Thursday, April 02, 2009

Where Oh Where Has Our Watchdog Gone?

You may have seen the Austin Chronicle's most recent coverage of Austin's animal-services department.  As we have said here and elsewhere, the Chronicle has officially abandoned any pretense of being a government watchdog in favor of the pound-cheerleader mantle.  

The reporter on the "animal" beat, Patty Ruland, has repeatedly attacked those who ask for more for Austin's lost and homeless pets.  In this latest series of articles, she has displayed her disdain for balanced reporting.  She obviously spent a great deal of time with those who defend the shelter at all costs (TLAC Director Dorinda Pulliam, TLAC Promoter Karen Medicus, and Pulliam's Supervisor David Lurie).  Know how much time she spent with those who advocate for less killing at TLAC?  None.  

Ms. Ruland did, however, send us one e-mail, which we answered.  She did not follow-up, nor did she call us.  Nor did she even bother to mention that we expressed great appreciation for the lower level of killing in Austin this year. 

But you can decide for yourself.  Below is the e-mail we sent Ms. Ruland.  See for yourself how much she decided to consider for her story:

Hi Patty,

Ryan forwarded your questions to me and asked that I respond on behalf of  

We are delighted that fewer animals have been killed at Town Lake Animal Center this year as compared to last year.  It appears that the improvements in this year's data are attributable primarily to two things:  first, Austin Pets Alive's new off-site adoption program that is saving many of the dogs and cats that TLAC has set to kill; and second, a significant reduction in intake that we believe has resulted from the low-cost and free spay/neuter programs offered by Emancipet, the Austin Humane Society, and Animal Trustees of Austin.  We still have a long way to go and the reported fiscal year-to-date numbers (Oct –Feb) contain the lowest intake months.  So, the improvement may not hold through-out the year, but we sure hope they do.

This being said, we continue to advocate for the implementation of proven, low-cost programs and policies that have dramatically reduced shelter killing in communities across America, such as a comprehensive adoption program that would include off-site adoption locations throughout the city seven days a week, and a full-scale foster program.  These are programs that TLAC claims to implement but does so in name only and/or not at a level necessary for true success.  In communities that have rigorously implemented proven no-kill methods, kill rates are at or near ten percent-- far better than Austin this year.  Communities with kill rates far lower than Austin include San Francisco, CA; Ithaca, NY; Reno, NV; and Charlottesville, VA.  More recent examples of communities that have seen dramatic improvements by adopting proven no-kill programs include Montgomery County (Conroe), Texas, which saw its kill rate decline from 80% to 18%, and Shreveport, Louisiana, which saw a 245% improvement in positive outcomes at its pound.  The fastest way to no-kill success in Austin has been and continues to be the adoption of programs and policies that have produced results in other cities.

We also believe that the City of Austin should immediately impose a moratorium on the killing of healthy, non-aggressive animals when there open kennels at the shelter to give them the opportunity to find loving homes.  Most Austinites probably assume that dogs and cats are only killed at TLAC when they are suffering or aggressive, or when there is no room.  But the sad truth is that healthy nonaggressive animals are frequently killed at TLAC when there are more than 100 cages sitting empty.  We find this practice to be completely unacceptable and out of line with our community's values.

Last year, TLAC killed 47% of the animals it impounded.  This fiscal year's year-to-date figures (low-intake months October 2008 through February 2009) show significant improvement, but it is important to take a close look at them to understand what is causing the improvement so we can improve even further.

The first and most important improvement demonstrated by the data is a substantial increase in the number of animals saved by rescue groups.  But a closer look reveals that 100% of the increase is attributable to Austin Pets Alive.  Last fiscal year to-date, TLAC transferred 1361 animals to rescue groups other than APA, and none to APA.  This fiscal year to-date, TLAC has transferred 1275 animals to rescue groups other than APA (a disturbing 6% decline), but 470 to APA, resulting in a net gain.  Other rescue groups (like two awesome groups, Austin Dog Rescue and Austin Siamese Rescue) are necessary partners to success in Austin, but the data clearly demonstrate a decline in TLAC's work with rescue groups other than APA.  If it weren't for APA, 6% fewer animals would have been saved to rescue groups this year as compared to last year.  In the same vein, this year's data shows a 3% decline in animals returned to their owners by TLAC year-to-date.  Statistically speaking, APA is nearly 100% responsible for the additional lives saved this year over last year to-date, and they have saved only those animals that TLAC would have otherwise killed.  And even with APA's new program, the total number of lives saved this year to-date as compared to last year to-date is essentially stagnant, meaning that APA has made up for a significant decline in the lives otherwise saved by TLAC. 

We don't think this point can be sufficiently underscored:  Any story written about success in Austin animal welfare this year should be written about Austin Pets Alive, whose remarkable accomplishments are attributable to their visionary leadership and tireless volunteers.  By implementing the off-site adoption strategies that have worked in other cities (strategies that TLAC has reluctantly acquiesced in allowing and even then, not nearly to the extent as other more successful cities), Austin Pets Alive has achieved inspiring and promising results in a very short period and with few resources.  

As previously mentioned, the data also demonstrate that intake levels have fallen sharply so far this year as compared to last year.  That's great and should be celebrated, but it should also be noted that comparison figures are misleading because last year's figures were abnormally high (among the highest this decade).  Moreover, given the relatively few months behind us this year, it is near impossible to make accurate predictions regarding end-of-year figures.  For example, year-to-date TLAC data from 2002 are very similar to this year's year-to-date data (excluding APA's rescues).  The early fiscal-year 2002 data did not accurately predict year-end figures.  Despite reporting a historically-low kill rate in February 2002, TLAC ended up killing 51% of impounded animals that year.  As a result, the only year statistically similar to this year demonstrates a need for caution when attempting to make full-year projections based on early-year data.  This is especially true because early-year figures represent low-intake months when small changes can make a big statistical difference.  Because of the difficulty in making full-year projections based on partial and early-year data, making projections that we hope to but may not achieve as a community should be avoided.  Indeed, every time we promise the community that we'll be no-kill soon, but fail to produce no-kill success (as we have now done twice in Austin), we further solidify the dispelled myth that no-kill is somehow not achievable.

You also asked for our views on TLAC's categorizations/definitions.  We prefer not to use TLAC's categorical terms but to instead focus on the overall lifesaving rate and the programs proven to improve that rate.  This is because terms like "adoptable" are highly subjective and can be manipulated to give the appearance that a shelter is doing more lifesaving than it really is.  Saving 90% of pets that come in the door, as some shelters following the No Kill Equation are doing, is much more meaningful than saving 100% of pets labeled as "adoptable" by TLAC, especially when TLAC only labels around 30% of impounded animals as "adoptable."  The fact that multiple communities have been able to save 90% or more over several years indicates the 90% figure is a more accurate indication of the number of lives that can be saved at an open-admission facility.  In addition, APA's success shows that TLAC's "adoptable" labels are near-meaningless.   APA only saves animals that TLAC has scheduled to kill. Thus, a significant percentage of animals taken and placed into loving homes by APA have been labeled "upadoptable" by TLAC.  In addition, very young puppies and kittens may be labeled "unadoptable" due to nothing but their age--- even though they can be saved and are otherwise highly adoptable.  Again, we stress that healthy, non-aggressive animals should not be killed when there are frequently more than 100 cages going unused each day.

If you want to report the actual data and not projections or spin, the truth is that Austin Pets Alive is the real hero in Austin.  But we still have a long way to go.  We don't know what will happen with intake the remainder of this year or in future years, and historical data demonstrates that we should be cautious when making full-year projections from partial-year statistics.  Moreover, APA is currently able to save only a fraction of the animals TLAC would otherwise kill.  Thus, we believe APA’s role should increase dramatically in the near future.

Again, we are very happy to see fewer animals killed this year at TLAC, but we could be doing far better with a more progressive shelter management.

Thanks for giving us the opportunity to respond,
The Team

Lorri Michel