferson points out that the shelter's euthanasia rate for dogs in November 2010, when the first Bastrop rescues were occurring, was 11%, down from 26% in November 2009 and just 1 percentage point away from the 90% live-outcome goal established by council last March. (Even no-kill advocates recognize that the last 10% of a shelter population is difficult to save.) Jefferson says that for Town Lake staff to be upset that APA has failed to save every single life in the shelter is ironic. "If APA is looking at these dogs, then Town Lake has already given up on them, and so has the rest of the community."

"I know that they're very sensitive about the criticism, and we've tried to make it as nonpersonal as possible because I don't think it has anything to do with the people at the shelter," Jefferson continues. "It's impossible to not be critical when you're saying, 'You don't need to kill these animals, but you keep doing it.' But I don't see any other way to get the job done – to save their lives. Either we've got to choose to not hurt people's feelings or we've got to choose to save lives."

Better Off Dead?

The debate over the Bastrop adoptions and the TLAC euthanasias shines a light on some fundamental philosophical differences. Obvi­ous­ly, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone working in Austin's animal welfare community who would choose to see a healthy animal euthanized rather than adopted or fostered. But that doesn't mean that reasonable people can't disagree on just how far is too far when it comes to no-kill.

Take those 26 dogs back at TLAC. Their average stay at the shelter was 24 days. One lived in its kennel 66 days before it was euthanized. My anonymous connection at the shelter questions just how humane no-kill really is, if it requires that any dog be kept alive in a small, contained space indefinitely. "After 24 days, isn't it fair to say that nobody's going to come get it? Should we really keep it in a kennel in the hope that someone will adopt it?"

It's an honest and troubling question. It is Public Health 101 that the longer you have animals congregated in one place, the greater the risk of disease, especially upper respiratory infections. In its recently released report, "Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters," the Association of Shelter Veterin­ar­ians confirmed that animals kept too long in a shelter are at risk of developing mental and behavioral problems. "Stress and the development of abnormal behaviors are exacerbated when opportunities for coping (e.g., hiding, seeking social companionship, mental stimulation or aerobic exercise) are lacking. Behavior problems compromise health and welfare as well as potential for adoption," the report reads.

Filip Gecic, interim chief animal services officer
Filip Gecic, interim chief animal services officer (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Jefferson sees this situation as additional evidence that TLAC simply has to do more to improve the lives of the animals living in the shelter – not that there are some animals that simply can't be saved. "If they can't get them adopted, they need to make sure they're getting the enrichment that they need, either through staff or volunteers or through a foster home," she says. "I think the shelters that use that as an excuse to not go no-kill aren't doing enough to give the animals what they need. It's not a black-and-white situation. You can make the best of a shelter situation for any animal."

Life in a kennel might not be good, she says, "but it's better than being dead."

Jefferson is convinced that an animal's life in a shelter can be emotionally satisfying if that animal has regular human contact, interaction, and play – in other words, as long as more resources are put into the foster program and, most importantly, the volunteer program. But that brings us full circle – right back to Johnson and her beleaguered, underpopulated volunteer program. Right back to the basic problem: that the shelter may simply lack the resources it needs to save one animal's life without sacrificing some other animal's desire to live.

Breeding Season

Maybe APA is right, and it was a certain moral imperative that Austin first go no-kill and then figure out how to do it. Or maybe the critics are right, and implementing a moratorium when you don't have an adequate adoption program in place or a licensed behaviorist on staff is a sure way to end up with overcrowded shelters filled with screwed-up animals.

And maybe today's arguments won't mean much when summer rolls around, when Austin's animals really start breeding, and the shelter is facing days when 70 or 80 animals are incoming and there are no cages available and the "euthanasia machine" begins cranking up again and last month's 88% live outcome rate starts looking like a winter wonderland.

One thing I've learned over these past weeks is that saying everyone involved in animal welfare in Austin is looking for the same thing – i.e., making animals' lives better – is a good way to sound like a wide-eyed kid fresh off the boat by way of the turnip truck. Take this blog post written in October 2009 by Fix Austin Director Ryan Clinton, who as much as anyone is responsible for both Austin's no-kill ordinance and the heated rhetoric surrounding it: "We do not all want the same thing. We want our community to become a No Kill city by implementing the proven, cost-effective policies and programs that have led to dramatic reductions in shelter killing in communities all over the country. They want to continue the status quo policies and hope (against all rational thought) that continuing to do the same thing, over and over again, will effect a different outcome."

"They," in this case, were the supporters of TLAC and its former Director Dorinda Pulliam, who, Clinton wrote at the time, "has presided over the unnecessary deaths of over 100,000 homeless dogs and cats." Pulliam, who heard this kind of thing nearly every day during her decadelong tenure running TLAC, resigned last May, moving on to slightly less-controversial pastures elsewhere in the city's Health and Human Services Department.

Meanwhile, national no-kill guru Nathan Winograd has been far harsher in his assessments than Clinton, or at least more baroque in his language. In a recent blog post, the former shelter director-turned-no-kill prophet wrote that Pulliam "oversaw the carnage with ruthless efficiency. During her tenure, she killed over 100,000 animals, tens of thousands a year, hundreds per month, dozens per day, one animal roughly every 12 minutes the shelter was open to the public."

Perhaps you agree with Clinton and Wino­grad and Jefferson that no-kill is an ethical necessity that needs to be fought for with every available tool and that those who stand in its way or stall its progress are morally responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent animals. Or perhaps, like Pulliam and many others still working in the shelter and the larger animal-welfare community, you believe the goals of no-kill are best achieved incrementally and through careful planning. Or perhaps, like Johnson, you're just hoping for a little more civility in your political discourse, and you're not willing to choose between the animal shelter as safety net and the animal shelter as dead end.

The debate isn't going anywhere, and the next person to run the show in Austin is going to have to walk the line between resource manager, boxing referee, and marriage counselor in order to get anything done. So far, consensus in the community seems to be supporting Abigail Smith, who'll be arriving in a month to take over TLAC with nothing but her wits and four years' experience leading a small-town shelter to guide her. But I wouldn't count on that consensus sticking.

Consensus on animal welfare has never been the Austin way.

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Town Lake Animal Center, Joanna Johnson, Ellen Jefferson, Austin Pets Alive!, Fix Austin, Ryan Clinton, Nathan Winograd

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