Austin Attains Amazing Live Release Rates in 2018

Austin, Texas has become synonymous with no kill success. While Austin Animal Center exceeded the 90% live release rate some people consider as being no kill in 2012, the shelter’s live release rate increased sharply in 2016. The shelter’s success in 2016 was spearheaded by Director of Animal Services, Tawny Hammond, and Deputy Chief Animal Services Officer, Kristen Auerbach, both of whom came over from Fairfax County Animal Shelter in Virginia.

Hound Manor performed a fantastic analysis of Austin Animal Center’s 2016 results. This analysis utilized various computer programming techniques to extract incredibly useful data from Austin’s open public data on its web site. While I don’t have the skills to replicate such an analysis, I was able to obtain some key data I frequently use in my New Jersey animal shelter analyses. Using this data, I did an analysis of Austin Animal Center’s 2017 results last year. This data showed the shelter achieving extremely high live release rates for cats, dogs, pit bulls, young kittens and other types of animals.

Tammy Hammond left Austin Animal Center in May 2017 to join Best Friends and Kristen Auerbach resigned in July 2017 to take over Pima Animal Care Center in Tuscon, Arizona. How did Austin Animal Center perform in 2018? Did the shelter continue its success without two of its key leaders?

Incredible Live Release Rates

Austin Animal Center saved virtually every dog that arrived in 2018. You can find a link to the data I used here. Overall, only 1.2% of all dogs, 1.1% of pit bull like dogs, 1.5% of small dogs and 1.0% of other medium to large size dogs lost their lives or went missing at the shelter. The death rates for all dogs and other dogs decreased by 0.1% and 0.2% from 2017 while pit bulls’ and small dogs’ death rates remained the same as in 2017. Even if we only look at dogs who were not reclaimed by owners, only 1.6% of all dogs, 1.8% of pit bulls, 2.1% of small dogs and 1.3% of other medium to large size breeds lost their lives or went missing in 2019. Thus, Austin Animal Center saved almost every dog it took in last year.

Austin Animal Center’s pit bull numbers are especially noteworthy. Despite taking in 1,930 pit bull like dogs in 2018, Austin Animal Center saved 99% of these dogs. On a per capita basis, Austin Animal Center impounded 1.6 pit bulls per 1,000 people compared to my estimate of New Jersey animal shelters taking in just 0.8 pit bulls per 1,000 people from the state. In other words, Austin Animal Center saved 99% of its pit bull like dogs even though it took in twice as many of these dogs on a per capita basis as New Jersey animal shelters. Similarly, Austin Animal Center adopted out 0.7 pit bulls per 1,000 people compared to the 0.5 pit bulls per 1,000 people New Jersey animal shelters would need to adopt out to achieve a 95% dog live release rate. Furthermore, Austin Pets Alive and other local rescues adopt out additional pit bulls in the Austin area. As a result, Austin Animal Center’s results prove New Jersey animal shelters can do a far better job with their pit bull like dogs.

Austin Animal Center 2018 Results

Austin Animal Center also had amazing cat numbers. Overall, only 4.4% of all cats, 5.9% of adult cats, 1.9% of kittens 6 weeks to just under one year and 7.0% of kittens under 6 weeks lost their lives at Austin Animal Center in 2018. As compared to 2017, the all cats’, adult cats and neonatal kittens death rates decreased by 0.9%, 1.3% and 1.5% while the older kittens death rate remained the same. Even if we exclude cats who were reclaimed by owners and placed through the shelter-neuter return program, only 5.4% of all cats, 9.5% of adult cats, 2.1% of kittens 6 weeks to just under 1 year and 7.0% of kittens under 6 weeks lost their lives in 2018. Thus, Austin Animal Center saved almost all their cats of all ages.

Austin 2018 Cat Statistics.jpg

Austin Animal Center Only Euthanizes Dogs for Legitimate Reasons

The table below lists the reasons Austin Animal Center used to euthanize dogs in 2018. As you can see, 74% of the euthanized dogs were due to severe medical reasons (i.e. suffering, at veterinarian).

Austin Animal Center limits behavioral euthanasia to truly aggressive dogs. Hound Manor’s blog on Austin Animal Center’s 2016 data found the shelter euthanized a similar percentage of dogs for behavioral reasons in the final quarter of fiscal year 2016 as the No Kill Advocacy Center targets (i.e. under 1%). As you can see below, Austin Animal Center only euthanized 0.10% of all dogs for behavioral related reasons (i.e. aggression, behavior, court/investigation). Even if we add rabies risk and none, Austin Animal Center would have only euthanized 0.14% of all dogs for behavioral reasons. Thus, Austin Animal Center limited behavioral euthanasia to truly aggressive dogs.

Austin Animal Center also reduced the number and percentage of dogs euthanized for rabies risk. As Hound Manor mentioned in its blog, few dogs killed for rabies testing end up having the disease. In fact, the New Jersey Department of Health’s guidelines state shelters should not euthanize dogs for rabies unless they have clinical signs of the disease. Austin Animal Center euthanized two dogs (0.02% of all dogs) in 2018 for rabies risk compared to the five dogs (0.05% of all dogs) from 2017 and 14 dogs (0.14% of all dogs) reported by Hound Manor in fiscal year 2016.

Austin Animal Center Dogs Euthanized Reasons

The shelter also limited behavioral euthanasia for pit bull like dogs to truly aggressive animals. Austin Animal Center only euthanized 0.05% of all pit bulls for aggression, behavior and court/investigation reasons. In fact, this number was only one half of the percentage of all dogs euthanized for behavioral related reasons. In other words, pit bull like dogs were significantly less likely to be aggressive than other similar size dogs. Most of the rest of the pit bulls euthanized were suffering (0.41%). 0.1% of pit bulls (two dogs) were euthanized “at veterinarian” or for “medical reasons”, but its quite possible these animals were also hopelessly suffering. When you couple this data with the results of a recent study showing severe dog bites did not increase after Austin implemented its no kill plan, it proves shelters can in fact safely adopt out large numbers of pit bull like dogs.

Austin Animal Center Pit Bulls Euthanized Reasons 2018.jpg

Austin Animal Center’s reasons for euthanizing small dogs followed this same pattern. The shelter euthanized no small dogs for aggression and other behavioral reasons. Given small dogs do not pose a serious danger to adult people, this is exactly what we should see at every shelter. Almost all the other small dogs were euthanized for severe medical issues (i.e. suffering, at veterinarian). While two dogs did not have a reason for their euthanasia, its possible they could have been hopelessly suffering.

Austin Animal Center Small Dogs Euthanized Reasons 2018

The shelter also only euthanized other medium to large size dogs for legitimate reasons. Austin Animal Center only euthanized 0.18% of other medium to large size dogs for behavioral related reasons (i.e. aggression, behavior, court/investigation). Even if we add rabies risk and none, Austin Animal Center would have only euthanized 0.22% of all other medium to large size dogs for behavioral reasons. Almost all the rest of the other medium to large size dogs were euthanized for severe medical problems.

Austin Animal Center Other Dogs Euthanized Reasons

Austin Animal Center Limits Cat Euthanasia Primarily to Severe Medical Issues

The table below lists the reasons Austin Animal Center used to euthanize cats in 2018. As you can see, around 90% of the euthanized cats were due to severe medical reasons (i.e. suffering, at veterinarian). While 4% of the euthanized cats and 0.1% of all cats who had outcomes cited “medical”, its possible these were severe medical issues that warranted humane euthanasia. Similarly, Austin Animal Center’s very low numbers of cats euthanized for no documented reason (2 cats, 1% of euthanized cats and 0.03% of all cats who had outcomes) may indicate clerical errors rather than the shelter killing cats for no good reason. Most impressively, Austin Animal Center did not kill a single cat for behavior or aggression or for being underage.

Austin Animal Center also euthanized few cats for rabies risk. As Hound Manor mentioned in its blog, few animals killed for rabies testing end up having the disease. Austin Animal Center euthanized 11 cats (0.18% of all cats who had outcomes) for rabies risk in 2018 compared to 7 cats (0.11% of all cats who had outcomes) in 2017 and 23 cats (0.34% of all cats who had outcomes) reported by Hound Manor in fiscal year 2016.

These statistics indicate Austin Animal Center pretty much only euthanizes hopelessly suffering cats. Given shelters should never kill cats for aggression or behavioral reasons, this is an incredible achievement since Austin Animal Center impounded 6,036 cats during the year who had outcomes.

Austin Animal Center Cats Euthanized Reasons

Austin Animal Center’s Partner Helps the Shelter

Austin Pets Alive has been a major reason the community achieved no kill status. Historically, this organization pulled animals directly from the kill list at Austin Animal Center. In other words, instead of cherry-picking easy to adopt animals like many rescues do, Austin Pets Alive takes on the most difficult animals. As a result of taking on these tough cases and the organization’s strong desire to make Austin no kill, Austin Pets Alive developed and implemented a host of cutting edge programs. Examples, such as dog playgroups, a Canine Good Citizen training and certification program and large scale fostering help save the lives of large dogs that are most likely to lose their lives in shelters. Other programs, such as parvo and ringworm treatment and barn cat placements save vulnerable animals. In addition, Austin Pets Alive’s owner surrender prevention program helps owners keep animals and avoid giving them to Austin Animal Center. Thus, Austin Pets Alive has historically focused on its community to help Austin Animal Center achieve no kill status.

Austin Animal Center is relying less on Austin Pets Alive than in the past. In 2012, when Austin Animal Center first exceeded a 90% live release rate, it sent 29% of its dogs and 51% of its cats to Austin Pets Alive and other shelters and rescues. Last year, it only sent 21% of its dogs and 27% of its cats to Austin Pets Alive and other organizations. As a result, Austin Pets Alive has been able to assist other Texas shelters since its local animal control shelter truly achieved no kill.

Austin Animal Center and Austin Pets Alive Use Many Foster Homes

Austin Animal Center sent 722 dogs, 139 pit bulls, 172 small dogs and 411 other medium to large size dogs to foster homes. Overall, 7% of all dogs went to a foster home after arriving at Austin Animal Center. Unfortunately, we don’t know how many of these were very short-term fosters, such as overnight breaks from the shelter, to determine how much extra capacity all these foster homes created. However, the data indicated virtually all these dogs were in fact eventually adopted either by the people fostering the dog or another person.

Austin Animal Center sent a good number of large dogs into the program. Specifically, significant numbers of both pit bulls and other medium to large size dogs aged four months and older went to foster homes. In other words, people weren’t just fostering cute puppies that the shelter would have quickly adopted out with or without the help of foster homes.

Austin Animal Center Fostered Dogs in 2018

Austin Pets Alive has an even larger dog foster program. According to a presentation made during the 2018 American Pets Alive Conference, Austin pets Alive adopted out 2,300 dogs from foster homes and had 671 active dog foster homes as of September 2017. In addition, Austin Animal Center’s dog and cat foster programs doubled the shelter’s capacity per 2016 data from a presentation at a past Best Friends National Conference. Given fostering dogs can eliminate perceived dog behavior problems, significantly increase a shelter’s capacity to hold animals, reduce sheltering costs and bring in adoption revenues, growing foster programs is a huge priority for many progressive shelters.

APA Dog Foster Program Size

Austin Animal Center also sent many cats to foster homes. Overall, the shelter sent 13% of all cats, 4% of 1+ year old cats, 25% of kittens aged six weeks to just under one year and 5% of kittens under 6 weeks of age to foster homes at some point. While we don’t know how many of these cats were temporary or short-term fosters, the shelter ultimately adopted out nearly every single one of these animals.

Austin Animal Center Cats Sent to Foster 2018

Austin Pets Alive has an even larger cat foster program. According to a presentation at the 2018 American Pets Alive Conference, Austin Pets Alive places thousands of cats each year in over 650 foster homes. Thus, both Austin Animal Center and Austin Pets Alive, which focuses on making sure Austin Animal Center achieves the highest live release rates, have huge cat foster programs.

APA Cat Foster Program Size

No Kill Culture Raises Lifesaving to New Heights

While Austin Animal Center has attained very high live release rates, local no kill advocates continue to raise the bar. Certainly, Austin Pets Alive has created innovative and groundbreaking programs to save the animals people previously believed were destined for euthanasia. Similarly, the Final Frontier Rescue Project has been advocating for the few remaining dogs being euthanized at Austin Animal Center. In addition, this group rescues many of the most challenging dogs (i.e. the last 1%-2% at risk of losing their lives) Therefore, the no kill movement in Austin continues to improve and pressure Austin Animal Center to do better.

That being said, Austin Animal Center is not perfect. The shelter lost three of its shelter directors in the last couple of years. Additionally, there is no doubt that room for improvement exists.

Austin Sets a New Bar for Lifesaving

Austin Animal Center has continued to improve over the years. While Austin Animal Center benefited from having an amazing rescue oriented shelter, Austin Pets Alive, help, Austin Animal Center has really stepped up its game. You can see some of the innovative programs, such as progressive animal control, breed neutral adoption policies, a large scale foster network, innovative social media use and a huge and effective use of volunteers in this story. As a result of these efforts, Austin Animal Center has effectively limited euthanasia to hopelessly suffering animals and dogs that are truly dangerous.

While Austin Animal Center’s success is hard to match, the animal control shelter serving the area just to the north, Williamson County Animal Shelter, also is extremely successful. Despite having a significantly smaller budget per animal than Austin Animal Center (approximately 50% less after adding an estimated $200 per animal to Williamson County Animal Shelter’s budget for animal sheltering only) and receiving less rescue support for both dogs (Austin Animal Center: 21% of outcomes; Williamson County Animal Shelter: 7% of outcomes) and cats (Austin Animal Center: 27% of outcomes; Williamson County Animal Shelter: 5% of outcomes), Williamson County Animal Shelter came close to reaching Austin Animal Center’s live release rates for dogs (Austin Animal Center: 98.8%; Williamson County Animal Shelter: 98.1%) and cats (Austin Animal Center: 95.6%; Williamson County Animal Shelter: 92.0%).

Williamson County Animal Shelter also had very impressive adoption numbers. While Austin Animal Center’s per capita adoption rates of 3.9 dogs and 2.5 cats per 1,000 people are good, Williamson County Animal Shelter’s per capita adoption rates of 4.9 dogs and 4.7 cats per 1,000 people are even higher. This is reflected in the Williamson County Animal Shelter’s short average length of stay figures (dogs: 8.8 days, cats: 11.6 days).

The key point is that Austin Animal Center is not unique. Since an animal shelter taking in 6,371 dogs and cats in fiscal year 2018 (i.e. almost as many animals as the largest New Jersey animal shelter) next door to Austin can achieve similar success, this proves Austin Animal Center was not taking homes away from animals in nearby areas. If anything, Austin’s animal shelters and Williamson County Animal Shelter likely spurred innovation at facilities in both communities through raising standards and learning from each other.

New Jersey animal control shelters can achieve similar success. In 2017, Associated Humane Societies, New Jersey’s largest animal sheltering organization, took in an estimated $1,194 of revenue per dog and cat impounded based on the Associated Humane Societies June 30, 2017 Form 990 and its reported animal intake during 2017. As a comparison, Austin Animal Center had a budget of $884 per dog and cat and Williamson County Animal Shelter only had a budget of $463 per dog and cat and $538 of total revenue per dog and cat after adding $200 per dog and cat for animal control services (shelter does not pick up animals). Thus, New Jersey’s largest animal welfare organization takes in more money per dog and cat yet its Newark facility is high kill and had horrific state health department inspection reports.

Clearly, shelters like Austin Animal Center and Williamson County Animal Shelter prove most animal control shelters can achieve high live release rates and attain real no kill status (i.e. only euthanize hopelessly suffering and truly dangerous dogs). The time for excuses has stopped and its now time for action.

No Kill Success is Contagious

Recently Merritt Clifton argued Reno, Nevada’s no kill success came at the expense of surrounding communities. According to Mr. Clifton, the region’s open admission shelter stole adoptions from nearby areas resulting in little net life saving. Clifton used Nevada’s mediocre adoption rate outside the Reno area as the basis for his argument. Is Clifton correct or is this yet another one of Clifton’s meritless arguments? Alternatively, can successful no kill open admission shelters cause other nearby communities to save more lives?

Nevada’s Population Distribution Refutes Clifton’s Claims

Nevada’s primary population centers outside the service area of the Reno, Nevada shelter are very far away. Approximately 86% of Nevada’s population outside the Reno, Nevada shelter’s service area in Washoe County reside in the county where Las Vegas is located. Las Vegas is approximately 450 miles away and around a 7 hour drive from Reno. This is as about as far as Elizabeth City, North Carolina and Ottawa, Canada are from New York City. Do people believe adopters in New York City are regularly visiting shelters in North Carolina and Ottawa, Canada? As a result, Clifton’s argument is completely wrong.

The Las Vegas area’s primary shelter has a history of poor performance and depresses statewide adoption numbers. Recent statistics show roughly half of the shelter’s 40,000 impounded animals were killed. This high kill rate is even more astonishing given Washoe County, Nevada’s open admission shelter takes in nearly 80% more animals per capita and saves 90% of its animals. Thus, Nevada’s other primary shelter performs poorly and that is the reason for the state’s mediocre adoption rate.

Shelters Near the Highly Successful Reno, Nevada Shelter Are Doing Well

Several large shelters within reasonable driving distance of Reno, Nevada are succeeding. The Out the Front Door blog reports Carson City, Nevada’s open admission shelter is doing very well and is in the nearest large population center to Reno. Additionally, Douglas County, Nevada is another reasonably close population center and its open admission shelter saved 98% of its animals. Furthermore, Nevada County, California, which is one of the closest large communities west of Reno, saved 99% of its impounded animals over the last three years. Therefore, open admission shelters reasonably close to Washoe County, Nevada’s highly successful shelter are saving and not taking lives.

Austin, Texas’s Success Leads to More Nearby No Kill Communities

Austin, Texas is the largest no kill community in the country and several nearby cities are also saving lives. Austin, Texas has been a no kill community since 2011 and saved from 91%-95% of its animals each year since then. Shortly after Austin, Texas became a no kill community, Williamson County Regional Animal Shelter, which serves Williamson County, Texas and is located just north of Austin, achieved no kill status. Despite taking in nearly 7,500 animals a year, dogs and cats only stay 11 and 15 days at the shelter. Taylor, Texas, which is just northeast of Austin, saved 93% of its animals in 2012. Pflugerville, Texas, which is also located in the Austin metro area, saved 98% of its animals in 2012 despite the city prohibiting trap, neuter, release. Georgetown, Texas, which is also just north of Austin, saved 85-90% of its animals in recent years. San Antonio, Texas, which is about a 1 hour and 20 minute drive from Austin, recently reported an 81% save rate, which is up from 32% in 2011, and a 90% live release for cats in March and April 2014. This shelter services an area of 1.3 million people and took in over 32,000 animals during fiscal year 2013. Kirby, Texas, which is also in the San Antonio metro area, saved 94% of its animals in 2013. Thus, the success of Austin’s no kill effort led to high save rates in many other nearby communities.

Animal Ark Inspires Positive Change in Minnesota

Animal Ark’s high level of success led to significant improvements in nearby large cities. Animal Ark, which is located in Hastings, Minnesota, has an adoption guarantee arrangement with a local impound facility where Animal Ark takes animals not reclaimed by owners. Also, Animal Ark accepts owner surrenders subject to a waiting list. Animal Ark saved 99% of its 700 impounded dogs and cats in 2013 and takes in about 16 dogs and cats per 1000 people. Additionally, the shelter reports a length of stay of just over a month. Animal Ark’s short average length of stay is impressive given virtually all animals were adopted and no animals were reclaimed by their owners, which tend to have very short lengths of stay, due to the local impound facility holding animals during the stray/hold period. Also, Animal Ark gets its animals quickly out of the shelter despite it likely needing to rehabilitate relatively more animals due to the organization’s very high 99% save rate. The shelter’s director, Mike Fry, is a vocal no kill advocate and argues for positive change in Minnesota and beyond. Recently, Brooklyn Park, Minnesota’s Pets Under Police Security (“PUPS”) shelter reported a 98% save rate. Similarly, St. Paul, Minnesota’s animal control facility reported a 90% + save rate recently as well. Additionally, Minneapolis’s animal control shelter, which has a sordid history, recently hired new management and pledged to change its ways. As a result, Animal Ark’s success adopting out animals has not hurt, but helped nearby shelters.

San Francisco Area Success

San Francisco has a long history of no kill initiatives. In the 1990’s, Richard Avanzino, who now leads Maddie’s Fund, and Nathan Winograd nearly made San Francisco the nation’s first no kill community. During this time, innovative programs, such as an adoption guarantee agreement with the city’s animal control shelter and frequent off-site adoption events, were developed. Unfortunately, the city regressed after both men left the San Francisco SPCA.

The no kill spirit lives on in the San Francisco area and success is being achieved. Based on 2013 reported statistics, San Francisco Animal Care and Control and the San Francisco SPCA collectively reported an 85% save rate for local animals assuming all negative outcomes were for San Francisco animals. Berkeley, California, which is located on the other side of San Francisco Bay, saved 90% of its animals in 2013. Alameida, California, which also is on San Francisco Bay, reported a save rate of 91% in 2013. Thus, communities in the San Francisco Bay area are saving animals at a high rate despite their close proximity to each other.

Boulder, Colorado Region Shelters Save Lives

Open admission shelters in the Boulder, Colorado area are saving their animals at a high rate. Longmont Humane Society, which serves several communities in the Boulder area, saved 93% of the 3,536 dogs and cats impounded in 2013. The nearby Humane Society of Boulder County, which took in 7,669 animals in 2013, reported a save rate of 89% in 2013 (91% if owner requested euthanasia are excluded). The Humane Society of Platte Valley, which is also located in the same metropolitan area, saved 94% of its 1,475 dogs and cats impounded in 2012. Thus, large open admission shelters in close proximity to each other in Colorado are saving animals at a high rate.

Successful No Kill Communities Can Drive Significant Positive Change Elsewhere

No kill communities drive positive change elsewhere directly and indirectly. Successful no kill open admission shelters can directly help nearby communities by rescuing animals. However, these no kill communities help much more by inspiring and/or pressuring poorly performing shelters to improve. The following quote sums it up perfectly:

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

By changing another shelter’s policies, you can save far more animals than you could rescue directly. The animals you can rescue is limited to your shelter’s excess physical space and foster homes. However, by improving other shelters’ policies you can help far more animals. For example, consider a shelter with a 100 animals and 10% excess capacity due to efficient life saving programs. This shelter would be able to directly pull 10 animals. However, what happens if that successful shelter’s efforts were replicated by two other similar sized shelters and the euthanasia rate dropped from 50% to 10%? The successful shelter would save 80 or 8 times as many animals by getting other shelters to do the right thing verses pulling animals directly. Thus, no kill communities can dramatically increase life saving by getting other communities to do the same.

Creating no kill communities, promoting your success, offering help to other communities, and challenging those shelters who refuse to do the right thing are key to saving the most lives. Austin Pets Alive is a great example of an organization leading its community to no kill and helping others do the same. In early 2012, Austin Pets Alive formed a new organization, San Antonio Pets Alive, to help San Antonio achieve no kill status. Subsequently, San Antonio’s live release rate increased from 31% to 81%. In most cases, poorly performing shelters are reluctant to change their ways. In these cases, more vocal advocacy, such as what Animal Ark has done in Minnesota, is needed. Such advocacy does the following:

  1. Puts direct pressure on government run shelters (and private organizations who operate government owned shelters through short term contracts) to improve through political pressure on elected officials
  2. Puts financial pressure on private shelters as donors become more informed and demand their money be efficiently used to save lives

Unfortunately, the animal welfare community generally prefers unity even when many shelters are clearly doing the wrong thing. At the very least, successful shelters should publicize their statistics and success. This puts subtle pressure on the under performing facilities to do the same. However, vocal advocacy and comparing and contrasting their shelter’s performance with poorly performing facilities who refuse to change is needed. While private citizens can advocate for change, the credibility of advocates is much greater when a reputable animal welfare organization is leading the effort. Thus, we need successful no kill communities and their animal welfare organizations to inspire, assist, advocate and pressure other communities to save lives.

Sometimes you need to fight for what you believe in. Saving lives is certainly one of those fights you should take one.