Austin collaboration delivers big wins for cats
Moving rescue roadblocks out of the way doesn’t have to be a solitary enterprise. On the contrary, collaboration between government agencies and nonprofit groups can facilitate a consensus about the problems facing animals in your community. One example is the collaboration between Austin Animal Center (AAC), Austin Pets Alive! (APA!) and Austin Humane Society (AHS) that has been changing outcomes for cats for more than a decade.
“Our three agencies—as well as myriad other organizations in the area—are committed to adoptions, but in addition to that, everyone has their own piece in Austin,” says Katie Luke Broaddus, DVM, chief operations officer at AHS, which she says is also known for doing trap-neuter-return (TNR). “It has been a good setup for us to divide and conquer when it comes to cat issues.”
Implementing TNR and shelter-neuter-return (SNR)
TNR and SNR have been in place for so long in Austin that they no longer cause controversy. Well, very little controversy anyway. That’s good news for other agencies eager to add what should be a fundamental pair of programs to their roster of community services.
“We do get some pushback from the community, such as if a cat gets hit by car or becomes ill after being returned,” says Jason Garza, deputy chief animal services officer for AAC, which works closely with AHS on the two programs. “We can’t predict what happens in the life of that cat, though we have put in several fail safes addressing some of the public’s concerns.”
Those include a veterinary evaluation at AAC determine if each cat is healthy and appears to be taken care of and a second medical check at AHS to catch any change in the cat’s condition.
“We want to be sure we are only putting healthy animals back into the community,” Jason says. “When AHS staff or volunteers return the cats, they also assess the situation. If it appears too dangerous for the cat or does not seem like it’s where they were living, they can choose not to return them.”
“AHS also microchips all SNR cats, which provides some means for follow-up feedback if cats are found injured, return to AAC with injuries or are taken to a local veterinary clinic,” Katie says. “It has been our experience that very few of these chipped cats in the nine years of the program have been reported as having been found severely injured.”
“The whole process is as transparent as we can make it, and we tweak things as necessary,” Jason adds. “If we get any pushback at all, it’s really around SNR. It’s harder for volunteers to accept returning a friendly cat once people have had a chance to interact with that cat in the shelter.”
“I get where rescue groups are coming from,” agrees Ellen Jefferson, DVM, executive director for both APA! and American Pets Alive! “It used to be that these cats were much safer on the streets than in a shelter. Now that we are above a 95% save rate, healthy cats that go to the shelter are safe. People ask, “If there are homes for them, why are we putting them back on the streets?” I’m 100% bought-in that we should be putting them back into their neighborhoods to increase likelihood of reuniting with an owner, but we need to evaluate the safety and efficacy of our programs based on today’s reality.”
Katie says AHS runs into the most challenges with feral kittens that fall within the seven to 12-week age range.
Some folks in the community have expressed concern about returning kittens to the field, and I understand their perspective,” she says. “We do not put young kittens through SNR if they are under six months unless the city shelter is over capacity and they’re at risk of euthanasia. We still grapple with what’s the best answer for those kittens that are too old to tame but are under the six-month age requirement.”
Caring for Kittens
Though a “leave kittens in place” campaign can cut down on the numbers of underage kittens and orphaned neonates coming into any shelter, they still comprise the population most likely to die. AAC has long moved such kittens into other agencies for care and placement, with APA! taking most of the neonates since 2009.
"AHS cares for about 1,500 neonatal kittens each year, most of which come directly from the community and cat trappers that never pass through AAC,” Katie says.
“The shelter checks with other rescues and its own foster base first. If they can’t find placement, then we take them,” says Ellen. “The kittens typically go into our nursery for a few days so we can do their intake exam and wellness check, and make sure they are healthy and gaining weight before going to foster.”
With the pandemic, however, APA! has changed its process—and reaped some unexpected rewards.
“Now they go straight to fosters, who are trained over Zoom,” Ellen says. “And we’ve seen a positive impact on the mortality rate. It used to be around 85%, but now it’s up well over 90%. If you include moms with babies in those figures, we are seeing a 97% survival rate. We plan to keep the direct-to-foster system in place.”
To solve the problem of having its fosters get jammed up holding weaned kittens, AHS reduced its adoption age to six weeks about eight years ago—a practice that is legal in Texas, though it varies by state.
“They are super adorable at that age and that’s two fewer weeks that the shelter must provide care,” Katie says. “Ten years ago, we did not put singletons together because of disease, but we pair those up now as long as they are deemed healthy by our veterinary team. That’s better for their socialization and reduces the need for so many foster homes and single housing units.”
While ringworm is no big deal to vets in private practice, in shelters it can be catastrophic. Once they were given the chance, however, volunteers stepped up to take over the treatment of ringworm cats at AAC. Such cats are also going into foster and getting adopted in Austin and other cities around the country.
“Our philosophy is that if someone is in love with an animal let’s break down the barriers to getting it into a home,” Jason says. “We’ll set you up with six months of meds if we need to.”
The same argument can be made for cats with renal disease, thyroid problems or an FeLV or FIV diagnosis, Ellen says.
“Detractors assume that the public will be unhappy; that it’s not fair to give problems to people. That’s pretty common thinking and it’s our job to change it.”
Making change happen
Breaking down resistance to new ideas is easier if shelters and rescues are a unified front. Ellen says the key is to keep up a dialogue and create mutual expectations.
“The more that has been discussed and is in writing, the easier it is to have conversations later when things go wrong,” she says. “We are always striving to define what we mean by ‘too dangerous’ or ‘irredeemable suffering’ because having shared definitions prevents us from operating out of personal preference instead of shared ideology. It helps people from getting stuck and operating out of defensiveness or offensiveness rather than out of a shared aspiration for knowing the truth.”
Does your agency want to become roadblock-free? Find out more about how you can take the challenge here.
Lee Ann Shenefiel
South Central Regional Director
Best Friends Animal Society