Austin's 10-Year No-Kill Deal With Austin Pets Alive! May Be Dead

Like cats and dogs

Austin Pets Alive!'s Town Lake shelter (Photo by John Anderson)

Dr. Ellen Jefferson, president and CEO of Austin Pets Alive!, has spent the last two weeks touring about 10 facilities that could become her nonprofit's new home. She said the process has been disheartening. "We're trying to stay obviously as close as possible, that's our goal. But that's going to be completely dependent on if we can afford anything close by," she said. All of the locations were more than 20 miles away from Town Lake Animal Center – the organization's current, centrally located home on Cesar Chavez Street.

The pressure to move comes as APA! and the city of Austin have reached a stalemate in negotiations of a contract that allows them rent-free use of the city-owned TLAC. The deadline for the contract renegotiation is Nov. 23, but Jefferson said that if Austin City Council hasn't posted an agenda item on the matter by this Thursday, Oct. 7, it will move forward with planning its exit.

APA! has been located at TLAC, in the heart of Downtown Austin, since 2011, the same year Austin became a "no-kill" city largely thanks to its partnership with nonprofits and animal rescue groups. In exchange for accepting a certain number of animals from the Austin Animal Center each year for rehoming, the nonprofit organization can retain use of the building, which was the city's main animal shelter for years before the current AAC facility in East Austin was built.

In this year's renegotiation of that contract, APA! is pushing back against terms that have prevented it from bringing in more animals from jurisdictions that do not have no-kill protections. In addition to demanding it be allowed to house animals that come from outside the five-county Austin metro area, APA! wants to discontinue the requirement that it accept 3,000 animals annually from the taxpayer-funded AAC that are at risk of being killed.

Troubles at Town Lake

So far, the city shows little sign that it will budge. In a statement about the negotiations, the city's Animal Services Department said it was working "to ensure that the city's investment of taxpayer dollars [is] focused on supporting animals found in the city's jurisdiction."

But Jefferson said her organization's unwillingness to continue under the terms of the current contract is more than rebellion against micromanagement. She said she feels backed into a corner by the conditions at the TLAC. "I've spent a lot of time in developing nations and that's what it reminds me of," she said of the 70-year-old building.

It's common knowledge that TLAC doesn't meet generally accepted kennel standards, much less the expectations of a city that has the largest no-kill program in the country. The new AAC, for which Austin voters approved bond funding in 2006, was intended to replace TLAC altogether; instead, community pressure led to TLAC being kept open under APA!'s management. "The dog kennels are all made of concrete and rebar and they're crumbling," Jefferson said.

“We’re trying to stay obviously as close as possible, that’s our goal. But that’s going to be completely dependent on if we can afford anything close by.” – Austin Pets Alive! president and CEO Ellen Jefferson

The building sits in the Lady Bird Lake floodplain, and when there's a heavy downpour water stagnates on the floors. Although she said her organization is willing to pay for upgrades to the building that would make it usable, Jefferson says that isn't possible under the terms of the current contract. Additionally, her organization has repeatedly made clear that it won't make that investment without a guarantee from the city that they'll retain use of the land for decades to come.

Jefferson worries that APA!'s current army of volunteers will not make the commute from central Austin to wherever it ultimately settles (as many were unwilling to do when the AAC first opened a decade ago). But the nonprofit may face even bigger challenges than a volunteer shortage if the contract is not renegotiated before the deadline: APA!'s right to use the TLAC expires on that date.

Failure to come to an agreement would mean APA! wouldn't have access to a shelter unless a temporary extension is granted by the city or until they're able to set up a facility and build kennels in another location. Jefferson said she's hoping the city will step in and issue direction. Even if the city doesn't post something to its agenda by October 7, Jefferson says, "We're still hoping that they'll give us time to get out. There's no way that we can move out all the animals and be safe about it by November 23."

Overstaying Its Welcome?

Austin Pets Alive! president and CEO Dr. Ellen Jefferson in 2017 (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

So far, Council members have made no promises. Council Member Leslie Pool, the Council point person on the issue, said in a statement Friday that Council was still weighing its options. "I am considering offering that direction, and it should be done before the license agreement expires on November 23," the statement read. "As part of that action, we will also need staff to extend the negotiating period so that folks can keep talking and the adoption operations at TLAC can continue uninterrupted."

“I am considering [direction to] staff to extend the negotiating period so that folks can keep talking and the adoption operations at TLAC can continue uninterrupted.” – Council Member Leslie Pool

Some Austin animal welfare workers who've been around since the APA! takeover of TLAC are frustrated that negotiations have reached this point. Abigail Smith, former chief animal services officer for the city, remembers that when the original agreement was signed it was understood that the time frame was for three years, and the expectation was for APA! to find and prepare to move to another location, possibly close to Downtown.

"Town Lake [Animal Center] was basically condemnable when we left; that's why the city built a new one. We wouldn't have built a $12 million new facility if we could have stayed there," said Smith, who came to Austin in 2011 and oversaw the Austin Animal Center's move into its current home at the city's Betty Dunkerley Health and Human Services Campus, off Levander Loop near Montopolis. Smith left Austin in 2014 and isn't privy to how APA!'s contract was extended for this long. Although she understands APA!'s dedication to TLAC and its prime location, she thinks the group could have found a more affordable location closer to Central Austin if it had begun its search sooner.

If APA! is able to stay at TLAC, as Jefferson hopes, she said it would still look for additional property where it could expand its operations. Due to restrictions on the property caused by the floodplain, pipes, power lines, and the city's Lamar Beach Master Plan, the group will be able to use less of TLAC's space in the years to come. "We know it's not going to accommodate everything that we need anyway," Jefferson said. "We're hoping that we can keep something at Town Lake and then have the rest elsewhere."

Does the City Need APA!?

The contract negotiations have uncovered some philosophical differences regarding what it means to be a no-kill city. Whereas APA! tends toward altruism, the city seems more interested in pragmatism.

Jefferson argues that while Austin was once at the forefront of the no-kill movement, the city's current policy isn't innovative enough, and that it should strive to lead the national charge to save animals. "We should be thinking about what Austin can provide in terms of mentorship and leadership," and not just in Texas, she says. Jeffer­son imagines a world where, with the city's support, APA! was encouraged to expand its operation outside the five-county area. "It's about sustaining innovation."

The city's position is more Austin first. You'd be hard-pressed to find an animal welfare worker in Austin who's unhappy that, currently, the only pets being euthanized have incurable medical or behavioral issues. But some argue the city could do better at providing a more humane environment for the animals that come into its facilities, rather than maintaining the unacceptable status quo at TLAC. Pool said it's important to remember that no-kill isn't, or at least shouldn't be, a pure numbers game of how many animals the city can save. "If that's all we focus on, we've missed the point," she said.

The city has maintained that it's committed to keeping Austin a no-kill city "no matter the outcome of negotiations." The disintegration of APA! and AAC's relationship may not make that commitment impossible to honor, but it will be decidedly more difficult.

The nationally accepted definition of "no-kill" is that 90% of unhomed animals who enter shelters must leave them alive. Austin has set its bar higher, at 95%. But even though AAC reported a 97.5% live exit rate for the month of August, it has struggled with capacity issues in spite of a large budget and an extensive network of programs. The city's current Chief Animal Services Officer Don Bland said in a memo to City Hall and the community this summer that AAC was struggling to house the animals arriving there.

"Currently, every kennel is full, and staff have had to double-up dogs in each suite," Bland wrote on June 25. "Maintaining a No Kill shelter requires support from the entire community, and we are asking the community to help us with this challenge." In response to that memo, the Council-appointed Animal Advisory Commission announced it is trying to work with the city-run shelter on solutions to avoid a space crisis. At its Sept. 13 meeting, the commission moved to change its bylaws and create a standing committee to provide oversight of Austin's no-kill program. That committee plans to meet every month. But some problems have yet to be resolved – for months, the city shelter has operated with limited hours and has been completely closed to the public on weekends.

Smith says that when she came to Austin in 2011, only a month after the city first achieved 90% no-kill status, it was true that Animal Services needed all the help it could get. "The city needed partnerships with every animal welfare organization in the jurisdiction, so that we all contributed to the solution."

Since her tenure, and even since Bland took over in 2019, the city's animal welfare budget has skyrocketed – next year it'll be $16.4 million, a 20% increase from three years ago. Today, it relies on an expansive network of foster homes, rescue groups and other partners, and its own programs to achieve its goals. And even if APA!'s formal relationship with the city ends, Jefferson says, "Our mission is to make sure that no animals die for euthanasia ... Austin's our No. 1 priority for that mission."

If AAC and APA! do part ways, the city shelter may soon face a test of whether or not its programs are effective on their own to maintain no-kill. Jefferson said effects triggered by the end of the federal eviction moratorium may soon begin to bear down on shelters. "This time a month ago there were 26,000 households in Austin that were behind on rent. That translates into 38,000 animals that may get evicted. Where are they going to go if we don't have a sustainable system in place?"

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