Fun With Animals
Activists prevent shelter transfer during wildfires
Earlier this month, as wildfires began to rage across Central Texas and local animal rescue groups searched frantically for homes for displaced pets, Town Lake Animal Center Director Abigail Smith received an offer from the Houston SPCA to accept from Austin as many as 60 animals. TLAC wasn't lacking for space immediately, but Smith accepted HSPCA's offer as a "good will gesture from a sister city and a proactive measure in anticipation of what strain the days ahead could put on our resources." Smith and HSPCA President Patricia Mercer agreed that Houston would keep the animals for no more than 10 days. Any animals not placed in homes by that time would be returned to TLAC.
A day later, Sept. 6, at about 3:30pm, a transport vehicle arrived from Houston. Around that time, word of the transfer started to make its way around the Austin animal-welfare community – thanks in large part to Facebook messages from "no-kill" advocate FixAustin.org asking readers to "head down to TLAC to protest the transfer." Soon after, the transport vehicle left TLAC for Houston with 16 cats and three dogs in crates. Around 5pm, however, the transport vehicle suddenly turned around and headed back to TLAC, where the three-person HSPCA crew unloaded the animals and passed them off to volunteers from local rescue group Austin Pets Alive!.
That much of the story everybody agrees on. Then things get a little murky.
First of all, there's the reason for the mess: The Houston SPCA is not a no-kill shelter. Exact statistics are hard to come by because the group isn't required to provide them, but some reports put Houston's save rate as low as 49%. Officially, the shelter claims a live-release rate of 60%, still 35 percentage points below Austin's Herculean August numbers. For animal welfare activists who have spent years trying to make Austin no-kill, the idea that we would send our animals to what, to them, is essentially an abattoir, is tantamount to betrayal, even mass murder. Add the fact that HSPCA euthanizes all pit bulls that enter its shelter, and you've got a recipe for a very cranky Austin activist population.
But HSPCA representatives insist that their policy does not include euthanizing non-pit animals for lack of space; moreover, Smith says she only agreed to the transfer on the condition that no Houston animals would be euthanized to make space for the Austin transfers (and that no pits would be in the group that made the trip).
Apparently that wasn't enough. According to an internal HSPCA incident statement obtained by the Chronicle, HSPCA decided to stop the bus and return the animals to Austin because its staff had been abused, threatened, and mistreated by Austin animal welfare advocates from the moment they arrived at TLAC, and that abuse continued via "vicious social media attacks" even as the bus proceeded east down Highway 290.
In the statement, one of the members of the three-person team writes that they encountered TLAC volunteers displaying "aggressive behavior," including "cursing and [verbal] snapping," and that the HSPCA staffer "sensed a growing tension about the situation and towards myself." While leaving from the city, the driver was informed by authorities at HSPCA that "someone was reportedly tailing the bus" and that HSPCA's Facebook page was being inundated by hostile, cursing comments (since deleted); soon after, the crew was instructed to drive back to TLAC and return the animals. After they arrived they were "blocked in by about 7 vehicles and about 8-10 individuals."
That's the HSPCA side of the story. APA! insists that there was no protest and that APA! volunteers took action to transport the animals only after the bus had returned. In any case, FixAustin.org's Ryan Clinton argues, the most important outcome is that those 19 animals didn't have to go to a "high-kill shelter" that only volunteered to take animals from Austin as a "corrupt fundraising ploy."
"HSPCA's only justification for volunteering to take in animals ... is wanting to raise money," Clinton told the Chronicle. "No one yet has given me adequate justification for moving those animals to Houston."
For him, the issue boils down to partnering only with shelters and groups that share Austin's values. "In case of emergency, we would want to work with a shelter that is transparent in their numbers and has no breed-discrimination policies," he said.
As for the reported disturbance at TLAC his group's posts may have been responsible for, Clinton says he's heard nothing about it. He calls the shelter's bus-trailing accusations paranoid and also believes it was TLAC, not HSPCA, that made the decision to return to Austin. "If HSPCA made the decision to turn it around," said Clinton, "it's because they knew we would start asking questions publicly about their kill rate and their breed-discrimination policies."
Whatever the specific events of Sept. 6, the fallout from the incident has been significant. Mercer said she would think twice before "ever sending resources to Austin again," and Smith – who was celebrated only a few months ago for making no-kill a reality – has come under fire for even considering HSPCA's offer. One APA! volunteer, Gina Hush, speaking at a recent Animal Advisory Commission meeting, called for an investigation into the incident and demanded an apology from Smith. On Facebook and other social media sites, commenters were even less forgiving, doubting Smith's compassion, questioning her dedication to the "ethic of No-Kill," and even calling for her termination.
Smith will only say that she made a decision she believed was in the best interest of the community in the face of an enormous natural catastrophe. "We were responding in a disaster situation to an unprecedented situation," she said, "and what we take from that is how we can be better prepared next time."