Exit Interview: Animal Services Chief Tawny Hammond

Hammond championed no-kill shelter policy in Austin

Outgoing Animal Services Chief Tawny Hammond in December (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Last month, after a brief, two-year tenure, Tawny Hammond announced that she would leave her position as the city's Animal Services Chief to take a job as Midwest regional director for the Best Friends Animal Society, a nonprofit group that works to spread the no-kill movement across the United States. The decision came at a time when already, many titles in the city begin with "interim."

Accepting the new position and leaving Austin wasn't an easy decision, Hammond told the Chronicle in an exit interview at the Austin Animal Center. With the Levander Loop campus currently undergoing $5.9 million in renovations to expand kennel space, add pet adoption rooms, and improve drainage, "I feel like I'm leaving a perfect life." But her parents in Chicago and her in-laws in Michigan need support. Two years spent traveling between the three states has taken a toll. "When this position came up with Best Friends, and they were launching the no-kill 2025 initiative," she said, "it just seemed like a really good fit for the personal reasons ... but also professionally. And then staying connected to Austin was like a win-win." Hammond will oversee six states for Best Friends, but the group allows its staff to continue working with jurisdictions they know personally. She said she'll be back in town for the American Pets Alive! No Kill Conference in September.

And yet the move remains a difficult choice. Hammond came here after serving Fairfax County, Virginia, in various positions for 27 years. She intended to retire and go back to school to get a master's degree in divinity studies. But then she attended a conference where Austin Pets Alive!'s executive director Ellen Jefferson spoke. The two met there – shortly after, Hammond applied for an opening in Austin, a job she said she thought she would keep for the next decade.

In addition to the improvement project, Hammond says things are going well at Austin Animal Ser­vices. She noted how, for the first time, the Animal Center has had empty kennels for two straight months. She was planning on building on that success, but instead will watch several initiatives grow from afar. One is the training academy: The collaborative effort between Austin Animal Center and Austin Pets Alive! (made possible by Maddie's Fund) teaches people interested in animal welfare the skills necessary to save lives, like treatment for puppies with parvo, or nursing kittens. The city also teaches apprentices the ins and outs of running a foster program, which Jef­fer­son said will include a yearlong fellowship for those looking to then jump into running either a municipal shelter or nonprofit. While Hammond will no longer be working with the fellows directly, Jefferson still hopes her influence will play a major role in the program's development. Before Hammond, Austin was making its way toward no-kill – but the departing chief is the reason Austin is striving for the "true philosophical definition of no-kill."

Tawny Hammond receiving her proclamation from CM Leslie Pool at Council (Photo by John Anderson)

"It's usually either the municipal agency is focused on saving lives, or a nonprofit is driving it against the will of the municipal agency, which is what Austin used to be [prior to Hammond's tenure]," Jefferson said. "And now we're not that: We're equal partners in this journey to get to true no-kill and keep Austin that way."

Much of the country is at the point where Austin was a decade ago. Hammond will have the chance to take what she's learned in her time in animal services and spread it to shelters and nonprofits throughout the country. When people find out animals in their community are being euthanized for space and there are low-cost policies they can enact to stop it, they usually want to act. Think about simple policy changes like ending the practice of impounding free-roaming cats. Jurisdictions can save both money and lives by keeping those felines – which are usually someone's outside pet – out of shelters.

Talking about the work ahead cleared some of the gloom from Hammond's mood as she discussed leaving Austin. Animal services is a life's work for her. Had she continued, she would've gotten her master's degree last May. But, she said: "I got into animal welfare, and that's my calling, and that's my ministry, and that's my service."

That service could very well lead to Austin losing its title of the largest no-kill city in the country. If Hammond and Best Friends have their way, the world of animal welfare will look quite different in 2025 than it does today, with far more cities buying into no-kill the way Austin did five years ago ("Five Years of No-Kill in Austin," Dec. 23, 2016).

Jefferson notes that Austin losing that title would be the point: "As proud of Austin as we all are, none of this was to make Aus­tin the best. It was to save the animals. That's the goal. We're not in a bubble. We know what's happening right outside of our city's doors, and what's happening all over this country is massive death of pets that we believe are savable. We can't do it all; they can't all come here. So the very best thing for everyone involved would be for everybody to be saving lives, and not for Austin to be this pinnacle that is standing alone."

For that work to begin, Hammond must say goodbye – at least for now. Last week, City Council thanked her for her service, proclaiming May 18, 2017, Tawny Ham­mond Day. There, choking back tears, Hammond gave a brief speech remarking on how much she and her family love the city and reflected on her time here.

"How we treat [animals] matters as a measure of our humanity," she said. "Austin already was the flagship of the country, and I came here to learn more, and I was honored and humbled to walk in the steps of other people that came before me that got you to where you are today. And just to be able to continue that journey was the opportunity of a lifetime for me."

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Tawny Hammond, Ellen Jefferson, Austin Animal Services

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