Shelter From the Storm: What's Next?

Abigail Smith will become Austin's chief animal services officer on March 15.
Abigail Smith will become Austin's chief animal services officer on March 15.

It's no easy business turning a city's animal-welfare program no-kill. Since City Council approved the "Implementation Plan To Reduce Animal Intake and Increase Live Animal Outcomes" almost a year ago, the animal-welfare community – from shelter staff to volunteer rescue groups to low-cost spay/neuter clinics – has been slaving away, sometimes hand in hand, sometimes head-to-head, to get the city to its goal of a 90% live-outcome rate. In the last several months, the city has been busy hiring new veterinarians, enhancing its foster program, and improving its adoption marketing strategy, resulting in a bump in January dog and cat adoptions of 10% more than the same month last year.

While the animal-welfare community is buzzing with activity, it's simultaneously playing a game of "hurry up and wait." For example, the new $12 million animal center, which was approved by voters in 2006 and broke ground at its new Levander Loop location last year, won't be completed until late fall or early winter. Meanwhile, negotiations between the city and rescue group Austin Pets Alive! to outsource the shelter's adoption program have ended. APA President Ellen Jefferson says that Assistant City Manager Bert Lumbreras and former Health and Human Services Director David Lurie did not negotiate in good faith and "had no intention of working on outsourcing," particularly with APA. The city's assessments of APA's proposal, on the other hand, reflected skepticism that the group would be able to accomplish its goals within budget, as well as concerns over some of the proposal's fiscal contingency planning.

The big wait, of course, continues to be for Abigail Smith, Austin's shelter-director-to-be. On Jan. 14, the city manager announced that Smith, executive director of the no-kill Tompkins County SPCA shelter in Ithaca, N.Y., will begin her job here March 15. To a certain extent, the no-kill process won't really get under way until Smith arrives, as she'll be the one deciding the focus of the city's strategy. Increasing adoptions? More fostering? Enhanced spay/neuter programs? Recruiting more volunteers? All of the above? Some cool new approach we've never heard of? All this remains to be seen.

The city will also be looking to hire a full-time animal behaviorist for the shelter. City staff decided early this year to put off that decision as well until Smith arrives, figuring that as shelter director she would want some say in the matter. The position, created as part of the no-kill implementation plan, is likely to be the second most important, and second most scrutinized, after Smith's. As more animals stay longer at the shelter, the issue of emotional and psychological well-being will play a bigger role in the no-kill discussion. The new behaviorist will not only be expected to come up with ways to improve the animals' mental health but also to decide when an otherwise healthy animal has crossed the line from merely agitated to suffering and has become a candidate for euthanasia under the moratorium's "no suffering, no aggression" rule. And if history is any indicator, when that decision is made, whoever the behaviorist turns out to be will face an avalanche of criticism from some animal advocates. Those with thin skin, in other words, need not apply.

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