March 27, 2012 by Nathan J. Winograd
“You’ve got a great location. An unparalleled location! So why would you even think about moving it?” –Ryan Clinton, FixAustin, Austin Chronicle, 2007.
“I am 100 percent convinced that moving the animal shelter will have no impact on adoptions,” Dorinda Pulliam, Animal Control Director, Austin Chronicle, 2007.
“[T]he problem is not getting adopters to the shelter, but rather, having enough desirable and placeable animals to choose from.” –Karen Medicus, ASPCA, Unpublished Letter to Editor, 2007.
The gun shots rang out in the early evening. It wasn’t the first time, but it would be the last that some volunteers at Austin’s new animal shelter building would be hearing them. City officials determined that it was not safe for volunteers to be at the new shelter after dark and so the call went out. According to an e-mail sent to volunteers by city staff:
We had another incident of gun shots fired near the animal shelter this evening… This also happened last Saturday. About fifteen minutes after tonight’s incident, [Austin Police Department] reported more shots fired on a street behind the shelter… [Y]ou all are encouraged to take measures that will make you feel safer about being here (walking in groups, not volunteering after dark, etc.).
During the winter months, when the sun sets as early as 5:30 pm, if volunteers heed the call to end their shifts before dark, this would effectively eliminate essential volunteer support during the workweek for many. As tragic as that is for dogs waiting to be walked, cats looking for socialization, and all the other benefits volunteers bring to sheltering; what makes it all the more so is that it isn’t the only legacy that will continue to haunt Austin’s effort to remain the largest community in the U.S. with a 90% save rate or better.
The new shelter reduced the number of cages and kennels for the animals in order to build larger offices and more administrative space, and it is already feeling the pinch (there are roughly 60 fewer kennels just for large dogs than the old shelter at Town Lake). On top of rumors of fewer people venturing to the shelter because of its remote location, the shelter is not only difficult to find (it abuts a State highway and the State will not allow the shelter to put up signs along the freeway), it is difficult to navigate once you’re inside of it. Even when you turn into the driveway, you’re not sure whether you are in the right place because the “front” of it is actually facing the opposite direction of the road and the driveway. As a result, adoptions are rumored not to be keeping pace with the growing need. The shelter remains perpetually full, and has found it necessary to send overflow animals to the old facility at Town Lake.
While those hostile to the No Kill initiative are questioning whether No Kill is “sustainable” because the city shelter claims to be in perpetual crisis mode, this view misses the point entirely. The problem was entirely predictable and avoidable and has nothing to do with No Kill. In fact, it has everything to do with those who tried to prevent No Kill from being embraced by Austin city officials. 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 like Ryan Clinton of FixAustin and others who were against the plan of taking the shelter from its prime location and placing it in a more remote location.
While admitting that the proposed location was not centrally located, Medicus and Pulliam claimed that it would be more “central” to those who surrender animals. But that claim showed how desperate they were to find a rationale for the move. To the extent that they proposed moving the shelter away from prime retail, commercial, and residential corridors, they were trying to undermine the ability to save lives, increase adoptions, improve volunteerism and keep the shelter in the public eye. The “customers” of Austin’s shelter—the animals who faced life and death at the shelter, the adopters, taxpayers, and animal lovers who did not want them killed—would not be served by the move. But by claiming it was best to relocate the shelter to where intakes were occurring, Medicus and others were trying to make it easier for people to surrender their animals at the shelter, even if it made it more difficult for other people to adopt them. This was a clear admission that the priority was not on lifesaving. And she enlisted the support of another regressive agency to support her view: the ever-willing-to-protect-incompetents-even-if-it-means-animals-will-pay-the-price, Humane Society of the United States. 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.
More importantly, it wasn’t even true. None of the zip codes surrounding the proposed site were even among the top seven highest-intake zip codes. The original shelter location was located where adoptions and intakes were both highest, making it the preferred one. In other words, the existing location was closer to the areas of Austin where most strays came from and where most adopters came from. It was closer to the city’s geographic and population centers. In short, it was perfectly situated and Medicus knew it.
Instead, she argued that the new location would allow new people to volunteer, people who had not historically done so because of the shelter’s current location. But in making that claim, she was undermining her other arguments. If these people were not willing to go to the existing location to volunteer, didn’t that underscore the claim of opponents of the move that if the shelter is not centrally located, it will reduce volunteerism? In other words, they were admitting that the move had the potential to lead to fewer volunteers and, by logical extension, fewer adoptions.
No Kill advocates also expressed concerns about the reduced number of kennels and cages in the plans for the new facility. But once again Medicus dismissed them, claiming that more space wasn’t needed because the animals weren’t “desirable” or “placeable.” More kennels would only result in “warehousing animals.” The animals, she argued, were better off dead.
Although the City split the baby, keeping the old facility open as a satellite adoption center (which is the subject of new debate), it approved the relocation. And it is now paying the price. That does not mean that Austin is in danger of falling below the 90% threshold it set when it enacted the No Kill Plan. This simply puts the city where most communities are, with a shelter in a remote location. And as long as the Austin shelter maximizes the programs of the No Kill Equation, aided by groups like Austin Pets Alive and other private rescue groups, the future continues to look bright for Austin’s animals. But there is little doubt that the effort is more challenging than it needed to be because the shelter itself has one hand tied behind its back by virtue of the smaller-than-needed, ill-designed and remotely-located facility championed by the ASPCA.
Ryan Clinton’s “FixAustin” put No Kill on the map in Austin. FixAustin put the city-enacted No Kill plan on the map. FixAustin helped remove Pulliam who found killing easier than doing what was necessary to stop it. FixAustin succeeded in marginalizing the ASPCA and removing their corrupting influence on shelter policy. While the ASPCA tried to sabotage the No Kill plan; while the ASPCA embraced a leader who committed animal cruelty in Austin and lamented her departure; while the ASPCA championed indefinite killing by claiming the animals were neither “desirable” or “placeable”; FixAustin fought back and won. And because of that, Austin finished last year saving 91% of all dogs and cats, instead of less than 50%, as they would have if Medicus and Sayres weren’t swept aside. They are the largest city in the United States to do so. But though David bested Goliath; Or, more accurately, Harry Potter defeated Lord Voldemort, Voldemort left his mark. The scar on Austin—the shelter’s relocation—continues to be a threat. It was the one fight FixAustin did not win.
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.
Learn how to create your own patronus charm and get rid of the dementors in your community. Read The No Kill Revolution Starts With You, Ryan Clinton’s guide to reforming animal control through effective political advocacy.