What APA! Wants, APA! Gets

APA! needs a home, and council appears inclined to give it one

What APA! Wants, APA! Gets
Photo by Jana Birchum

On Tuesday, March 20, the City Council Public Health and Human Services Com­mit­tee approved a plan to move Austin Pets Alive! into the Town Lake Animal Center by the start of the summer. What that plan consists of exactly, no one knows at this point; all we can say for sure is that it won't be the compromise proposal brokered by Nathan Winograd, the national leader of the "no-kill" movement who on weekends apparently moonlights as an out-of-town mediator.

It was Winograd – contacted by his former protégée and current Chief Animal Services Officer Abigail Smith on Saturday, March 3 – who acted as go-between for Smith and APA! President Ellen Jefferson. Jefferson was asking the city for use of the TLAC site after learning that her group's current lease would not be renewed after May. Meanwhile, Smith had sent a memo the day before to City Council and the city manager objecting to Jefferson's request, because it would mean "easy to adopt" animals from outside the city would be brought into the city where they would be competing for homes with less-adoptable city animals.

By that Sunday night around 11:30, Winograd had brokered an agreement that would have allowed APA! to move into TLAC but given Smith the authority to decide at any time whether or not APA! could bring animals there from outside Austin. Jefferson told me she saw the agreement as a "good starting point" that had "great ideas." "We could use the document to come to an agreement," she said. "We just needed to talk." Compromise was in the air.

But at 9:39 the next morning, on March 5, Jefferson sent a memo to City Council, city staff, Smith, and members of the Animal Advis­ory Com­mis­sion, correcting "misinformation" she claimed Smith had presented in her assessment of the APA! proposal, and arguing that some of Smith's assertions were "harmful to our reputation and border on slander." When I asked Jefferson why she sent that memo after she and Smith had come to an understanding, she told me it was important to correct what she saw as inaccuracies, regardless of the agreement. "I felt it was necessary to make sure to correct those things that were inaccurate," she said, "extraneous to what Nathan had done over the weekend."

Despite Jefferson's memo, later that day the Winograd-brokered agreement – which stated, in broad and unofficial language, that "APA can bring in animals from other shelters ... if Abigail certifies no savable [Austin] animals were dying" – won approval from the Animal Advisory Commission in a contested vote (from which Jefferson, herself a commission member, recused herself). But at some point between the end of that meeting and the beginning of the council HHS meeting two weeks later, the deal up and vanished, as if it had never existed at all.

Instead, the HHS committee voted to recommend to the full council an amendment to the city's current license agreement with APA! that will allow the group to move its entire operation onto the TLAC site for six months (with an optional six-month extension), thus adding 80 kennels to the 60 the group now uses to run an overflow adoption center for the city. There was no talk of the compromise language, nor of giving Smith the authority to decide which animals could or could not move to TLAC.

A few days after the HHS meeting, Committee Chair Mike Mar­tinez told me: "The reason we didn't discuss that tentative agreement that was spoken of at AAC is because it no longer existed by the time we had our meeting, for whatever reason. I don't know the specific reason." Martinez believes the HHS-approved proposal will keep alive a partnership that is imperative to Austin keeping its no-kill status, this despite Smith's assessment (expressed two weeks ago to the Chronicle) that, if necessary, the city could maintain that status without APA!.

"With all due respect to Miss Smith," Martinez said, "I've been on this council for six years, and we never achieved no-kill – we'd been trying for 14 years until we did – and we didn't achieve no-kill until a tremendous partner like APA! and others came along to help us out."

Smith remains worried that the city is setting itself up for a fall if it hands over city property needed to handle overflow animals from AAC, which has been operating over capacity since it opened in November. "We've been very creative at finding ways to limp along ... but I think we're at the end of that road," she said. "We are going to have to move some animals to empty kennels at TLAC. We're out of room."

Sure enough, last Thursday the city distributed a press release stating that, due to overcrowding at AAC, Smith and her staff were sending 30 dogs to TLAC to join the 60 dogs already there under APA!'s care. Add that to the fact that February's live-outcome rate was 90% – the lowest it's been in months – and that summer is just around the corner, and it's easy to see why Smith and other shelter staffers and volunteers are starting to sweat.

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animal services, City Council, Austin Pets Alive!, Town Lake Animal Center, Ellen Jefferson, Abigail Smith, Nathan Winograd, Animal Advisory Commission

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