AUSTIN (KXAN) — If you find a stray dog today, you won’t be able to drop it off at the Austin Animal Center (unless it’s hurt or violent enough to be a safety risk). It’s been that way for months.

A sign indicating intake is restricted sits outside of the Austin Animal Center. It's been there since September 2021. (KXAN photo/Grace Reader)
A sign indicating intake is restricted sits outside of the Austin Animal Center. It’s been there since September 2021. (KXAN photo/Grace Reader)

The municipal shelter restricted intake in September 2021, saying the number of animals coming in was far superseding the number of animals going out. But some animal advocates are using city intake and outcomes data to raise red flags.

Austin Animal Center has restricted intake to the public three times before, it told us previously: once in 2020 due to the pandemic and twice in 2016 due to overcapacity. But the city’s shelter was taking in thousands more pets then.

“Many pets are being turned away,” said Kristen Hassen, who served as Austin Animal Center’s deputy chief between 2015 and 2017. She now works as a consultant for government-run shelters nationwide and serves on the Austin Animal Commission.

She’s one of the advocates questioning shelter leadership, pointing to her time at the animal center when intake numbers were higher than they have been in the past few years. Hassen said it begs the question:

“Why is the animal shelter always at crisis, always at capacity?”

Kristen Hassen, former deputy chief at AAC

That concern is shared by one of the original co-founders of Austin’s “no-kill” movement. Lorri Michel has been advocating for animals in Austin since the late 1990s when she joined management at Austin Pets Alive!. She successfully petitioned city council for years to require it to restrict the number of animals it can euthanize.

“The city management claims that there’s a space issue here at the shelter, which we find difficult to understand and accept. How and why when intake has been so decreased over the recent years?” she said.

Digging into the data

Intake at the shelter has gone down since the pandemic started, according to city data. In 2019 AAC took in more than 18,400 pets. It was the highest year for intake in the data available online, which goes back to 2014. In previous years, that number hovered closer to 17,000.

In 2020, intake dipped dramatically — partially because the shelter was forced to close its doors for a couple months as a product of the pandemic.

But even as the shelter reopened and COVID-19 restrictions started to ease in Travis County, AAC only saw a slight rebound in the number of cats and dogs it was taking in. In all of 2022, just short of 12,000 pets were recorded in the city’s intake data.

Don Bland, director of the Austin Animal Center, said part of that is thanks to the drop in people bringing animals to the shelter altogether. He believes during the pandemic people started utilizing social media and Nextdoor to relocate a pet instead of bringing it in.

“Getting the citizens to help and keep animals out of the shelter was very beneficial for the community as well as the shelter,” Bland said. “And so I think that’s where you’ve seen a lot of intake down around the nation.”

Are adoption numbers to blame?

Where these animal advocates and Bland don’t see eye to eye is whether adoption numbers are largely to blame for how full the shelter is, despite fewer animals coming through the doors.

In 2019, data show the shelter adopted out more than 8,700 animals. That dipped to around 7,100 in 2022.

But Bland said the adoption data takes some context to understand, too.

Don Bland, director of Austin Animal Center, sits down with KXAN's Grace Reader to talk about intake restrictions (KXAN photo/Grace Reader)
Don Bland, director of Austin Animal Center, sits down with KXAN’s Grace Reader to talk about intake restrictions (KXAN photo/Grace Reader)

“I think locally some of the reasons that we see our adoptions being less… a lot of it’s housing issues,” he said. “There’s a lot of restrictions on weight, and ‘I can’t have a dog over 20 pounds, over 30 pounds.’ Well that eliminates a lot of animals. And what do we have mostly in shelters is medium to large breed dogs.”

Bland said while cat adoptions haven’t been a problem for the shelter, medium and large dog adoptions have gone down disproportionally.

The data shows roughly 2,000 fewer dogs were adopted in 2022 than in 2019 and that doesn’t filter out small dogs, which Bland said have a less difficult time finding permanent homes.

“One of the things that we’ve seen nationwide as well is the length of stay in animals go up significantly, especially medium to large dog breeds. As of Monday (Feb. 13), we had over 44 dogs that had been here over 200 days,” he explained.

Animal advocates do agree on that point — they, too, are concerned about the amount of time animals spend in the shelter. But they want something to be done differently to make sure the taxpayer-funded animal center is open to its taxpayers.

“If we’re not doing this right now, we will not be prepared and we’re going to be in this situation again where there will be no room at the shelter, animals living in truck board kennels,” Hassen said. “Those animals all should be saved, but the system has to get to work again and it is not working now.”

“It’s not that we’re resting on our laurels, because you can’t in animal welfare,” Bland countered. “You’ve got to keep moving forward, and so we’re always wanting to learn and grow and do better.”

Adjustments made during the pandemic

Bland said they’ve already made adjustments to help with challenges presented during the pandemic including making the in-person adoption process in the lobby faster, allowing people to fill out applications online and connecting fosters to shelter veterinarians using telehealth.

He said the community can help the shelter from ending up in this position again by microchipping their pets and proactively looking for them at the shelter should they get loose. The AAC microchips pets for free any day of the week and does pop up clinics as well.

He also said they’re looking for “unicorn” adopters to help get some of the more challenging medium and large dogs out of the shelter.

“There’s a lot of information on how to get here now because we’ve done it and other places are moving towards that, so there’s a lot of good information on how to get to where we’re at, but where we’re at moving forward? There’s nothing,” Bland said. “That book hasn’t been written yet because we’re one of the first in the nation to be here.”

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