As Blue as the Summer Sky: Austin, Then & Now
January 17, 2011 by Nathan J. Winograd
There was a time, and not so long ago, when just being a kitten got you killed in Austin, Texas. A local newspaper did a story a few years ago about life and death at Town Lake Animal Center, the city’s pound:
A 7-week-old kitten weighs about a pound; its veins are the size of vermicelli. So if you’re administering a lethal dose of sodium pentobarbital, an anesthetic agent blue as a summer sky, you’ll probably inject directly into its round, spotted belly. If you have five cages of kittens to kill this morning, you don’t have time to go looking for slippery little veins.
A kitten with a hand gripping the scruff of its neck and a needle in its belly will squeal in terror, but once you’ve pulled out the needle and placed it back into a cage with its siblings, it will shake its head and start to get on with its kittenish business. Then it starts to look woozy, and begins to stumble around. It licks its lips, tasting the chemical absorbed into its system. Soon, it becomes too sedated to stand. The animal collapses, and when its lungs become too sedated to inflate, it stops breathing.
The euthanasias begin shortly after 10am on a Wednesday in early October; by 10:32 the shelter is down about a dozen cc’s of pentobarbital, and 20 cats are dead.
That was the world of Dorinda Pulliam, the then-pound director who oversaw the carnage with ruthless efficiency. During her tenure, she killed over 100,000 animals, tens of thousands a year, hundreds per month, dozens per day, one animal roughly every 12 minutes the shelter was open to the public. And she did so, after refusing to implement common sense alternatives to killing. Refusing to stop killing even when a state inspection report noted that the shelter routinely had hundreds of empty cages. Arguing to the press that she did not have time to focus on adoptions, did not want to do offsite adoptions, did not trust the public enough to foster those kittens. Complaining that too many people were calling to adopt and she and her staff were busy; busy killing the animals in the back.
That was also the world of the ASPCA which—through its spokesperson, Karen Medicus—not only backed, defended, and promoted Pulliam, but worked to ensure that progress would not be made. As Pulliam and her team were killing them in the back, Medicus was telling anyone who would listen up front that increasing adoptions was a waste of time, that efforts to save more of them would not be successful, that the animals were not worthy of being saved. In her own words: “the problem is not getting adopters to the shelter, but rather, having enough desirable and placeable animals to choose from.” In other words, to justify high kill rates at Town Lake Animal Center and its failure to save more lives, the ASPCA’s Medicus argued that the animals were being killed because they were not “desirable” or “placeable.” Not to kill them was “warehousing” animals. A fate, she argued, that was worth than death. And Ed Sayres himself, the head of the ASPCA, a man no stranger himself to killing in the face of lifesaving alternatives, praised Pulliam, protected her, called her a “great” director.
He defended her even when she was killing kittens she refused to allow the public to foster. He defended her even when she was killing despite over 100 empty cages. He defended her even when she refused to implement common sense alternatives to killing. And he defended her with a progran he called “Mission: Orange,” but which local animal lovers called “Agent Orange” because it carpet bombed their efforts to reform the more egregious practices at the pound under her watch, by providing her political cover from one of the nation’s largest animal “protection” organizations.
Thankfully, after five years of fighting against her, of fighting against the ASPCA, and five years of non-stop killing on their part while communities across the country achieved No Kill success, the city finally stopped listening to Pulliam, to Medicus, to Sayres. And it happened. Dorinda Pulliam was gone. Forced out. Fired. In political parlance, “reassigned.” But whatever her manner of leaving, it was not voluntary, it was not by choice. The voices of darkness—Pulliam, Medicus, Sayres—were vanquished. And she was finally, finally gone.
Almost immediately, everything changed in Austin. Today, animals are no longer killed while the cages sit empty. The staff is no longer “too busy” to do adoptions because they are busy killing them in the back. And today, kittens go home alive. No injecting “sodium pentobarbital, an anesthetic agent blue as a summer sky” directly into their “round, spotted bellies.” No more “squealing in their terror.” No more “wooziness” and “stumbling around.” No more “tasting the chemical absorbed into its system.” No more collapsing. No more death for the crime of being a kitten in Austin, Texas—a kitten unfortunate enough to enter a pound dominated by people—cold, heartless, uncaring people—who found killing easier to do than what was necessary to stop it.
In December, almost nine out of ten animals went out the front door, to rescue groups, back to the people looking for them, in the loving arms of families; rather than out the back door in body bags. And Town Lake Animal Center is closer than at any time in its history to earning the distinction, the privilege, the right to be honestly called a “shelter” rather than a “pound.” Today, Austin, Texas is on the verge of becoming a No Kill community.
How it happened is a lesson for other communities whose pounds are overseen with their own version of Dorinda Pulliam, who must fight not only institutional inertia and uncaring within health departments, police departments, or other bureaucratic agencies of government that oversee their local shelter, but the large national organizations—like the ASPCA—which want that paradigm to continue. Because as much as you are going to hear otherwise in the coming months and years, its emerging success is not because of a “partnership” with the ASPCA and its “Agent Orange” program that defends, rather than challenges the status quo. It is not the result of “community collaboration,” as others will rewrite history to have you believe. It is the result of a fight. A fight against the powers-that-be. A fight against indecency and uncaring that took place every time one of those kittens (or other animals) was injected with a barbiturate “blue as a summer sky” and “squealed in terror” before they stopped breathing.
It was because of Fix Austin and Austin Pets Alive. Because of the work of the Animal Advisory Committee and other reformers. Because every day animal lovers took it upon themselves to stand up to the forces of darkness, to the uncaring bureaucracy that oversaw the pound, to the ASPCA which defended it, to the whole damn paradigm of killing, when others were telling them to “get along,” “we are all on the same team,” to stop the “bash and trash,” to “collaborate” even when Pulliam steadfastly refused; and finally said, “Enough.” It is enough. No more killing. That world is finished. And they prevailed.
We live in a tragic version of the Bill Murray movie, “Groundhog Day,” where we have to keep living the same scenario over and over, only in different cities, where the pound director has a different name, where the national group that is protecting them might be different, but where the story is exactly the same. Animal lovers want No Kill. The pound wants to keep killing. And the large national organization defends their “right” to do so.
In San Francisco, the ASPCA successfully derailed No Kill by claiming No Kill was radical and insisting, along with HSUS, on the right of shelters to kill animals. In New York, the ASPCA killed Oreo’s Law, again insisting on the right of shelters to kill animals despite a readily available rescue alternative. It was HSUS that fought reformers in King County, Washington, Paige County, Virginia, and Eugene, Oregon. In other places, it is PETA. But everywhere there is systematic killing, there is a regressive pound director, a large national organization defending him/her, and animal lovers who need to take up the fight if they are going to bring the killing to an end. Because that is what the situation calls for. And that is what it takes to change the status quo.
It took a fight in Austin, Texas. The finger of blame had to be pointed where it belonged. The public needed to be informed. A political campaign had to be waged. Legislation had to be passed. And in March of last year, they prevailed.
The City Council unanimously embraced their No Kill plan, which mandated the programs and services of the No Kill Equation, which set a 90% save rate as their goal, and which imposed a moratorium on convenience killing (killing when there is space in the shelter), despite the pound director’s objections and despite the opposition of her patron, the ASPCA.
And by boxing her in, by taking away her power, by neutering the ASPCA, she was forced to reveal her true nature. Dorinda Pulliam conspired with No Kill opponents to “prove” that No Kill equals hoarding by refusing to provide veterinary care to sick and injured cats. Cruelly, unethically, and illegally, she allowed animals to suffer. And that was the last and final straw. She was out. And with her forced departure, so was the era defined by killing despite readily available lifesaving alternatives, killing despite empty cages, killing despite a refusal—an unethical, indefensible refusal—to do what is necessary to stop killing. Only Ed Sayres and the ASPCA, the Karen Medicus’ of the world, lamented her firing, calling it “horrible.”
In the post-Pulliam/post-ASPCA era, Austin Pets Alive is allowed to flourish, their work richly rewarded with the climbing save rate. Rescue groups are the backbone of lifesaving in this country. And if the powers-that-be get out of their way and allow them to fulfill their mission, they can thrive. That doesn’t happen everywhere. In New York State, over 70% of rescue groups are turned away while the shelters kill the very animals they offered to save, a tragic state of affairs, Ed Sayres and the ASPCA are working hard to maintain. But not so in Austin, Texas. Today, thanks in large part to Austin Pets Alive, Fix Austin, the Advisory Committee’s No Kill Plan, 88% of all animals are being saved.
Reformers fought back and they won. It took several years, but they did not waver. They did not tire. They did not retreat a single inch. As Fix Austin’s Ryan Clinton, the insurgent who spearheaded the fight, stated, “It is a marathon and not a sprint.” They stayed in it for the long haul, and today, the clouds have parted, and the only thing as “blue as a summer sky” is the sky itself. The future looks very bright indeed.
Admittedly, there is still work to be done. Some savable animals are still dying. But the end is within reach. All the incoming new TLAC director has to do is reach out and take it.