No Room at Austin's Animal Inn

Lack of space already dogging new animal center

The Austin Animal Center is already hovering at or near capacity because of fewer dog kennels at the new facility.
The Austin Animal Center is already hovering at or near capacity because of fewer dog kennels at the new facility. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The brand-new Austin Animal Center on Levander Loop has everything a modern city could ask for in a shelter: dog "condos" complete with indoor showers and outdoor Astroturf, state-of-the-art veterinary facilities, and numerous play areas and display rooms where animals can charm their way into the homes of prospective owners.

Everything, that is, except for enough cages.

Say what you will about the old Town Lake Animal Center – that it was dangerous, that it was unclean, that it was old and depressing – it was big enough to house almost 220 dogs. The new shelter, which cost taxpayers $12 million, increases the number of cat cages by 80 but has only 160 dog runs. And with Austin officially becoming a "no-kill" city in March 2010, and therefore no longer in the business of euthanizing animals for any reason but the health of the animal or the safety of the community, that lack of space means the new shelter is already consistently operating at, near, or over capacity.

The new reality became painfully clear on Dec. 7, when the animal center found itself with 30 more dogs than cages. Going into what she called "crisis mode," Chief Animal Services Officer Abigail Smith grabbed 28 of those dogs and moved them across town to the old TLAC site. Volunteers from city rescue partner Austin Pets Alive! were already at the site, but they were busy with the 30 animals they'd agreed to take care of when they signed a partnership agreement with the city in early November. Which meant Smith had to use animal protection officers to staff the new makeshift shelter.

The next day, Smith called in the media. Footage of adorable dogs languishing in kennels and holding rooms was soon being splashed all over the evening news. Meanwhile, the shelter and APA! dropped adoption charges on all dogs more than 35 pounds or 35 dog years to $3.50. That included spay/neuter surgery, a microchip, and vaccinations – a value of more than $200 for the price of a glass of very cheap scotch.

The plan worked. Prospective adopters responded, and by Monday the Austin Animal Center had 11 kennels to spare.

By the afternoon of Wednesday, Dec. 14, though, when I spoke with Smith, she was down 13 kennels again. And by Monday, Dec. 19, the animal center was down 30 cages and APA! had maxed out at 60 dogs at the TLAC site. Smith was faced with the realization that, for the first time since she took over the Animal Services Office last March, she may have to euthanize dogs for space, an action generally frowned upon by no-kill proponents. Thankfully, an APA! press release and some timely adoptions meant she would be spared that grim duty. For a little while, anyway.

"Things change every minute," Smith said about life at the Austin Animal Center these days. "If you don't start with enough breathing room on Monday, come Wednesday or Thursday, it's a crisis. And it's not sustainable to just keep going on TV and saying: 'It's a crisis. Give me $3.50, and I'll give you a dog.'

"We've been behind the eight ball since the day we moved in."

Smith says she'll continue with her current plan – working with APA! to run the TLAC site, an "overflow release valve that has the capacity to help us bridge the gap" – for at least a year, while coming up with a more permanent solution to the problem of overcrowding at a no-kill facility.

"What works is adoptions, and how you increase adoptions is you put the animals in front of people," says Smith. "And you can't expect the entire market of adopters to drive to the shelter, no matter where it is. There's a market segment that has to be met by a select number of animals in a different venue consistently. You can't just show up at parades and festivals. You need to be somewhere in the community where people feel less intimidated or less emotional."

Ideally, Smith said, the city would have two or three permanent storefronts around town – in shopping malls, for example – where people are already in a buying mood. "A pet can be just another thing you're shopping for," she said.

Thus far, despite the overcrowding worries at the animal center, Austin's no-kill status is safe. November saw a 94% live outcome rate – 4 percentage points above the no-kill bar. But another new variable could soon topple Smith's precarious balancing act: Brand-new APA! offshoot American Pets Alive! has been tapped by San Antonio's Animal Care Ser­vices department to help that city increase its live-outcome rate, which currently hovers around 30%. If that agreement becomes official, San Antonio will pay American Pets Alive! up to $200,000 annually to help the shelter increase its live outcomes by 4,000 animals, which APA! Public Relations Manager Melissa Miller says they'll do by "helping put foster and adoption programs in place locally" in San Antonio, not by bringing those animals to Austin.

Still, with winter here, kitten season on the way, and pugs and dachshunds and other small dogs sleeping in cat cages at the Austin Animal Center, it may just be a matter of time before Austin officials pressure APA! to choose between expansion and its original mission: making Austin a no-kill city and keeping it that way.

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