Last month, Austin’s public shelter, Town Lake Animal Center, had a 94% rate of lifesaving. The month before it was 96%. In fact, every month this year, it has hovered at or around 90%. By year’s end, Austin, Texas will be the largest community in the nation with an annual save rate in excess of 90%. If you were to believe the ASPCA, Austin’s animals and Austin’s animal lovers owe it all to them. According to Ed Sayres, the CEO of the ASPCA, and Karen Medicus, the ASPCA’s representative in Austin: no ASPCA, no No Kill in Austin. They started it, they led it, they shaped it, they defined it, and they achieved it. In fact, the ASPCA has been telling anyone who will listen, as far away as Rhode Island, that they achieved No Kill in Austin and that shelters and legislators should listen to them on what is best for shelter animals. They have also put out a press release saying that the better than 20% increase in adoptions at Town Lake Animal Center is a result of their efforts in Austin.
It is a lie. It is not misleading, it is not creative spinning, and it is not one interpretation among many. It is a wholesale fabrication that puts the animals at risk in other communities as the ASPCA declares war on rescuers in Connecticut, on No Kill advocates in New York, and on shelter reform all over the country.
So what really happened in Austin? And what role did the ASPCA play in Austin’s road to No Kill? The facts reveal a very different story than the ASPCA’s revisionist history.
In February of 2007, the ASPCA announced a campaign in Austin, Texas, as part of what it called its “Mission: Orange” program.* The goal was a combined 75% save rate among Austin-coalition partners, including the city shelter, far less than the 90% save rate goal at the city shelter championed by No Kill advocates like FixAustin. To launch the campaign, they hosted a meeting of animal welfare stakeholders. The project was doomed from the start. Rather than follow the successful model of the No Kill Equation, which was responsible for creating No Kill communities throughout the country and was, in fact, the only model to achieve success—which Karen Medicus, who led the meeting, even acknowledged—the ASPCA nonetheless told the assembled crowd that “Mission: Orange” would follow a different model.
The model they would follow was New York City’s model of “collaboration,” a model that was still killing half of all impounded animals and to this day, is rife with neglect, abuse, rampant killing, fabricated data, and ultimately, failure. In fact, it is not even a true collaborative model as New York City’s leadership interprets that to mean they have all the power and rescuers are only allowed to participate if they say so. (A law that would have mandated collaboration and leveled the playing field was defeated by the leadership in New York City because they saw it as a threat to their power.) This was the same model that Medicus used when she was director of the Austin Humane Society and promised Austin a No Kill community by the year 2002. The ill-fated “No Kill Millennium” plan, which initially received Maddie’s Fund dollars to implement, fell apart for failure to reach its goals.
At the meeting, the ASPCA would ignore the elephant in the room: that the city’s shelter director refused to implement programs and services to save lives, choosing to kill the animals instead. Attendees were forbidden from speaking about what was missing. They couldn’t talk about what programs weren’t being implemented or what animals were being killed that needed to be saved. All they could do was “brainstorm” about what they would do over the next three years to help animals, including writing an imagined speech from a future President thanking them for their work. It was, according to attendees, “surreal.”
Do As I Say Not As I Do
Moreover, Medicus informed the group that no one would be allowed to participate in the initiative if they criticized the city shelter, even if that shelter killed animals despite lifesaving alternatives. However, it would turn out that the rules only ran in one direction: Medicus and the ASPCA would have no ethical qualms about ignoring their own rule, and would spend the better part of the next several years criticizing those who wanted the shelter to employ simple, common-sense solutions to killing, such as foster care and offsite adoptions which the shelter’s director refused to do. The ASPCA condemned reformers, misrepresented who they were, attempted to assassinate their character, and tried to undermine their public support. Indeed, at the start of the campaign, the ASPCA put out a position paper it called its “20,000 [foot] view of Austin” and attacked “Nathan Winograd activists” as one of the single, biggest threats to success in Austin for two reasons:
- Animal advocates in Austin wanted to focus on programs at the shelter, while the ASPCA wanted to ensure the director was not criticized for failing to implement lifesaving programs like foster care, even though failure to do so was killing thousands of animals; and,
- Animal advocates were opposed to moving the shelter from its prime location conducive to where people worked, lived, and played, to a remote part of the city which would have meant fewer kennels, but more office space for shelter bureaucrats.
The ASPCA consistently defended the shelter director even when she killed savable animals despite empty cages, even when she refused to implement the programs of the No Kill Equation, and in her bid to move the shelter to a remote part of the city. According to the ASPCA, the problem was not getting more adopters to the shelter; the problem was that the animals in the shelter were not “desirable” or “placeable.” In fact, Austin’s shelter director, Dorinda Pulliam, argued that only about 35% of the animals in Austin’s shelter were “adoptable,” and that they were saving more than that already. Austin, according to the leadership of the city shelter, was already No Kill. And trying to save more would just mean keeping unadoptable animals that no one would want alive, leading to “warehousing.” The ASPCA promoted this view both publicly to the media and privately to city officials in their attempt to sabotage the 90% save rate goal of No Kill advocates.
Indeed, while acknowledging that their “collaboration” model had not succeeded in New York and had failed earlier in Austin, Medicus promoted the view that it would succeed this time because of one crucial difference: the ASPCA would bring dollars to the table. That this view was flawed was not hard to see: all the money in the world would not have made a difference at a shelter run by a director who refuses to implement common sense alternatives to killing. In addition, a lack of dollars was not the issue in either New York or Austin during the “No Kill” Millennium” fiascoes. In both cases, Maddie’s Fund had provided a significant amount of money, more than the ASPCA was offering Austin, and in the case of Austin, the city shelter also had a larger per capita budget than the communities around the country which had already achieved success, and did so without either Maddie’s funding or the ASPCA’s promised infusion of money. And finally, the ASPCA did not spend all the promised money on programmatic improvements at the city shelter (it defended the current director’s refusal to implement them), but rather on advertising in Austin to promote itself. The results were predictable.
Rather than see a decline in killing in Austin’s shelter, killing actually increased 11% during the first year of the campaign. An animal had less of a chance of coming out of the shelter alive in Austin, TX under the ASPCA “Mission: Orange” program than it did just one year before. That this is a travesty goes without saying. But what makes it especially tragic, indeed devastating, is that it was neither surprising nor necessary. Reno’s No Kill initiative, based on the No Kill Equation, saw deaths decline by a whopping 53% during the same period, and it was cutting spending in the process. The contrast in both approaches and results proved a stunning indictment of the “Mission: Orange” program. But no one would have known that by reading the public relations coming out of the ASPCA at the time. By simply not talking about the numbers saved or killed, Ed Sayres and Karen Medicus put out a one-year progress report billing the Austin campaign as an unqualified success. And the ASPCA continued to claim that Austin held promise for the rest of the nation, even as over 13,000 animals were being put to death in Austin yearly.
The Animal Advisory Commission Steps In
But Austinites had had enough. Seeing success in Reno (and other communities), seeing the killing increase in Austin, as well as killing despite hundreds of empty cages on any given day, and seeing that the director refused to implement needed programs, the city’s AnimalAdvisory Commission wrote a No Kill plan based on the No Kill Equation and presented it to the city shelter for implementation. The leadership of the shelter refused, arguing that they were “advisory guidelines” only. In short, Pulliam continued killing and the ASPCA continued to defend her. In addition, the ASPCA and Pulliam began picking up allies. Although several local organizations originally supported reforms, the groups began to switch sides and back the Pulliam, which puzzled some reformers until they looked into the public donation fund at Town Lake Animal Center and followed the money.
Over the years, Town Lake Animal Center took in donations from the public, a fund that grew to several hundreds of thousands of dollars, and may even have reached nearly half a million dollars. With no accountability, the then-director was using the money as a “slush fund,” giving grants to groups that supported and protected her. Was the city shelter and the ASPCA buying the silence of community groups? It is certainly a plausible explanation, although no direct evidence exists. Nonetheless, the Commission eventually succeeded in removing the fund from the director’s control in order to provide a process of transparency and accountability. In addition, finally fed up with the director’s failure to follow their No Kill plan, they asked the City Council to give it the force of law.
Although as a representative on the Commission she had no choice but to cast a “Yes” vote for the plan because all other commissioners did and it was certain to pass, behind the scenes, Medicus disparaged the plan, disparaged those who wrote the plan, and continued to defend the director who refused to implement it. Both in private, but also in public, the ASPCA condemned any efforts to increase lifesaving, arguing that the director was doing all she could and that the animals themselves were not “desirable” or “placeable.”
The Moratorium on “Convenience Killing”
One of the key elements of that plan, in addition to mandating programs like foster care and offsite adoptions and officially establishing the 90% goal for the city of Austin, was a moratorium on killing savable animals when there were empty cages. A state inspection report found that the shelter routinely had hundreds of empty cages on any given day, and yet the shelter continued to put healthy and treatable animals to death.
The ASPCA immediately went to work lobbying against the moratorium, arguing it would lead to warehousing of “unadoptable” animals, even though by its very terms, the moratorium allowed the continued killing of animals who were hopelessly ill, injured, or in the case of dogs, vicious. The director also lobbied against it arguing that there was no reason to do offsite adoptions or foster care, because the city shelter was already saving all the animals who could possibly be saved. Despite the lobbying efforts of both the leadership of the shelter and the ASPCA, the City Council approved it unanimously.
After the plan became law, and realizing that she and the ASPCA had lost the support of the City Council, Dorinda Pulliam had no choice but to follow it. But she would make them pay for it. In fact, what she did next revealed such a callous disregard for the well-being of animals that it would cost Pulliam her position. In an effort to show the City Council that they had made a mistake, she stopped killing sick and injured cats, but she also stopped treating them. She wanted to “prove” the No Kill plan was responding for “warehousing” and “animal suffering.” Her actions not only violated the letter and spirit of the moratorium, they were also illegal, tantamount to animal cruelty. Reformers were quick to condemn her. The ASPCA, of course, continued to defend her, calling Pulliam the best advocate Austin animals ever had in their corner.
The Final Obstacle to a No Kill Austin is “Reassigned”
And then just two months later, the news broke that the director was being “reassigned.” Because she was a roadblock to lifesaving success, reformers were elated, though they were understandably concerned—“cautiously optimistic”—about whether her replacement would embrace the No Kill plan wholeheartedly. By contrast, it was news that the ASPCA condemned, calling her departure “horrible” and that the animals would pay the price. Both were, in fact, correct. The animals would pay the price, but not in the way the ASPCA fear-mongered. Theirs would be a one-way ticket to freedom. Immediately, the save rate increased, even during the busy summer months. By October, it had reached 89%. By February 2011, it had reached 92%, under an interim director. In other words, Austin had achieved its goal without having hired a permanent replacement. They have been saving 90% or better ever since. The ASPCA’s systematic attempt to derail the No Kill initiative by disparaging reformers and reform efforts through a defense of the former director’s policy of systematic killing of animals was defeated.
To celebrate, the City held a press conference, inviting all animal welfare stakeholders who played a role in the success to participate. Everyone responsible for the success, in fact, did attend. The ASPCA was not there, a candid admission of their lack of support or participation in the No Kill plan. In fact, none of the “Mission: Orange” partners, including all those who received money from the “slush fund” attended, except for the Austin Humane Society. It was a very telling absence, showing the ASPCA for who they were and what they really stood for.
The ASPCA’s Information Purification Program
Now that the City has continued a 90% rate of lifesaving every month since, has even seen it rise as high as 96%, and more importantly, has electrified the movement nationally, however, the ASPCA is engaging in an equally systematic effort to rewrite history, casting themselves as the saviors of Austin’s animals and the group responsible for the success in Austin, even though they fought the No Kill plan every step of the way. Not surprisingly, the news of the ASPCA’s revisionist account has been greeted by those who fought for No Kill in Austin and won with shock and anger.
So who is responsible for Austin’s success? The very groups criticized and attacked by the ASPCA. FixAustin, who lead the political initiative, but which the ASPCA vilified; Austin Pets Alive, the city shelter’s biggest lifesaving partner, which the ASPCA also criticized; the Animal Advisory Commission who wrote and pushed the No Kill plan, over the ASPCA’s opposition; and the City Council, which mandated a 90% rate of lifesaving, again over the ASPCA’s opposition. Of course, now that regressive leadership has been replaced and a law is in place mandating the programs and services which save lives, the city shelter is an ally in the fight for a No Kill Austin and, in fact, is responsible for much of the lifesaving. But what of the ASPCA?
If there is a lesson in Austin’s road to No Kill as it relates to the ASPCA, it is this: The ASPCA is not on the side of reform. They are not on the side of No Kill. And they are not on the side of shelter animals. They are on the side of regressive shelter directors who do not want to change. And they are on the side of killing, even in the face of readily available lifesaving alternatives. And for that, they deserve our scorn and condemnation.
Most importantly, the ASPCA information purification program demands our constant vigilance. We must not let them get away with their Orwellian revisionism. By rewriting history and claiming credit for success they did not achieve, they are seeking a voice they have not earned and do not authentically represent. If they are allowed to get away with this, they will use that unearned reputation to undermine No Kill reform efforts in other communities by continuing to endorse counterproductive and harmful means to a supposed end they only pretend to support. We must stand firm against the ASPCA’s information purification program, as it is often aligned with a campaign to exterminate animals in shelters.
“And if all the others accepted the lie which the [ASPCA] imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the [ASPCA] slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’”
* The ASPCA claims that the “color orange is identified with vibrancy and energy.” Indeed, the color orange appears to be a favorite among the “aura” reading crowd who claim that orange signifies “vibrancy” and “innovation.” As a result, the ASPCA hopes that the public will identify the color “with the welfare of animals.” Hence, the name “Mission: Orange.” This type of un-measurable and “feel good” focus that is devoid of substance also marked the San Francisco SPCA tenure of Ed Sayres who is now the CEO of the ASPCA. Under Sayres’ direction, the San Francisco SPCA spent a significant amount of money on esoteric conferences about communicating with dead pets, insects as messengers of the “soul,” and other similar topics instead of focusing all its energy (and resources) on saving the animals actually facing death in shelters. Roughly during the same time period, the San Francisco SPCA underwent its first “forced” lay-offs of staff and cutting of critical programs due to budget problems in 135-years. It has never recovered from Ed Sayres’ disastrous tenure.
Ten Questions for Larry Tucker
I spoke with Larry Tucker, the Chair of the Austin Animal Advisory Commission, about the ASPCA’s role in creating a No Kill Austin. Tucker and his Commission drafted the No Kill plan adopted unanimously by the City Council, which is responsible for tops-in-the-nation save rates.
You attended early meetings and events with the ASPCA as part of its “Mission: Orange” program in Austin. What was your takeaway?
Our views were irrelevant. We needed to listen to the ASPCA. We were clearly not wanted. In short, it was a waste of time.
How did the ASPCA treat local advocates?
They first brushed us aside and then they attacked us when we tried to increase lifesaving, without reaching out for dialog or collaboration.
Did the ASPCA defend the killing in Austin occurring under Dorinda Pulliam?
Yes, the ASPCA circled the wagons. They stated that she already knew what to do, had nothing to learn from No Kill advocates, and was already doing what she needed to do. They also claimed that all the animals who were being killed were unadoptable.
Did the ASPCA support your efforts and the efforts of others to put a No Kill plan based on the No Kill Equation into action?
The ASPCA was against the No Kill plan the entire way. They rallied the troops around the director who was committed to killing. If we did not have the opposition of the ASPCA, we would have achieved success earlier. Every time we wanted to implement a new program, they’d basically go to city officials and say, “You shouldn’t do that.” Although the ASPCA felt it had no choice but to vote for the plan, they fought it behind closed doors.
When the City passed a moratorium on killing savable animals when there was empty cages (e.g., end “convenience killing”), Dorinda Pulliam stopped treating sick and injured cats, did the ASPCA condemn her for it?
No, they continued to defend her. They continued to defend the shelter. They implied that concerned citizens did not understand sheltering. In fact, when she left, they lamented her reassignment, despite the cruelty.
When the City held a press conference and celebration to announce that save rates in excess of 90% were achieved, was the ASPCA there?
It spoke volumes that the ASPCA was not there to celebrate the success of Austin’s No Kill plan.
The results speak volumes, too. You and other reformers were right and the ASPCA was wrong. But now that you have achieved tremendous lifesaving success, the ASPCA is claiming credit. Why is this so offensive?
They were not involved. They fought it. Now, they are trying to take credit? It’s wrong.
Who, in fact, deserves credit for Austin’s success?
FixAustin, Austin Pets Alive, the Commission, the City Council, the Central Texas Animal Alliance, and every day rescuers, animal lovers, and Austinites.
What advice do you have for people in their own communities who are fighting entrenched interests?
Nobody is going to do it for you. Do it yourself. Don’t accept defeat. We could have quit. And at times it seemed insurmountable, but we kept banging against the wall and finally broke through.
Should No Kill advocates consider the ASPCA an ally?
Absolutely not, they are an obstacle.