Cooper jumps, shakes his tail, and barks loudly. He looks very happy to see Anna Gallegos, one of the more than 500 volunteers working at the Austin Animal Center, as she approaches his kennel to take him out for his daily walk. The seven-year-old male Chinese Sharpei mix has been in the shelter for more than 120 days and is lucky to just be enjoying a walk.
If Cooper were in a different city, he would most likely be on a waiting list to be euthanized.
But that doesn’t happen in Austin, considered the largest no-kill animal shelter community in the country since 2010. This title is certainly a big achievement, but it has also created a singular problem. Local shelters like AAC are at capacity, housing up to 700 animals at a time, and sometimes receiving as many as 50 a day. And now, city officials and advocates are exploring how to solve the problem and trying to figure out why Austin, nationally known as a pet-friendly city, would have so many unclaimed pets.
The city Animal Advisory Commission explored passing an ordinance requiring the spaying/neutering of animals taken in for the first time by the shelter–but it was voted down after some commissioners said that unaltered pets are not the real cause of the overpopulation.
In six months, there were 3,002 dogs impounded for the first time at the city shelter, but only 30 percent of them were claimed by their owners. Of those, only 2.4 percent were sent home without being sterilized, according to a study by Austin Animal Services.
“I don’t think that [spaying/neutering after a first impoundment] is the solution we need now,” Austin Pets Alive’s Mike Kaviani said. “We need to tackle why this incredible amount of dogs are showing up and not getting reclaimed by their owners.”
Spaying and neutering would increase the population in shelters, instead of reducing it, since that would require dogs and cats to stay longer waiting for the procedure. Emancipet, a clinic that provides vet services for the city shelter, has a four-month waiting list for this kind of procedure.
“The shelters want to get the animals in and out as soon as possible, and they were worried that if the procedure makes these animals stay more, then it would clog out the shelter,” David Lundstedt, chair of the AAC and author of the “spay/neuter on first impoundment” proposal, said. “So they’d rather just get them back to their owners.”
But why are dog and cat owners still abandoning their animals in shelters? Experts believe that there’s still a lack of responsibility in the community, even though Austin is considered one of the friendliest cities for pets in the country.
“A lot of it is just an education thing,” Kaviani said. “We should make people understand [how important it is] to put identification in their pets, to microchip them, to know where the dogs are taken when they are lost, to make people know where the shelter is.”
Money may also be a reason why people decide not to claim their dogs or cats. At the AAC, an owner must pay a $150 fee for the first impoundment. If the owner allows their animal to be spayed or neutered, the shelter discounts the fee.
For shelters, the main priority is to find a home for the hundreds of animals that they take in. Since euthanasia is not an option anymore, adoption still seems to be the best thing to do.
Some experts believe that if we could get 20 percent more of people in the country to go to shelters instead of going to a breeder or a pet store, then the overpopulation would be gone.
That is why the AAC, as well as Austin Pets Alive, execute different strategies to incentivize adoption, which include promotions in social media, special events, and waiving the adoption fees for low income families.
“It’s not cheap to run a no-kill animal shelter,” Austin Animal Center’s Kasey Spain said. “But it’s definitely something that the city thinks is very important to happen, and it’s working. We have been able to reduce the amount of animals that are coming into the shelter every year. Five years ago, it was 26,000. Now we are down to 18,000.”
Despite all of the efforts and challenges that emerged with Austin being a pet-friendly and no-kill animal shelter city, advocates say keeping animals like Cooper alive is totally worth it.
“When we help pets, we are actually helping people, too, because they are such an important part of the fabric of our society,” Lundstedt states. “We need to save as many as we can because they can make people happy.”