Tragedy in Austin

May 15, 2012 by  

“After celebrating the achievement of no-kill status this year, the Austin Animal Center euthanized 17 dogs Friday and might kill another 20 today to make space in the shelter…” –Austin Statesman, May 14, 2012.

Austin’s monumental lifesaving success over the past year-and-a-half has inspired communities across the country and given a much needed boost to the No Kill movement. At one time, the City was saving only four in 10 animals. Last year, it saved 91% despite intakes of over 25,000 animals per year. It was not only one of 36 known communities with save rates in excess of 90%, it was the largest one. And there were many who considered Austin one of the crown jewels in the ever-growing No Kill crown.

But after maintaining a 91% save rate last year and 93% last month, the City of Austin began killing dogs for space on Friday. Another 23 were being threatened with death today, but they are now safe after the Austin Humane Society and Austin Pets Alive combined to pull over 50 dogs. Nonetheless, the news that 17 dogs were killed for space has shocked animal advocates across the country. And it has emboldened anti-No Kill (and therefore anti-animal) critics. Moreover, the City added fuel to the fire by posting a notice that the 90% save rate threshold for the near future remains in doubt:

“Since February 2011 the City has been able to maintain its No Kill goal of saving 90 percent or better of the animals. This year because of the high level of animal intakes versus those animals that are being adopted and rescued the City’s No Kill goal will be difficult to maintain for May and possibly into the summer months.”

Why did this happen?

Naysayers who are committed to a paradigm of killing will argue that No Kill is not sustainable. Naysayers who want it to fail will argue that No Kill inevitably leads to overcrowding. Naysayers who want animals to be killed will argue that there are too many animals, not enough homes. You can practically see them salivating, privately celebrating the deaths of dogs. They want animals to die and they are going to exploit Austin’s missteps to advance their pro-killing, killing-apologia agenda. But they are wrong on all counts.

Of course, no one said No Kill would not be the hard work it is. It is especially hard work when you take in 25,000 animals a year, a per capita intake rate higher than the national average. It is also hard work when your population spikes due to things beyond your concern, such as the rash of thunderstorms they’ve experienced which spook dogs and cause a rise in stray intakes. But the recent kills are not the result of No Kill being too hard, not sustainable, a rash of intakes, or thunderstorms. And while Austin Animal Services has been diligent in reaching out to the community and asking for additional help from its adoption partners, the killing of those dogs, notwithstanding that, was their own failure to fully implement the No Kill Equation and to plan ahead. It is also the result of one decision the City Council did wrong, amid all the others they did right. While it may be impolitic to tell the City Council—which correctly has been supportive of No Kill, correctly mandated the 90% save rate and correctly passed a moratorium on convenience killing—that they made a terrible mistake when they voted to relocate the shelter; that is the truth.

On March 27, I posted a blog about the Austin City Council’s decision to move the shelter to an out of the way, remote part of the city. I wrote,

In 2007, Austin had what other communities coveted: a centrally located facility in an area that is a daily destination for thousands of Austinites. And while most communities were struggling with trying to increase foot traffic to their shelters through offsite adoptions, satellite adoption centers, and other strategies because they were located in remote parts of their community and were not designed with lifesaving in mind, plans were underway to do the opposite in Austin. Supporting the then-shelter director regardless of the outcome, the ASPCA took on the role of spearheading the effort to move Austin’s shelter from its centrally located facility to a remote part of the city, far away from where people live, work, and play.

 

There was no doubt that the existing facility was run down and needed significant capitalization. But instead of embracing improvements to the existing facility or building a new one at the existing location, Dorinda Pulliam, the then-shelter director, enlisted the support of anyone who would listen to move the shelter, pushing for the remote location with fewer cages and kennels, even in the face of rampant killing, which was at the time the status quo in Austin. It was a call that would be answered by Karen Medicus, the ASPCA’s bureaucrat whose legacy in Austin includes one failure after another, and Ed Sayres, her detached boss who rubber stamped her actions, including those which cost animals their lives. Medicus and Sayres urged the city of Austin to do Pulliam’s bidding and take a giant step backward; fighting No Kill advocates … who were against the plan of taking the shelter from its prime location and placing it in a more remote location. HSUS chimed in, telling Austin officials that locating a shelter in areas where the shelter is likely to see the most adoptions should not be the primary factor in considering a shelter’s location. In other words, HSUS supported the move, not because logic compelled it, but because a kill shelter asked them to.

It wasn’t the first time I wrote about this. Back in 2007, when FixAustin was fighting the relocation, I wrote,

One of the primary inhibitors to maximizing adoptions is the location of the shelter. Shelters tend to be placed in outlying parts of a city such as in industrial areas, away from the centers of commerce, retail and prime residential neighborhoods. In other words, away from where the vast majority of adopters, volunteers, and other members of the community work, live, and play…. [T]his results in failing to meet the community’s adoption potential—resulting in missed opportunities and lives needlessly lost.

I discussed how most communities were trying to relocate from remote areas to more populated centers, while Austin was considering taking a step backward by doing the exact opposite, “taking the shelter from a prime location and placing it in a more remote location … an action which is contrary to the prescription for a No Kill Austin.”

I debunked the arguments made by those urging the move including the ASPCA, HSUS, and the pound’s notorious former director who killed 100,000 animals during her tenure that the location of a shelter should not be based on adoption potential or that fewer kennels in the new shelter were acceptable because the animals themselves weren’t adoptable, and I concluded with what turned out to be a prophetic warning,

[I]t is clear that the relocation is not in the best interests of saving the lives of animals. I have no doubt that due to the surrounding publicity, there will be a momentary spike in adoptions regardless of where the new shelter is built. But that spike can only be maintained by rebuilding the animal shelter on its existing location. In my opinion, relocating Austin’s animal shelter would be a death sentence for dogs and cats who would otherwise find loving homes.

Despite the admonition, the City approved the relocation. In March of this year, with adoptions not keeping pace at the new shelter, I asked,

Will Austin’s animals ever become the ones who pay the ultimate price? They shouldn’t, so long as the Austin shelter comprehensively implements the programs of the No Kill Equation. But as the rumblings in the press are becoming more common, it appears that is the one question which threatens to haunt Austin for many years to come.

Less than two months later, they have. Adoptions are suffering because of it. And now dogs are dead.

When City officials talk about lower adoptions, they talk about it as if it was imposed on them from outside: if the public would just step up, if rescue partners took more of our animals, we would not have to kill. Technically, those things are true, but those claims obscure more than they illuminate because they are always true by definition. But behind those narrowly true claims is a larger falsehood: a blaming of the public for their own failures.

To hear old arguments in a city which supposedly embraced a new paradigm is disconcerting. And it is disconcerting because they caused the current crisis with their own poor decision-making. So the City needs to do something about it other than post a notice that if the public doesn’t adopt more or local rescue groups don’t take more animals, more will die. They need to overcome the challenges and that means adoption events, daily offsite adoptions, a satellite adoption center, or—in what would be an act of supreme courage—admitting they made the mistake and moving back to the location of the old facility. There is no doubt that the old facility needed capitalization, but better a scruffy looking cage for a dog, than a body bag.

I’ve always said the buck stops with the shelter and shelter leadership. Austin Animal Services does not do offsite adoptions and that is not acceptable, especially since many of the other No Kill communities which exist across the country also have shelters in a remote location, which they compensate for by doing so. After killing the 17 dogs, a City spokesperson said they would “accelerate” plans to do a better job marketing animals, to open up satellite adoption centers, to boost adoptions, and today they are staying open until 9 pm and waiving adoption fees, but for those dogs already dead, it is too little, too late. They should have done this from the beginning, when the reality of lowered adoptions as a result of the remote location was becoming evident. While it was easy to ignore in months past because intakes were lower and save rates remained above 90%, the impending summer months should have been planned for well in advance.

In the Statesman article, Austin Pets Alive indicates it has taken in 261 dogs and cats from the pound over the past two weeks and is working to have more transferred. That is laudable. It agreed to take another 22 today. And thanks to their efforts and those of the Austin Humane Society which agreed to take the dogs, the 23 dogs threatened with killing are now safe. But both are also importing dogs from San Antonio and other communities and at least some of the dogs are tying up foster homes and kennel space. And while both have agreed to a moratorium on doing so until the current crisis is resolved, it won’t bring those dogs back.

I don’t necessarily blame APA or AHS. As I wrote in Redemption,

[E]very No Kill shelter that exists subsidizes the work of the local animal control agency by reducing the number of impounded animals in that community, and thus reducing the number of animals killed. But rather than receive praise and gratitude for their work, many private shelters are the subject of relentless attacks by animal control groups and their national allies…

 

By way of contrast, imagine hypothetically a Department of Social Services director attacking a private soup kitchen or homeless shelter for not having enough beds or serving enough meals, meaning the department itself has to feed or house the remainder. Every homeless person the private soup kitchen feeds or houses is one less homeless person for which city taxpayers are required to provide care. Our hypothetical director would be grateful and thankful for the private support. As a private agency, the soup kitchen or homeless shelter does what it can. The mandate to care for homeless people, by contrast, belongs with the city department.

In Austin, the mandate not to kill belongs to the City. But saying there are not enough kennels or homes for dogs when some of those kennels are being given to dogs from outside Austin is misleading. And saying that it is difficult to keep up with Austin intakes when you are importing dogs is also. And it isn’t fair to Austin animals or the Austinites who donate money to help Austin sustain a 90% save rate, an achievement that has already had a profound impact on neighboring communities by proving what is possible and inspiring them to reach higher for the animals, too.

For that reason, I would like to see AHS and APA fully focus on making sure no healthy or treatable Austin animals are killed before importing out of county dogs. When I was in San Francisco, I pushed to close the borders. In Tompkins, I did the same, except as space allowed. I never wanted to sacrifice local animals for easier-to-adopt out of county ones. And it is my belief that this philosophy should govern Austin. But it is not a tenet of the No Kill Equation and ethically, it is an open question.

Here’s why: In the mid to late 1990s, San Francisco was trying to become the first city to end the killing of sick, injured, unweaned, and traumatized treatable dogs and cats. As we got closer to the goal, the types and cases of animals, behaviorally and medically, were becoming more challenging, though reduced in number. They needed surgery, medicine, foster care, and cage rest. They would require more resources and a longer length of stay. (I had not yet understood that pet overpopulation was a myth and that a community could and should achieve No Kill overnight. There was no playbook, no historical antecedents, and no other communities to look to for guidance. It was all trial and error.)

The question was whether it was more ethical to save the treatables or import out of county animals who were more easily placeable. The San Francisco model was the lodestar of the former at the time. The latter was epitomized by North Shore Animal League. In the mid to late 1990s, NSAL was saving more animals than we were: 15,000 to our 5,000-plus by trucking in healthy puppies and kittens from all over the South. Their shelter was filled with the pitter-patter of little feet. We had our share of kittens and puppies (we imported some, too), but we also had a shelter with adult dogs and cats, and many with impediments to adoption. I recently wrote about one on my Facebook page, a 9-year old terrier mix with degenerative spinal disk disease requiring corrective surgery, as well as chronic dry eyes and irritated skin. Dogs like that were not uncommon. Sometimes, they tied up kennel space for weeks and months. Could we have saved a dozen puppies in the same time by not focusing on dogs like Daisy?

That was NSAL’s theory. But while they were importing animals into New York, New York dogs and cats were being killed at the pound en masse. But I never criticized NSAL as others did because they were saving a lot of animals. All animals deserve life regardless of zip code and it was just a different model to do so. They chose to focus on saving three puppies for every one dog we saved. We chose to focus on dogs like Daisy. While that might mean saving less dogs (and cats) overall, if we succeeded in creating the first No Kill community, we believed it would have had a profound impact nationally. We would start a revolution which would save more animals over the long term in more places and I believe we were right. But not right as in NSAL was wrong. They saved lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of animals. And all I have is gratitude for that.

Of course, the ideal is that a community saves all the lives at risk locally and then imports or exports to meet demand as is needed. And I believe that is what APA was trying and is trying to do. But whatever the intentions, something went wrong, and some reevaluation and more refined line drawing needs to be done. I hope it is. And I expect it to be.

Unfortunately, the City does not expect to maintain a 90% save rate during the next few months. This is tragic. They can and they should if they hold daily offsite adoptions, if they better market animals, provide more incentives to adopt, and even open up a satellite adoption center where (drum roll please) people live, work, and play. In short, if they compensate for what they gave up when they embraced a poor, remote location which is out of sight, out of mind for many Austinites. And if they won’t, I truly hope APA and AHS do it for them, as they stepped up today, while they work to hold them accountable.

And while I in no way want to minimize the tragic killing of even one savable dog, with a 93% save rate last month, and a 91% save rate all of last year, the claims that No Kill has failed in Austin being sounded by naysayers is greatly exaggerated. The question is whether the City rises to the challenge and commits itself to avoiding these problems in the future as it has proved time and time again in the past, it can. I’m betting that Austin’s No Kill advocates will see to it.

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Note: City officials claim that no healthy or treatable dogs were among those killed. Though the claim is hard to believe because the article specifically points to overcrowding, high intake, and low adoptions, not medical hopelessness, for the recent kills and it was the City itself that sounded the alarm, the Statesman has to be read with a grain of salt as they’ve been fear mongering about overcrowding and the demise of No Kill since Day 1—their reporting has been schizophrenic at best. If it is true, the claims of Austin’s No Kill demise are even more premature.

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