The 'Unintended Consequences' of No-Kill's Success

Town Lake Animal Center filled to the gills with kittens and puppies

Kittens cool their heels in temporary cat cages at Town Lake Animal Center.
Kittens cool their heels in temporary cat cages at Town Lake Animal Center. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The Town Lake Animal Center is officially at capacity. Actually, that's not entirely true. Director Abigail Smith stated on Monday that the shelter was "down two kennels," meaning there were two dogs in crates in a holding room somewhere waiting for a temporary home and the shelter was actually over capacity. But that's just semantics: Fact is, the shelter is more or less at capacity and has been for weeks, which is not the best scenario, despite assurances from Smith that those two dogs would be in kennels by the end of the day.

It would be foolish to doubt Abigail Smith. Since she took over as shelter director in March, TLAC has become something of a legend in animal-welfare circles for being the largest "no-kill" municipal shelter in the country. Last month, the shelter achieved a 91% live outcome rate, bringing its six-month average to an even 90%, exactly the stated no-kill goal (allowing for animals that are too ill or too aggressive to save).

The city announced that achievement in a press release on July 6. Nine days later, it sent out word that TLAC was at capacity and had run out of space for cats. That week, the shelter had taken in 347 dogs and cats. To save lives, the statement said, staff were "setting up temporary cat cages in the administrative conference room."

So, the question is: Has it turned out that skeptics were right all along in arguing that the attempt to make Austin a no-kill city was bound to result in an animal shelter operating constantly over capacity, with animals living in every available space and staffers overwhelmed by a never-ending flood of new arrivals? The answer, Smith says, is yes and no.

"No" because animal shelters always see an increase in animal intake numbers in spring and summer, which is breeding season, or "kitten season," as Smith calls it. A shelter doesn't have to be no-kill to suffer the ill effects of a breeding season; it comes with the territory. "Yes" because there's more than a little anecdotal evidence that people feel more comfortable surrendering their unwanted pets to the shelter now that it's no-kill. Smith calls this an "unintended consequence of success," one she would like to see vanish.

"Just because we're getting better at saving animals doesn't mean we have more space for your animal," Smith says. "Our being no-kill doesn't bump the shelter to the top of the list of things you need to try when you need to find a new home for your animal. TLAC should still be dead last. This is still the worst place to bring your pet if you can no longer take care of them. We cannot be the solution. We have to reduce intake, not increase it, because we're good at what we're doing."

Smith also says that the shelter's well-advertised success means that people from surrounding areas not served by TLAC are making long trips to drop off their pets or strays rather than leaving them at non-no-kill shelters nearer their homes. Last week, two stray boxers were brought to the shelter all the way from San Antonio. And not long before that, a woman in a neighboring county tried to drop off 26 dogs, half of which were puppies.

So yes, part of the reason the shelter is constantly at capacity these days is because of the city's no-kill status. But Smith says the shelter's consistently bulging population has not and will not result in increased euthanasia rates. The city's implementation plan may allow for euthanasia when no cage space is available, but Smith believes that has "nothing to do with what no-kill authentically is."

"When you say you're no-kill, that means you're not euthanizing animals that have a positive outcome capability," she says. "I can say with conviction that any animal I've authorized euthanasia on in the last 60 days was because of health or behavior issues, never mind the amount of space available. If I have minus two cage spaces and 500 really happy, sociable, fabulous, healthy animals, I'm going to put up crates in the other room and have a sale. I'm not going to go euthanize animals that are perfectly healthy. We are not euthanizing healthy animals, period."

So the shelter staff makes do. They stay in contact with their rescue partners like Austin Pets Alive! and the Austin Humane Society; they come up with new adoption specials like Tabby Tuesdays and turn city holidays like July Fourth into adoption events; they encourage more fostering; they send out press releases to try to convince owners to keep their pets or find other housing options for them; and occasionally they stack cat carriers in a conference room.

"You do what you have to do," Smith says. "If it means I'm going to take in an animal that has nowhere else to go and keep it in a crate for four hours while I deal with the 37 that came in ahead of it, that's what we're going to do."

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Town Lake Animal Center, TLAC, Abigail Smith

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