Breathing life into Austin’s No Kill wins

12:00 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013 Lifestyle

In 2007, Ryan Clinton visited Austin’s animal shelter. There, he spotted a pit bull puppy.

“That puppy stared straight into my eyes, seemingly begging me to take him,” the Austin lawyer says. “I already had multiple fosters at the time, and this was back when Austin was killing over 1,000 animals a month. I can still hear him cry as I walked away. It kills me to this day.”

Two years earlier, he and his wife, Sarah Clinton, had founded FixAustin, a group dedicated to promoting the national No Kill campaign locally. That crusade aims to save more than 90 percent of shelter animals, euthanizing only the terminally ill or really dangerous.

Although Austin and Travis County had set No Kill goals as early as 1997, the shelter during the 2000s still put to death more than 50 percent of its animals.

Against the will of some animal welfare activists who oppose No Kill tactics, but with strong support from City Council members such as Mike Martinez and Laura Morrison, Austin finally put its shoulder behind No Kill in 2010.

Just a few months later, it became the largest city in the country to achieve that status.

A study published in the June issue of the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science shows that Austin’s live release rate improved by 96 percent between 2007 and 2011. In contrast, Cleveland, another larger city tracked in the study, improved by only 18 percent during that stretch of time.

How did that happen? Most observers agree it took a once-in-a-lifetime shift in Austin’s animal welfare culture, in part prompted by unrelenting outside pressure. Just as importantly, it took teamwork from insiders and outsiders — some leaders meeting monthly — not accustomed to agreeing on much.

“There is not one kind of program that works best,” says Amy Mills, director of Emancipet — which provides spay, neuter and other pet services — of the study’s findings. “Or one set of strategies that works. The fact is that the collaboration itself is more important than the types of programs that are developed as a result of the collaboration.”

Who are the major players behind Austin’s No Kill campaign? Several local leaders had labored in the trenches of animal welfare for decades.

The kindly godmother of the community is Missy McCullough, director of Animal Trustees of Austin, which provides low-cost pet health care. The former Houstonian moved to Austin in 1970. When she retired from teaching in 1989, she volunteered for the Austin Humane Society, which operates a large no-kill rescue shelter.

“This was a difficult time for animals, as there was a split between the city of Austin and the Humane Society,” McCullough says. “But a byproduct of this was the beginning of animal activism in our community. Citizens stood up and demanded better care and treatment for shelter animals.”

One of the first wins was the move from gas euthanasia in favor of more humane lethal injection at the city shelter.

During the 1990s, more rescue groups took animals from the city shelter — back when its only location was in the concrete-and-wire Town Lake complex — and placed them for adoption at pet supply stores. Also in the 1990s, several groups started spay/neuter programs to cut down on the unwanted births and deaths of puppies and kittens.

“I never felt like the ‘old methods’ were futile,” McCullough says. “To this day, I feel like steps that were taken by many of the animal welfare groups in the late ’90s and early 2000s laid the groundwork for what was to become the No Kill mandate.”

Little money, however, was spent by the public or private sectors on those goals.

“The biggest obstacle was a lack of trust,” McCullough says. “And negative backlash against people who disagreed with the strategies.”

Over at the Austin Humane Society, cheery Frances Jonon first volunteered in 1996 and became the group’s director in 2005.

“I started out working part-time in the kennels,” Jonon says. “On the days I went down to the city shelter to pick out animals to transfer, I would put as many sweet babies in the van as I could possibly fit. I always thought: There’s room for one more. We’ll find them a spot.”

A key turning point for Jonon and the Austin Humane Society was Hurricane Katrina and its flood of evacuees in 2005.

“Never before had I needed my ‘make it work’ approach more than then,” she says. “The relationships we had with the city of Austin and the ASPCA were more critical than ever. We worked together to house and provide care for evacuee animals, provided visitation with their families, and then went to New Orleans to support relief efforts there to reunite pets and owners who were separated by the storm.”

The Austin Humane Society also enacted a trap-neuter-return feral cat program that since 2007 has involved more than 25,000 felines and prevented countless number of homeless kittens.

McCullough and Jonon were not alone.

Founded in 1866, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is among the oldest humane groups in the world. Despite criticism from some activists, ASPCA’s Karen Medicus and Jennifer Dragotta are credited with corralling the major animal welfare groups in Austin to sort out which was best at saving which animals.

From 2007 through 2011, ASPCA led a partnership of Austin groups that met regularly to increase the live release rate. The group spent more than $1 million to dramatically drop intake to Austin shelters, increase adoptions, curb shelter deaths and increase spay/neuters.

ASPCA’s Medicus, in fact, co-authored the recent journal article that not only showed Austin’s success, but those of other communities.

Of all the veterans in the trenches, however, nobody receives more public credit for Austin’s No Kill triumph than veterinarian and civic leader Ellen Jefferson.

Even-voiced and intensely focused, Virginia-raised Jefferson has her detractors, but almost everyone interviewed for this story agreed that her early, long-term spay-and-neuter strategy and later laser-sharp rescues of targeted pet populations have made a huge difference.

“It’s true that Ellen gets credit and attention for her role in making Austin a No Kill city,” lawyer Clinton says. “It’s also true that she deserves every bit and more credit than she gets. Without Ellen, this city would still be killing 50 percent of its homeless pets. There is no doubt in my mind of that.”

After volunteering at the city shelter, she started Emancipet in 1999. By the time she left the group, they were performing 16,000 surgeries a year, mostly from a roaming clinic.

“Rabble-rousers were saying that we were still killing too many, ” she told the American-Statesman last year. “And I ignored them. The more I listened to them, however, the more I realized we weren’t actually lowering the kill rate.”

In 2008, she rededicated Austin Pets Alive, founded in 1997, to the cause of rescuing any salvageable animal from the shelter, while identifying bottlenecks that doomed some animals.

She created a nursing ward for kittens younger than 6 weeks old, targeted adult cats during breeding season for adoptions, created ringworm and parvo wards and a drafted a small cadre of adopters for feline leukemia victims.

The final frontier: big dogs with behavior problems. “I’m not talking about truly dangerous dogs, ” she told the Statesman. “Just dogs who are down on their luck.”

Austin Pets Alive tries to collaborate with the dozens of breed-specific rescue crews and smaller shelters in the region, but there are inevitable clashes of opinion and culture.

“Ellen has made personal sacrifices and dedicated her professional life to saving lives,” says philanthropist Mary Tally.

Back at Jefferson’s former group, Emancipet, an Australian-born, Midland-raised Amy Mills has given that group new life.

“I’ve loved animals my whole life,” the St. Edward’s University graduate says. “As soon as I graduated and got a job, the first thing I did was go down to the Town Lake Animal Center and adopt a dog.”

She also signed up for a Puppy Kindergarten training class at the Austin Humane Society, which led to volunteering there once a week.

“After I started spending time at the shelters, I realized that perfectly healthy, lovable animals were at risk of being euthanized, too, just because there were too many of them,” she says. “Their only flaw was just that they were homeless. It was heartbreaking. It still is.”

Mills took over as director of Emancipet in 2006. After raising some money with the help of new donors, the group doubled the number of free spay/neuters and went door-to-door to find family pets that needed the service.

In 2007, informal meetings with other Austin groups were formalized by the ASPCA.

“We suddenly had access to information about what works well in other cities, opportunities for grant funding for new initiatives, and a more formalized way to plan our work at a community level,” Mills says. “Basically, we formed this unit where we all had one goal of ending unnecessary euthanasia.”

Mills shares one story about how this spirit of teamwork helped one pet.

“Sugar was a beautiful pit bull with a slight facial disfiguration — she had a collapsed muzzle and nose,” she says. “I met her because of our door-to-door outreach program — Spay Street. She had been living on a chain in the back of a trailer with about 13 other dogs. She had an owner who cared about her, but who was totally overwhelmed by too many pets and not enough money. She had had many litters over the years — and her owner was finally ready to have her spayed.”

At the Emancipet clinic, Sugar tested positive for heartworms. Her owner decided to give her up.

“I immediately called my partners at the city and asked if they had the funds for heartworm treatment,” Mills recalls. “I called Frances at Austin Humane Society and asked if they would take her in to their adoption program, and then Missy at Animal Trustees to see if they could do the heartworm treatment and also fix her teeth (most were broken from chewing her chain). Everyone agreed to do their part to save this sweet girl. Her new mom re-named her Hope.”

While the folks who work directly with animals are on the front line, others have influenced the system from the outside. Their view of the animal welfare community is not always so rosy.

One potent influencer is Louisiana-raised Ryan Clinton of FixAustin.

“I got into animal welfare the accidental way,” Clinton says. “It found me in the form of a beat-up, dirty and wounded blond cat that showed up on my front porch and demanded my assistance. Because I wasn’t an animal-welfare insider, I didn’t know what to do with him, and that began an intensive learning process about shelters, rescue groups, spay/neuter, adoptions, etc.”

That’s when he discovered how bad things were at Austin’s animal shelter, which, in 2005, killed more than 14,000 animals, while much smaller Ithaca, N.Y. (Tomkins County), had achieved No Kill status in 2002.

“I realized that Austin could and should do better,” he says. “So I began meeting with the local animal-welfare stakeholders. To my dismay, nearly every one of them expressed disinterest in and disdain for No Kill as an alternative to the shelter’s programs at the time.”

He felt that the city’s animal staff, specifically, had no plan in place to cut down on the killings. So Clinton began to lobby.

Clinton found out about programs and policies that worked best at the No Kill Advocacy Center, run by lawyer and animal advocate Nathan Winograd.

“My wife and I went to a conference Nathan presented in the Woodlands in 2006, and that changed pretty much everything for me,” Clinton says.

He thinks that highly targeted adoptions have made all the difference in the Austin shelter’s save rate.

“The public embraced it 100 percent,” Clinton says. “So we actively sought the public’s participation at every step. We reached out to the public through advertisements, fliers, and a seemingly infinite number of community presentations and ‘elevator’ speeches. The public wants all animals saved now, not just in 10 or 20 years from now.”

Like Clinton, digital executive — and former American-Statesman employee — Larry Tucker worked from the outside, serving on the Austin Animal Advisory Commission. A co-worker first brought the old shelter’s appalling kill rate to his attention.

“I’m not going to get involved,” Tucker told her. “Because if I do, you know I’ll dive head-first into it and I just don’t have the time to do it.”

She replied: “I know. That’s exactly why I keep approaching you about it. I know you will dive head-first into it and can have a major impact on what’s going on.”

Like Clinton, Tucker was shocked by the attitudes of some in the animal welfare community.

“I was naive when I first got involved,” he says. “I assumed that everyone had the same goals — to save animal lives. I didn’t realize that there was the ‘better off dead’ viewpoint.”

He first heard No Kill prophet Winograd at an Austin seminar.

“I had no idea who he was or what No Kill was,” he says. “I trusted that he was the right person to deliver a message of hope and change to Austin. It was the catalyst for which things began to change.”

He’s grateful that Austin generally hasn’t accepted the notion that No Kill leads to indefinite animal “warehousing” or “hoarding” of pets — a position promoted in People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals literature — and that has helped to convert the public.

He also believes that Austin set an example for the rest of the country.

“I’ve never been to a more caring city where people are not afraid to speak their mind and leap into action,” he says. “With regard to No Kill, I don’t think we’re unique. … (But) I like to think that Austinites are largely responsible for spreading the No Kill message across the country very quickly through social media and just being ‘Austin.’ We’re the city that everyone else wants to be.”

If No Kill activists had little faith in former city of Austin leadership — and they might decry design flaws at the new municipal shelter — they tend to praise the city’s current chief animal services officer.

“The person that has made it all work across all factions is Abigail Smith,” says Animal Trustee’s McCullough. Originally from Massachusetts, Smith has worked for three different animal shelters and served as director of the Tomkins County SPCA, one of the first No Kill success stories.

“The broader my exposure, the more I understood that most other shelters are not like the ones I have worked with,” she says. “Fortunately, I never personally had to take the difficult journey from status quo to progressive sheltering like so many of my colleagues have.”

Enormous population growth — and expanding rescue territories adopted by some rescue nonprofits — have complicated Smith’s progress here, where the shelter often nears capacity.

“For every 10 people moving here, there are six new animals,” Smith says. “The biggest factor in ‘owner surrender’ is moving. We are also now a very desirable place to leave animals, because people think they will be OK.”

Also, animals are staying a lot longer because of changing cultural of views on euthanasia. Smith is compensating with foster families. But she’s also committed to teaming with nonprofits to provide medical and behavior care that can save many lives.

“Stop killing animals because they have a cold or a broken bone,” she says. “Next, adoption, foster and rescue partner programs have to have the capacity to get animals out of the shelter at a rate sufficient to offset the volume of animals coming into the shelter. Short term, this will work.”

She believes that prevention programs like spay/neuter and pet IDs are crucial for the long-term prospects of No Kill.

“I don’t think we’re even close to educating the public sufficiently,” she says. “I think we’ve done a good job at letting everyone know we’re now a No Kill city, but to stay that way, we need to do better with letting folks know what it takes big picture, and how they can participate other than adopting or fostering pets. We’ve got a long way to go to be able to get away from the summer pleas for help.”

Nothing happens without money. The animal welfare community is long on passion, short on cash. Historically, they often looked to taxpayers to provide the resources. More recently, they have found loyal and creative advocates among the city’s philanthropists.

An early backer of animal welfare causes, East Texas native Carol Adams has raised money for the arts and other causes.

“I grew up with lots of animal companions,” Adams says. “And my parents taught me to love and value them as part of our family. Through my adulthood, I have continued to have animal family members and couldn’t imagine my life without them.”

About 12 years ago, she first volunteered for Animal Trustees and was impressed how much the group accomplished with so few dollars. So Adams got busy training the board of directors to join the larger charitable picture.

“Austin is an activist and compassionate community,” she says. “No Kill was a movement that was easy to sell to our citizenry and, ultimately, to our elected officials.”

Also on the scene with an arts and fundraising background, Mary Tally had helped put together the backing for the Long Center. When a girl, outside her parents country house near Corpus Christi, Tally and her mother had often rescued abandoned dogs.

“And cats — oh so many cats!” Tally recalls. “I have one fun memory of sneaking a very pregnant cat into my bedroom one night — and waking up in the morning to find the momma cat tending to her newborn kittens on my bed — and me calling out to my Mom to come help!”

In the early 1990s, Tally discovered Animal Trustees, which coached her on rescue, foster and adoption work. Five years ago, Tally also got on board with Emancipet, which redoubled her interest in homeless pets.

“I think it’s such a missed opportunity to save a dog’s life when people insist on buying a pedigree dog,” Tally says. “They’ll fly out of state to bring home a puppy with papers from a breeder when we, as Americans, are mutts ourselves. We’re a mix of every nationality under the sun, and most of us don’t even know our own family genealogy past two generations.”

Impressed by Emancipet’s fiscal responsibility, she has captained the group’s charity luncheons, even buying out a 50-guest table at the Four Seasons Hotel.

What about the next wave of donors who will be expected to carry through what current leadership has accomplished? Ask Alex Winkelman, whose group, Citizen Generation, helps train young philanthropists.

“Growing up in a vegetarian household, we were all animal lovers and cared for every living being, from the little bug in the house to the stray cats that we took in and became part of our family,” she says. “When I was 8, I saved $55 and adopted my first rescue animal, a black cat from the Paws Animal Shelter in Kyle. Then, at the age of 12, we visited Town Lake Animal Shelter and adopted two dogs. The decision was made over multiple days of visiting the shelter, which I think was a very eye-opening experience for me.”

Even early on, Winkelman wanted to end the tragedies witnessed at animal shelters. Recently, she’s made Austin Pets Alive one of her special projects.

“My family and I have helped where we can by donating money, time and in-kind items,” she says. “Although small steps compared to the big picture, these types of activities allowed others to do their part and lead the No Kill charge.”

Currently, more than $17 million from public and private sources is invested annually in the five largest animal welfare organizations in Austin. Gratified, Tally is among those who have seen Austin’s progress on animal welfare with her own eyes. Last year, she added another rescue pet to her family.

“Our new one is Sunny, a dachshund mix that was found and rescued by the Winkelmans in spring 2012 when she was very pregnant with her five puppies,” Tally says. “To me, Sunny represents the pets that weren’t spayed, got pregnant, and were abandoned. But her story has a happy ending — not only has that cycle ended for Sunny and her pups, but she’s been Emancipet’s ‘spokesdog’ for the past two years and has helped us raise hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

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