TAMPA — During Hillsborough County’s months-long debate on how to save dogs and cats from being put to death at the animal shelter, Austin, Texas, was often cited as a national success story.
Hillsborough leaders even recruited the county’s last Animal Services director from Austin, partly because of the reputation of the city’s successful “no kill” shelter, where 90 percent of the animals impounded leave alive.
It turned out Ian Hallett had a rough tenure in Hillsborough and was transferred to another county department last month, but Austin lost none of its luster as a pioneer in the no-kill movement.
The city’s animal shelter continues to maintain a 90 percent live release rate after first achieving that goal in February 2011.
What can Austin teach Hillsborough County, where 12,085 animals were killed in 2012?
Veterans of the no-kill movement there say Hillsborough took an important first step Wednesday when commissioners approved sterilizing feral cats so they can be released to their former neighborhoods.
Non-profit groups in Austin were practicing this method, called trap, neuter and release, in the 1990s. The Austin city council later adopted it officially when the city went to no-kill in 2010.
“There is research that shows TNR does reduce cats living outdoors, spayed or neutered,” said Ryan Clinton, a founder of Fix Austin, a leading group in the no-kill campaign. “It is not an overnight solution to shelter killing; it is part of the solution.”
Perhaps the most important chapter in Austin’s story is how animal welfare advocates galvanized the community in their cause. Once the grass roots were mobilized, the politicians followed.
“Not to say the politicians weren’t hugely important, but it was the community,” said Patricia Fraga, spokeswoman for Austin Animal Services. “We had members of the community constantly coming to council meetings for years to talk about animal welfare issues.”
And the activists weren’t just animal welfare groups, many of whom actually opposed no-kill. For instance, Fix Austin, which sees itself as a political group advocating for animals, included doctors, lawyers, engineers and other professionals.
Clinton, an appellate attorney, became involved in animal welfare issues around 2005 or 2006. At that time, the animal shelter was impounding between 20,000 and 25,000 dogs and cats a year and killing 12,000 to 14,000 of them.
“I got together with a group of people who wanted to see change,” Clinton said. “We started studying other communities that were doing better than us.”
The cities that were leaders at that time in significantly reducing euthanasia were Ithaca, N.Y., Charlottesville, Va., and Reno, Nev. The three cities were much smaller than Austin in population, but Clinton and other advocates decided the strategies used there could be replicated on a larger scale.
They took their ideas to city council meetings, but were opposed by animal welfare groups and shelter management.
“They argued we were not animal welfare professionals; therefore we were naïve and didn’t know what we were talking about,” Clinton said. “They argued that the problem was there were too many animals and not enough homes. It was overpopulation and not a lack of attention to the problem.”
Something similar happened in Hillsborough.
A former animal shelter operations director, popular with many animal rescue groups, was forced out when he resisted changes at the shelter aimed at reducing euthanasia. Also, some Hillsborough veterinarians opposed the county’s adoption of a TNR program, saying it posed a public health risk.
Clinton says the game changer came in 2008 when Austin Pets Alive, a rescue group, came on board.
The group’s director, veterinary Dr. Ellen Jefferson, had been running a spay and neuter clinic but realized she wasn’t reducing the city’s high euthanasia rate. She went to Austin Pets Alive, changing it from an advocacy group to a rescue operation.
The operation’s strategy was simple but effective: Pull from the shelter any animal on the next day’s kill list.
“Austin Pets Alive’s goal always was to get Austin to no kill,” Jefferson said. “Once we decided that, we only started looking at animals that were definitely going to die.”
The group’s niche, Jefferson said, was rescuing animals that were largely unwanted by the general public because they were too young or too old, unhealthy or that behaved badly.
The strategy was radically different from the one used by traditional groups like the Human Society. They culled the shelter for animals that could be adopted out quickly. But that still left half of the shelter’s animals that were going to be killed, Jefferson said.
Jefferson said she doesn’t mean to belittle the role played by the Humane Society and other traditional groups in achieving the ultimate goal.
“I don’t think we would have gotten to no kill if it was all on our back,” Jefferson said. “It was both of us working. We divided and conquered and got it done.”
Clinton said Austin Pets Alive started putting into practice policies his group, Fix Austin, had been advocating to the city. These included adoption events away from the animal shelter in high traffic areas and a fostering program to care for animals until they were in shape to be adopted.
“That was a huge turning point in ’08 that showed the city council and the community that the political advocates were right in arguing these specific programs would save more lives,” Clinton said.
In 2010, the Austin City Council adopted all the policies the political groups had been advocating: foster programs, off-site adoptions, trap, neuter and release for cats, and low-cost spay and neuter. The city also prohibited euthanizing animals whenever the shelter had empty cages and kennels.
Since then, the number of adoptions has doubled, Clinton said, as have the number of foster and rescue groups.
So is Austin’s success tied to the unqiue qualities of the Texas capital city?
Renowned nationally for its robust music scene, its high-tech companies and as home to the University of Texas, Austin is often held up nationally as a hip, progressive city.
“Most people in Austin would like to believe that’s true, but it isn’t,” Clinton said. “We know that because we didn’t do anything special. We just followed programs that worked somewhere else.”
Hillsborough County and Travis County, where Austin is located, have roughly the same populations.
Hillsborough leaders say they are not pursuing a no-kill shelter, but they do want to increase the live release rate from the current 47 percent to 70 percent. That seems a lot more doable now that the county commission has adopted a TNR program.
Hillsborough also benefits from a robust foster and rescue community that has been pulling animals out of the shelter for years. And, due largely to policies implemented by Hallett, the former Austin deputy director, adoptions from the Hillsborough animal shelter are up by 38 percent.
Still to come: a marketing plan that will raise the profile of Hillsborough Animal Services and increase adoptions.
Jefferson, the director of Austin Pets Alive, adds this footnote to the Austin success story: Once you become a no-kill city, it takes a lot of work to stay a no-kill city. Every so often, the Austin animal shelter sends out an SOS because it’s full and can’t take any more animals.
That’s a good thing, Jefferson said, because it keeps the public interested.
“I think the community needs to be involved with the problem; they’re the ones that got us to no kill,” she said.
“If they think it’s completely solved and the government solved it, they’re going to quit helping.”