Austin’s Animal Shelters Struggle to Uphold No-Kill Reputation in the Face of Overcrowding

How overcrowding and mismanagement of Austin Animal Center and Austin Pets Alive! have them struggling to keep up

A dog waits to be adopted at Austin Animal Center on July 29 (Photo by Jana Birchum)

For more than a decade, Austin was the largest city to designate itself a no-kill sanctuary for animals. That came to an end in 2021 when Los Angeles joined the club, but the animal services system in Austin still prides itself at its save rate of over 95%. To achieve that level of performance, the partnership at the system's core – between the city-owned and -run Austin Animal Center and its nonprofit partner Austin Pets Alive! – needs to operate seamlessly and without friction, as it sustains the work of hundreds of volunteers and makes connections with scores of community partners.

That's not happening right now. As Austin rebounds from the pandemic, policy changes and staffing challenges at both AAC and APA!, along with the worsening of the city's housing crisis for humans who'd take care of animals, have left the sanctuaries with emergency levels of overcrowding and infighting. At AAC, dogs are at 145% of capacity and cats are at 171% as of July 28. Council, employees, stakeholders, and volunteers are all uniformly disappointed with the state of animal rescue in Austin. So how did the system get here? Where is communication breaking down? And can they dig themselves out of this hole and reclaim the no-kill gold standard?

No Room at the Intake

In the last three years, Amy Rae Dadamo has picked up around 10 dogs off the streets. "On the Southeast and Southwest sides of Austin, I cannot even explain how common it is to see loose dogs strolling along the sidewalk. Sometimes that dog belongs to a neighbor of mine, but most of the time it doesn't."

Dadamo says since 2020, she's been turned away at AAC several times. When she and a friend found a pair of abandoned puppies in a field in Somerville, 90 minutes east of Austin, AAC refused to take them because they were found outside Travis County. "They never gave me any kind of direction, other than to call the county in which they were originally found. But they're not in that county anymore, and I was two hours away." One of the dogs died from the contagious parvovirus soon after; to save the other, Dadamo contacted Austin Lost & Found Pets, which directed her to APA!'s parvovirus ward. "But I just got so annoyed, because why, if this is a commonly known resource in the city, did no one at [AAC] direct me there?"

Many in the Austin Lost & Found Pets Facebook group have been frustrated when the shelter turns them away – an admin, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Chronicle that the group is picking up much of AAC's slack. Multiple AAC employees told us that privately they are encouraged to turn people away.

Dogs in kennels fill every available space, including the hallways and the conference room (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The protocol when one finds a lost animal, according to AAC, is: First, scan its microchip, if it has one, at any Austin fire station or most vet clinics to match with its owner's information. If that turns up nothing, a call to 311 will connect you to an animal protection officer who can pick the dog up if it is sick. Or you can bring a sick dog to AAC during intake hours Monday-Friday; weekends are closed for intake, but open for reclaiming lost animals. Animal Protection and Vet Services are staffed seven days a week, but "the shelter should be the last resort for a healthy found dog," AAC told the Chronicle in an email.

Dadamo thinks this places far too much responsibility on typical Austinites like herself. In the case of the two infected puppies, she says, "Two, three days of my life were spent trying to help these dogs. I don't get refunded for the gas I spend driving around, and the food and energy. I just have to rearrange my day to make it happen.

"At the time," she continued, "I remember feeling a little bit frustrated, because a lot of the communication from Austin Animal Center about limiting intake [said], 'It's the community's responsibility and the community's duty to help reunite these dogs with their owners.' You can't put residents in a situation where they find a lost dog and consider not helping it because they don't want to be stuck with it. If we're going to operate together and try to help this problem, then there can't be that tension and animosity."

Bland attributes AAC’s overcrowding to “financial and housing insecurity, which can lead to lower adoption rates and higher surrender rates. Another factor is that our current shelter was not designed for a no-kill operation … Our staff has been extremely innovative in working within the limitations of our facility.”

If AAC is limiting intake enough to cause the frustrations shared by Dadamo and others, why is it still so overcrowded? Reporting from the city's Open Data Portal indicates that from 2014 until Texas locked down for COVID-19 in March 2020, AAC took in between 150 and 250 dogs nearly every week; in 2022, there have been only two weeks when they've taken in 150 or more (see chart below).

Austin Animal Services Director Don Bland attributes AAC's overcrowding to "financial and housing insecurity, which can lead to lower adoption rates and higher surrender rates. Another factor is that our current shelter was not designed for a no-kill operation." While the AAC opened in 2011 amid the city's first embrace of no-kill, the facility in Southeast Austin had been in the works since 2006. "Our staff has been extremely innovative in working within the limitations of our facility."

One innovation that many think would help is to continue to rehabilitate and socialize medium and large dogs with bite histories or other safety risks, referred to as "behavior dogs" by stakeholders. One AAC employee who has done this work since 2014 told us, "The behavior program has never been more disrespected" than under Bland's leadership. "We're actually told we're not essential. To have a leading animal shelter believe that behavior and enrichment programs are not essential is … kind of a thing."

Dog kennels lined up in a loading bay (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Many AAC staffers told us shelter stress is furthering a glut of dogs with behavioral issues. One part-time employee said that "play group," where dogs are let out to socialize with other dogs, has been cut back considerably. Employees and volunteers add that play groups are a good way to see which dogs get along and thus can share a kennel together, which frees up scarce space. Meanwhile the "600s" kennels intended for quarantine are now housing healthy strays due to crowding. Employees allege that these dogs are not walked as often; in response, AAC told us: "Our goal is to get every eligible dog out for at least 1 walk a day. For the dogs in crates, we make sure they get out at least 3 times a day."

Dogs in the 600s are not seen by AAC visitors looking to adopt, though they can be found on the AAC website. "How's their owner supposed to find them if they can't actually come see them?" one employee asked. Employees say dogs in the 600s used to be rotated out regularly but now are sometimes stuck there for weeks: "No chance of adoption for over a month. So right there we've created a long stay. By the time they come out, they're already stressed out and less likely to be 'adoptable.' They just need to get out of there."

Sending the Animals Away

One of AAC's responses to overcrowding is transporting dogs to other shelters, which it calls "a vital piece of the no-kill equation." The largest of these is APA!, which occupies the facility that the city shelter used to, the 60-year-old Town Lake Animal Center off West Cesar Chavez. The city's contract with APA! from 2008, before the new AAC was built, included an agreement for APA! to take 3,000 animals a year, mostly for medical care, including 60 behavior dogs. In Novem­ber 2021, APA! opted not to renew the 75-year contract, contending on its website that these numbers were arbitrary, "established more than a decade ago, when three times the number of animals in Austin were being euthanized for space." In February, it renewed a version of the current, "more equitable agreement" for another year as it continues to negotiate the contract, and as it looks for a new building.

The nonprofit would like to take fewer of AAC's dogs so it can provide them with better care and more easily get them into more foster homes; both APA! and some of the AAC staffers we talked to think that's the best place for pets to be, and making a fostering-first model work is a necessity if AAC doesn't want to house healthy adoptable animals at the shelter. "We are making our own problems worse by not [making] sure that the dogs are getting what they need," said one AAC employee. "The pandemic kind of proved [that] fostering is the future, right? We sent out so many behavior dogs that were perfectly fine."

Back in 2008, according to Dr. Ellen Jeffer­son, president of Austin Pets Alive!, the nonprofit expected that AAC would become "self-sustaining, or close to it" by now; instead, APA! feels it's become a "flush valve" for dogs that would otherwise be euthanized. According to a June report to the City Council-appointed Animal Advis­ory Commission, 389 animals were transferred out of AAC to rescue partners in June; 162 went to APA!, and "another 52 were born in care at APA! to pregnant animals sent from AAC."

APA!'s reluctance to take in more of AAC's dogs, and its commitment to move toward a model centered on community fostering, contributes to a "sense of overcrowding" at the Town Lake Animal Center, Jefferson told us. "We are currently using about 60% of our kennels at TLAC due to the extreme conditions there of an old building that needs to be replaced. We might 'only' have 350 animals on-site today, but we are one power outage, one flood, or one more winter storm away from losing lives, when the most vulnerable pets could be in someone's foster home right now."

Jefferson says APA!'s standard of care is higher than that mandated by the state of Texas and "is extremely labor intensive, and that often leads to a sense of overcrowding when there are staff shortages, even when kennels are empty. [APA!] is not only experiencing the effects of a dramatic increase of pet owners surrendering their companion animals due to evictions" – the same consideration raised by Bland – but also "the brunt of government-shelter unnecessary intake and euthanasia."

“Bringing them to Austin is hurting Austin’s dogs; [APA! is trying] to be no-kill for all of Texas.” – Austin Animal Center employee

"Government shelter" doesn't just mean AAC, but city and county animal services throughout the five-county Austin metro area and, now, beyond. The 2021 Council resolution that reset the APA!/AAC relationship, following APA!'s declining to renew its prior contract, gave APA! the authority to bring animals from shelters beyond Central Texas to the TLAC. One AAC employee says, "Bringing them to Austin is hurting Austin's dogs; [APA! is trying] to be no-kill for all of Texas." APA!'s response to these concerns on its website is: "If at any time the city shelter is experiencing space issues, they are able to implement the recommendations by the [Animal Advisory Com­mis­sion's Space Crisis] working group to avoid sending easily adoptable animals to other cities and improve life saving operations right here at home."

Some at AAC worry that sending dogs with significant behavioral issues to APA! might also raise the city's euthanasia rate: "There are dogs that we absolutely know APA! is not going to take. So we put them on the [euthanasia] list so they can say no, and then we can put out a notification." Bland told the Chronicle, "Our enrichment program has now evolved to include handling more difficult dogs … as we have seen an increase in long stays and our partners have diminished capacity to pull behavior dogs." Or, as an anonymous employee puts it, "Sending a dog to APA! that they can't get out either isn't actually helping. You know, if we think of Austin as one big shelter, that's still a dog in the shelter system."

Some AAC staffers, however, think APA! should be taking more dogs, not fewer: "APA! is a PR machine," said one. "APA! is so much larger in the Austin psyche than AAC is – there's so many people that think APA! is the city shelter, right? We've done a very terrible job at advertising ourselves."

The AAC also attempted to solve overcrowding by implementing a more extensive transport program in 2021, during the pandemic, in which animals are shuttled to other rescue partners, some in and some out of state, even all the way to Canada. But many employees say the dogs that are being transported are not the longest stays, but rather the most desirable or "adoptable" dogs, leaving those still in the shelter more at risk for euthanasia, either for health or behavioral reasons.

Reporting on the city's Open Data Portal shows that 90% of out-of-state transports involve dogs that have stayed in the shelter fewer than 63 days, and that local adoptions have decreased since these transports were initiated.

The behavior program at AAC “has never been more disrespected … We’re actually told we’re not essential. To have a leading animal shelter believe that behavior and enrichment programs are not essential is … kind of a thing.” – Austin Animal Center employee

Eileen McFall, founder of Final Frontier Rescue, which specializes in rehabilitating and placing behavior dogs, alleges that "Don Bland and the people around him want the option of killing for convenience, and they want to create the impression that that's necessary. … With the number of people moving to Austin, there are plenty of adopters in Austin for these dogs. We do not need to be transporting [them]."

Kristen Hassen, a former deputy director of AAC who now serves on the Animal Advisory Commission and is the Maddie's Fund director of American Pets Alive!, says, "We could potentially have 500 more big dogs in foster homes if we were dedicating more resources. I think [transport] is unfortunate, because we are in the best possible situation of any shelter in Texas, but really, the nation, to help the animals."

AAC Leadership: On Notice

The Animal Advisory Commission cast a vote of no confidence in Don Bland's leadership in June, citing a lack of transparent data on no-kill policies and no willingness to "collaborate with Austin animal stakeholders that could provide immediate, free help to solve the problems the shelter is facing." Current and former volunteers at the shelter spoke of mistreatment and a toxic work environment at the July 11 commission meeting, which they said leads to high turnover and fewer resources for the animals.

All shelter workers the Chronicle spoke with wished to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation, as many have received warnings about speaking with the media. One volunteer told the Chronicle that leadership "actively disparages their own staff, volunteers, and stakeholders. Turnover [is] high, morale is low, and partner organizations struggle to function as true partners to the shelter." Another said, "Basically, they try to make it uncomfortable until the problem children leave. And unfortunately, it's working; I'm looking for another job. And that sucks, I love my shelter, I love my dogs." There are currently 115 budgeted full-time positions at AAC with 10 vacancies, 50 part-time with 14 vacancies, and 425 volunteers.

Partners that have historically helped AAC place behavior dogs that would otherwise be euthanized include groups like Final Frontier, which was an official rescue partner of the shelter but recently dropped out of the contract due to disagreements with AAC leadership, as well as the Orange Dot Crew, which was formed six years ago by AAC volunteers to help behavior dogs. ODC told the Chronicle its feedback has fallen on deaf ears. "They're free volunteers helping the dogs that are costing the city the maximum amount of dollars … there are so many communities that would give a right arm to have a group like that," says Hassen. "And just to hear as a commissioner how they've been treated, it really makes me sad."

"They have a really strong core of volunteers and staff who value those dogs' lives, value placing them safely, and are willing to work to make it happen," McFall says. "It's leadership that will not work with them."

Bland told the Chronicle, "We are investigating these allegations and addressing concerns." As for the larger staffing issue, he said that "to make no-kill sustainable, it has to be a community effort. We need finders of healthy dogs to try everything to find the owner before bringing it to the shelter, we need consistent pulls from rescue partners, we need people to foster and adopt, and we need volunteers."

Overcrowding has forced staff to place up to three dogs in the same kennel (photo by Jana Birchum)

Is APA! Any Different?

Former employees from APA! have told the Chronicle that the nonprofit is likewise experiencing a rough patch between staffers and management. APA! funds 243 positions, and currently has 48 vacancies. Five members of the Matchmaker Team, which helps match adopters with animals, have resigned since January, all citing an unprofessional work environment. One former employee clarified: "It's not about the organization, but the people who are leading this organization." Many feel the compensation is unfair for the work they do, and when they asked if they could receive cost-of-living raises, they were told no, or given less-than-50-cent increases. When we asked about cost-of-living adjustments, APA! told us that it implemented a $15-per-hour minimum wage July 11 and is planning to roll out hardship bonuses in early August.

“This is not sustainable for much longer. Yet, we are hamstrung until a new contract with the city is signed.” – Dr. Ellen Jefferson, president of Austin Pets Alive!

When asked about the workplace environment, Jefferson told us, "Animal welfare workers … see the worst of the worst cases of animal abuse and illness. Now, 2.5 years into a global pandemic, the root causes of the challenges have been exacerbated." She said the condition of the Town Lake Animal Center location also contributes to employee stress and burnout. "We need a new building. I think that some community members might be under the impression that we should have an abundance of financial resources because of our current agreement with the City of Austin. However, that is simply not the case. There are exorbitant costs, both financial and emotional, that come with the current state of the shelter. This is not sustainable for much longer. Yet, we are hamstrung until a new contract with the city is signed."

Former APA! employees said they felt communication with potential foster homes was rushed at adoption events in order to adopt out more dogs faster. When these events were allegedly botched by upper management, former employees say those that work directly with animals were blamed: "[They said,] 'You guys are the bottlenecks of APA! and you're basically killing dogs, because you're not getting them out fast enough.' Everybody that works directly with these animals has a dangerous job, but ours is a little different, because we're not only trying to keep ourselves safe with some of these dogs, because if you don't handle them correctly they will bite you. [But] if they bite you, they could potentially be euthanized."

A former matchmaker told the Chronicle that many employees fear retaliation and that their experience has changed since offering critical feedback. "What makes employee turnover so bad is that it does take a level of time to get to know the dogs specifically. You need to have a really good grasp on medical stuff and on behavior stuff, but you also need to be able to put it into terms where the general public can understand it." Since the matchmakers' resignations, their problematic managers have resigned as well.

Can This Ever Get Better?

As employees at AAC and APA! feel silenced and mistreated, and volunteer groups like Final Frontier scramble for the resources to save the dogs that face euthanasia, some stakeholders, including Hassen and Jefferson, tout the HASS (Human Animal Support Services) method as the solution. HASS is essentially what Bland is suggesting when he says, "The shelter should be the last resort for a healthy found dog." This approach, created by American Pets Alive!, Austin Pets Alive!, and Maddie's Fund, among other animal welfare groups, focuses on an "outward" rather than an "inward" approach. Many dogs are found close to home, so knocking on doors and asking neighbors should be the first step, rather than taking them to the shelter. It also emphasizes that more foster homes should be used to help rotate dogs out of the shelter and increase their quality of life and chances for adoption.

Jefferson says APA! "currently has the largest foster program in the country but with this shift, we believe that we can completely omit the need to house animals onsite that are not undergoing behaviorally intense rehab or medical hospitalization." APA! is in talks with city officials to attempt to implement HASS formally in Austin.

HASS studies are "uncovering informa­tion that has never been collected in our industry before now," continues Jefferson. "[They show] a severe need to support people in a much more comprehensive way. The pets that our industry often views as 'dumped' at shelters by owners … are actually true family members experiencing a catastrophic separation. HASS is dedicated to changing the government system programmatically, just as we did to get to No Kill, with the goal of no unnecessary separation of families."

However, some feel HASS puts an undue burden on Good Samaritans like Amy Rae Dadamo and "doesn't account for the hundreds of dogs in the city that don't have a loving home [and] someone looking for them," Dadamo said. Final Frontier's McFall agrees; she says HASS requires "people who find animals [to] basically be caseworkers."

But Hassen says Bland's approach is not what HASS should look like in practice. It's "a consent-based approach, which means you don't demand people do something, you ask them if they'd like to help. So that's the No. 1 rule: You're not forcing people to take on a burden they can't; you're inviting them to help be part of the solution. It's not that the shelter isn't an option ever, but it shouldn't be the first answer to every problem. The community should be, and then the shelter should be the safety net for when there aren't any other options."

On July 28, City Council voted to conduct an audit of the Animal Services Office and "identify an external animal sheltering expert knowledgeable in No Kill policies" to help improve operations. Some employees are skeptical that the audit will take too long to implement real change that is urgently needed, but others hope it will at least, as an anonymous AAC employee says, prompt "a change in leadership [and bring in] somebody who wants to innovate [and] who believes in putting resources into different programs to get more animals out of the shelter."

Hassen says, "I am not hopeless about Austin; it is the beacon of hope for much of the nation. I am hopeful it will remain that way. But this is a very challenging time."

Crisis by the Numbers

Using AAC's reporting via the city's Open Data Portal, the chart shows how many dogs the shelter took each week (one dot) since 2014. Until Texas locked down for COVID-19 in March 2020, AAC took in an average of 197 dogs a week, and between 150 and 250 dogs nearly every week. In 2022, AAC has taken in fewer than 150 dogs in all but two weeks. (Visualizations by Christopher McFall)

Since AAC began to transport animals out of state in mid-2021, adoption rates have declined steeply even as the number of owner returns and local transfers have remained steady.

Other data from the city shelter shows that 90% of these transports involve dogs who've stayed at AAC for seven weeks or less.

Editor’s note: Due to an editing error, the print version of this story ran with outdated photos. The online story has been updated with photos taken July 29, 2022. We also updated the story to reflect another of Kristen Hassen's positions as Maddie's Fund director of American Pets Alive!, one of the founding organizations of the HASS method.

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