The Unflinching Abigail Smith

New animal services chief faces up to Austin's shelter warfare

Abigail Smith
Abigail Smith (Photo by John Anderson)

Accompanied by the sound of 2,000 bands and a crowd of more than 100,000 joyous souls, Abigail Smith arrived in Austin last week to take the reins of the city's animal services department. Her timing really couldn't have been heavier with significance and expectations: South by Southwest in town, spring (see: mating season) in the air, and the city still celebrating having reached the coveted 90% live-outcome rate in February, the number commonly agreed upon as the dividing line between no-kill and, well, not no-kill.

As anyone familiar with the Austin animal-welfare community knows, Smith is stepping into a whirlwind. Expectations in this already passionate and polarized community have never been higher after last month's live-outcome success. A new shelter is under construction, set to open on Levander Loop in East Austin in the fall. And the city is still in need of a full-time animal behaviorist, the job considered by many to be the most crucial when aiming for no-kill status.

So, where do we go from here, Miss Smith? After all, it's one thing to get to no-kill status when it's cold outside and animals aren't breeding. Now that spring is here, though, intake numbers are sure to jump, along with the frustration levels of the city's animal-advocacy ranks. Should the city keep looking to outsource its adoption program? Can a city like Austin really achieve no-kill status without some kind of comprehensive spay/neuter law? And has Smith's experience as director of the relatively small Tompkins County SPCA in Ithaca, N.Y., truly prepared her for the demands of a big-city shelter?

I sat down with Smith last week in her new office at the Town Lake Animal Center to get answers to these questions and to get a sense of whether she has the pluck to handle Austin. She was fast-talking, straight-shooting, opinionated, and full, it appeared to me, of pluck. We'll know soon whether all TLAC needs is a shot of East Coast chutzpah.

Austin Chronicle: How do you hope to keep the shelter's live outcome levels high now that we're coming up on mating season?

Abigail Smith: February was a really good indication of how community members, support groups, and rescue groups have found a way to come together to implement the programs that are proven to be no-kill. So, obviously what needs to happen to continue that success is to build the capacity of those programs, to keep pace with the animals that will increasingly come in as the season grows. We need to focus on what worked for February and see if we can make it be able to handle more animals in volume, and at a quicker pace.

AC: Do you think what worked in Ithaca, N.Y., will work down here?

AS: The same thing works in Ithaca, works in Reno [Nev.], works in Charlottesville [Va.] [editor's note: all no-kill shelters]. It's basically a set of programs that work all at the same time. Adoptions are a huge piece of it. What worked for me in Ithaca was, I took the animals where the people were. I literally opened a store in the mall and did adoptions out of there. And we went to every festival. And I know there's a lot of that going on here. Now, keep in mind I've been in Texas for 48 hours, so I can't speak from experience here and won't pretend to know these details, but what works is bringing the animals where the people are. The opportunity in Austin is you have dozens of groups that want to take animals from here and do just that. So you do that as much as possible, as soon as possible, every single chance you get.

The volunteer program is also a huge piece to no-kill success. You always need more people than resources allow. So volunteers are a critical foundation to making all of the programs work; whether they're on-site, off-site, prevention, information, office support, volunteers play a huge role. That said, a huge part of volunteering is the foster network. I'm not clear yet how big our foster network is in this community, but my experience in the two shelters I've worked in previously is you always need more. Especially when kitten season comes. If you want to save every kitten, you need a place for them to go the day they show up. So I would look at how big that network is right now and how we can grow it so that animals have a place to go while they're waiting to be adopted.

AC: So, what's job one?

AS: Get a handle on what this snapshot in time can tell me about where these programs are, what's working well with the rescue groups, what's working well with our operations. What gaps exist right now and how can we work to close them as we enter the busy season? Job one is to understand what everything looks like right now. I can't steer the ship until I understand what course needs to be set.

AC: Is having a full-time behaviorist on staff crucial for achieving no-kill, and if so, how quickly does hiring one need to happen?

AS: That is very high on my priority list. Assessing behavior health and assuring behavior health at the shelter is a critical piece to keeping animals healthy and getting them out of the shelter sooner rather than later and in an appropriate manner. So I'll be addressing the issue as soon as possible.

AC: Are you at all concerned that the rush to 90 percent could result in cutting corners that could actually make matters worse for animals, say, by loosening adoption standards? In other words, could there be something worse than death for animals, such as developing emotional problems from prolonged time spent in kennels or bad adoption placements?

AS: It's definitely on a case-by-case basis, but there are certainly some principles that all successful, humane shelters strive toward. This is why I said I think the behaviorist position is really important, a behavior team of people who are trained to provide enrichment, to prevent that. I think it is inhumane to keep an animal in a cage for a very long period of time, not getting the enrichment that they need to stay healthy. Behavior health is as important as medical health.

I think we need to look at every case and do the best we can as fast as we can. That said, I agree that it is not okay to compromise the integrity of the adoption process. I am not familiar with every step of the process here, but there is a certain sort of standard amount of information that you collect and verify before you send an animal anywhere. And that's true for an individual as it is for a group. So it's important we know where animals are going. But I also think it's important that we aren't unreasonable in terms of assuming the best of people who want to come to the shelter and adopt animals. We work hard to counsel and to make a good match; we work hard so we make sure there are no known factors, that we're not adopting out to known cruelty people or known hoarders. And you do the best you can, and you do it as thoroughly as you can, and you try to make a good match so the placement is as permanent as possible.

AC: At the end of last year, the city closed the night drop-off boxes at the shelter, which city staff credited with a sharp decrease in intake numbers over the next three months. Some people, however, feel those are artificial numbers and that closing the boxes makes it more prohibitive for people who find an animal on the side of the road or who want to get rid of an animal humanely without dealing with city scrutiny or red tape. They say it could actually be doing more harm than good.

AS: If you find an animal on the side of the road, you call Animal Control and they assist. That's what we're here for. And the person who decides they can't have that animal anymore can make an appointment and go through the process whereby we can learn about that animal so we can make a better placement; we can understand what the issue is and maybe help the person – there can be counseling involved. And if that relationship between the guardian and the pet can't be salvaged, then we'll help you with the placement of that pet. But, in turn, you need to provide us with all the information you have so that we can do the best job possible for this pet that now needs a new home.

So, dropping off animals in the middle of the night A) isn't necessary, and B) is the worst thing for the animal. It gives us no background and no opportunity to solve problems that could be solved. So I completely support closing the night-drop boxes.

AC: In a city this big, is no-kill possible without mandatory spay/neuter laws?

AS: Sure. Putting a primary focus on spay/neuter as an incredibly important component of the no-kill equation, and putting resources behind public outreach and providing low-cost services, doing public education, these are critical. But I think when you mandate things and make it punitive, it doesn't provide better results than when you provide opportunities for people to comply with what you want them to do. So I don't think it needs to be a law. I think it needs to be an initiative effort and a primary focus of decreasing intake, but I don't think it needs to be mandated.

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Abigail Smith, Town Lake Animal Center, no-kill

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