We’ve heard Lord Chesterfield’s quote, “Whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well.” This certainly seems to be the motto of Dr. Ellen Jefferson, executive director of Austin Pets Alive!, an animal welfare and rescue organization in Austin, TX, and her band of volunteers, advocates and supporters. Further, if Austin Pets Alive!’s story is any indication, the path to doing well can require “blood, sweat and tears.”
You see, making a large, mushrooming city like Austin no-kill doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, it took 14 years to reach this goal. Since 2011, Austin has held the distinction of the largest city in the United States to be no-kill with an annual save rate of more than 90%, which is considered the benchmark for “no-kill.”
Austin Pets Alive! (APA!) was started in 1997 by an attorney who envisioned making Austin a no-kill city by 2001. However, by 2008 when Dr. Jefferson, a veterinarian, came on board as the executive director, a volunteer position at the time, the organization was foundering. There just wasn’t the support from the city and residents that was needed to knock down the walls (forget roadblocks).
Dr. Jefferson says vet school didn’t prepare her for what she would see happening in animal shelters, nor that there was so much need in animal welfare. After college, when she volunteered at animal shelters in Austin, she was shocked to see the number of pets that were being euthanized.
It was this eye-opening experience that led to her decision to find ways to decrease the number of animals entering shelters.
In 1999 Dr. Jefferson founded Emancipet, a nonprofit, low-cost spay/neuter and veterinary care clinic in Austin, to reduce the number of animals going into the shelters. However, she eventually realized that what she was doing still wasn’t enough. The killings were continuing.
In 2007 more than 14,000 puppies, kittens, cats and dogs were being killed in the city shelter, she says. She points out that she uses the word ‘kill’ over ‘euthanize’ to emphasize what’s really happening: the taking of a life unnecessarily. (Dr. Jefferson is no longer affiliated with Emancipet, which now has several locations, mainly in Texas.)
APA!’s New Beginning
In 1997 when APA! was conceived, Austin’s city shelter killed 85% of the animals they impounded, more than 20,000 innocent beings. By 2008 when Dr. Jefferson joined APA!, the kill rate was down to 55%, a rate that was stagnated for several years. However, the city was growing which meant the actual numbers of deaths were growing, as well.
She started her work at APA! with 12 volunteers, no facility and very little funding. She explains that they were saving lives by going to the city shelter every night and pulling as many of the animals listed to be killed the next morning as they could find foster homes to take them. That first year they saved 457 animals.
Austin’s save rate in 2008 ended up being 55% (a 45% kill rate). By comparison, in 2017 the save rate was 99.72%! Since 2008, APA! has saved 50,000 animals.
In 2010, APA! rented a retail space for a kennel facility, which they occupied for three years. In 2012 when the city moved its shelter to a new location, APA! lobbied for the vacated shelter. Eventually, they were able to move their operation into the larger campus-like property.
“It’s been a series of big obstacles trying to get the city shelter to appreciate APA!, “ Dr. Jefferson points out. “We struggled to get the city shelter to work with us and get onboard with the no-kill concept. The city council came onboard first.”
“The current shelter director is fantastic to work with and is onboard with no-kill,” she notes.
Dr. Jefferson goes on to list some of the many major obstacles APA! faced: with the state veterinary board, fighting state legislation, not receiving much support from grants…getting mostly small donations, instead.
She says frankly of APA!’s early days, “We didn’t know what to do or how to take the city from kill to no-kill. We had to learn as we went. I’m proud of our team, the community and the city. We’ve come together, but it was difficult to get here.”
“We still have more to do,” she quickly adds.
APA! as Role Model
Under Dr. Jefferson’s leadership, APA! has become a noted force in the no-kill movement. Twelve Camacho, co-founder of Foster Army Animal Rescue (FAAR), says that ever since his co-founding partner, Kimberlee Powell, first attended APA!’s annual educational conference, American Pets Alive!, they were inspired to start FAAR.
“We feel they’re the leaders in the no-kill movement. We like APA!’s approach to saving animals’ lives,” he says. “The biggest influence for us has been that APA! looks for the animals with diseases and imperfections that cause them to not be adopted, and to be killed.”
Leslie Holzrichter, FAAR’s volunteer executive director, adds that she likes APA!’s philosophy to treat the treatable and do the best they can to keep every animal alive.
When she attended American Pets Alive! in 2017, she was able to tour APA!’s shelter campus. She notes that APA! not only has a vet clinic, but has programs and units dedicated to caring for the various needs and diseases animals would have, including a parvo ICU to which the public can bring their dogs with parvo for treatment.
Holzrichter and Camacho both see APA! and Dr. Jefferson as role models for FAAR, a small, young organization that is currently where APA! was not so many years ago.
Dr. Jefferson’s advice to no-kill advocates building animal welfare or rescue organizations? Put equal emphasis on fundraising and programming…they go hand-in-hand, can’t have one without the other. Further, an organization won’t be taken seriously unless it has money, can prove that it’s sustainable, and has solid goals.
“Politics are important, too,” she states. “Governments care about what citizens care about and vice versa. If animals aren’t a high priority of the citizens, they won’t be a high priority of the governments.”
Many people who care about the welfare of animals continually talk about how horrible the problems are and criticize cities and their animal shelters. But as Dr. Jefferson points out, “It’s not enough to talk about what the problems are. Organizations need to inform the public about the problems, but also must have a plan for what needs to be done to solve the problems. Then take the lead to get it done.”
She concludes, “Don’t give up. Millions of times I thought about it, but keep trying. You’re on the right side of this, animals need your voices and support. Keep going. It does get better.”
For seven years, thanks to Austin Pets Alive!, with the support of Maddie’s Fund, Austin has claimed the title of “largest no-kill city in the United States.” However, Los Angeles, the second-largest city in the country, with the help of Best Friends Animal Society, has been on a path to no-kill for five plus years and has reported that its save rate for 2017 was 90.4%, just above the benchmark for no-kill status.
If Austin with a population of 947,890 (2016) can do it, and Los Angeles with a population of 3,976,000 (2016) can do it, why can’t Riverside with a population of 324,722 (2016) do it? This is the burning question asked by the leaders of Foster Army Animal Rescue. Now is the time to get it done!