Written by Bismarck Andino.
Graphic by Emma Robinson.
With a 20% increase of homeless animals this year and only 19 full-time animal care employees to care for them, the Austin Animal Center has experienced chronic overcrowding for the past two years, an Animal Advisory commissioner said Oct. 14 during a meeting where the Commission approved a set of amendments for no-kill practices.
Austin is the largest no-kill city nationwide that rescues about 18,000 animals yearly and helps 500-800 in-care animals every day. However, the shelter is only designed to care for 400 of them.
Andrea Schwartz recommended Austin City Council add 15 full-time employees to reduce staff burnout and turnover. However, her plan was not voted on as commission members said they believed it needed more input from staff and more time for the new chief of animal services officer to look at where his staff should be.
“Why can’t the city give back to the shelter? We really need help,” Schwartz said. “If we could get even a few positions, that would be great.”
Emily Leighton, a volunteer at the center, said animals occupy overflow spaces such as conference rooms, offices, and truck ports where pop-up kennels are kept, and sometimes they go without food and bathroom breaks.
“The city has made no-kill the law but failed to give us the resources to sustain the lives of the animals that we’re required by law to sustain,” Leighton said via email. “With such an extreme ratio of staff to animals, things get overlooked, and animals do occasionally go without the things they need.”
Leighton said she believes animal overpopulation issues are caused by the city’s failure to allocate resources that the shelter needs to operate according to the law.
“Staff members work overtime and take on significantly more than what their job description requires of them,” Leighton said, “and the small army of volunteers comes in at all hours, often helping the staff with what would typically be staff-only work.”
For this reason, Leighton said new volunteers eventually stop helping at AAC because the stress of never being able to do “enough” is too hard to handle.
Jennifer Olohan, communication and media manager at AAC, said the center is staffed appropriately for the number of kennels, but the problem is that there are more animals than kennels.
“It’s hard to staff for it, a year in advance, because you just don’t know what that intake is going to be,” Olohan said. “Obviously more staff would be more helpful, but also more kennels.”
Currently, due to the animal increase and the lack of kennels, Olohan said they had to put dogs in wire crates in the center’s multi-purpose room that used to be a meeting room. There, dogs spend all day in crates with only three breaks.
“We’re keeping animals long-term in places that were meant to only be temporary,” Olohan said. “That’s a big problem.”
Olohan, however, refused to comment on internal challenges or opportunities regarding staff retention.
Meanwhile, Olohan attributed the overcrowding to the lack of people adopting rescued animals and to rescue groups, who she said are not taking their animals while the shelter continues to get new additions every single day, as much as 60 at a time.
Nevertheless, a report from Austin Pets Alive!, an animal shelter that serves as a safety net for the AAC, reported they assisted 20% of its animals to help reduce crowding.
Even though APA! is only obligated to take 3,000 animals a year, in exchange for using the city’s old Town Lake Animal Shelter, they ended up taking 15% more this year, Ellen Jefferson, executive director of APA!, said in a phone interview.
“Every day we look at a list of animals that are at risk of euthanasia for medical or behavioral reasons, and we pull from that list,” Jefferson said. “We also pull animals off of what they call their space list, so we’re pulling animals to help alleviate space concerns.”
Currently, the city does not provide funds for animal transfers to APA!, which Jefferson finds unusual given that most cities do fund rescue groups.
Jefferson said studies have shown there is enough demand for pets in Austin, and that the real focus should be in data driven conversations about why dogs are in the shelters and their challenges to being adopted. Instead, emphasis is on overpopulation.
“That’s actually out of our control,” Jefferson said. “It is our duty to keep looking for solutions so that we can help more animals make it out of the shelter alive.”
Jefferson also said people should focus on rescuing animals over buying from a breeder. But the lack of adoptions is due to apartment complexes and landlords not allowing “bully” mixes, and the associated fees that come along with approved pets.
Desire Garcia, the owner of two cats, Batz and Weedoe, both 13 years old, said it is very hard to own a pet in Austin, especially now that she lives in an apartment.
“I had to pay $350 per pet, nonrefundable, and then I have to pay an extra $20 fee every month just for pet rent,” Garcia said. “If the city wants to make it easy to (adopt) pets, they shouldn’t make it harder for us to afford it.”
Leighton also said she has met with potential adopters, but many times they detracted from doing so because their apartment complex won’t allow “aggressive breeds.” Dog breeds often found on apartments’ aggressive breed lists include Pit Bulls, Doberman Pinschers, Rottweilers and German Shepards, to name a few.
“The housing market is increasingly saturated with multi-unit breed-restricted housing, and folks who used to be able to afford a house with a yard are now having to move into an apartment,” Leighton said. “When that happens, they often have to give up their family pet. The more people who move here, the more animals we have to take in.”