CITY'S ONCE-TROUBLED ANIMAL SHELTER EXPERIENCES 'NO-KILL' JOY
Posted January 3, 2018 4:51 p.m. EST
As recently as three years ago, Houston's animal shelter put down half of the dogs and cats that came through its doors in a busy month.
Now, five times in the last year alone, the city's Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care finished a month having euthanized fewer than 10 percent of the animals it took in, achieving, at least momentarily, the coveted "no-kill" label that animal rights activists have sought for years.
BARC is a rare bureaucratic success story, having evolved over the last decade from an embarrassment for city leaders and the cause of outright rage among animal activists to a broadly respected facility that has managed to get ever-increasing numbers of animals into the hands of rescue groups or new owners.
The shelter's progress even led City Council to increase its budget by $2.6 million a few years ago to help answer more of the 55,000 calls citizens place to BARC each year.
Now, shelter leaders and their nonprofit partners confront a once-unthinkable milestone: Could Houston's pound achieve "no kill" status?
BARC Director Greg Damianoff says he doesn't dwell on the question, noting the 30,000 animals his employees take in annually, regardless how aggressive or sick they may be.
"Sometimes we get an abundance of things that are more adoptable than at other times. It's not like in the private sector where you can say, 'I want more of those cute little, fluffy dogs,'" he said. "At the end of the day, we just try to get out as many as we can."
Still, Damianoff and Ashtyn Rivet, the facility's deputy assistant director, are numbers people. They know what has gotten them to this point and what it will take to push the live release rate above the 90 percent "no kill" standard.
"Our rescue partners have played a major role in how far we've come thus far and will continue to play a role in continuing to increase those live release numbers," Rivet said.
Chief among those partners is Rescued Pets Movement, a local nonprofit that gets $75 in city money for every animal it takes from BARC and relocates, often out of state, to a foster group or a new home. The group has handled more than 22,000 animals for BARC during their roughly four-year partnership.
A key reason for BARC's low kill rate in recent months, Rivet added, is a burgeoning partnership with Houston Pets Alive! and its more established cousin, Austin Pets Alive!, a group that was instrumental in helping that city achieve no-kill status several years ago.
That nonprofit has taken 975 animals from BARC since August, only 14 percent of which were in good health. Avoiding having to put down ill animals will be a key way to further boost BARC's live release rate, Rivet said.
Andrea Birkelbach, the executive director of Houston Pets Alive!, said her group's core mission is to help Houston reach no-kill status.
"We save only from the euthanasia list so there is no duplication of effort with any other group or the shelters themselves," Birkelbach said. "Our programs are built to address what the shelter needs to reach no-kill rather than built for what we want to save. That is an important difference and what makes HPA! unique."
Councilman Robert Gallegos, whose Eastside district struggles with strays, spent district funds to help animal welfare group Emancipet get established in his area. He also adopted an adult yellow labrador retriever from BARC a few years ago rather than one of its puppies to ensure the older dog wouldn't be put down.
Still, Gallegos said the city must balance a push for no-kill status with enforcement - ticketing people who let their dogs run free and addressing citizens' safety concerns by rounding up strays - even if that means more dogs facing an uncertain future in the pound.
"They're doing a great job getting to the point where they're releasing a lot more dogs, but I still feel like we need to do a better job of enforcement," he said. "It's a tough balance of trying to do the right thing - I want to save them - but then again, you've got residents out there who are, rightfully so, concerned."
One factor in BARC's rising live release rate has been an upward trend in adoptions, thanks in part to the completion of a new facility - funded with city dollars and donations from the recently formed Houston BARC Foundation - that keeps families seeking a new pet separate from those surrendering their pets to the pound in a cramped, noisy concrete dome.
'Right on the cusp'
Ryan Clinton, an Austin lawyer and animal rights activist, said getting Houston to no-kill status almost certainly will require a more robust volunteer foster home network and a program to bottle-feed kittens too young to survive without their mothers; often those are among the animals euthanized the quickest, and those saved last when cities approach no-kill status.
"Most shelters, unless they're willing to go to the public to help, don't have the labor capacity to save them by themselves," said Clinton, who has fostered a handful of kittens at a time in his home in the past, setting his alarm every few hours to feed them. "It's hard work, but it's really rewarding because they get adopted so easily at the end of the process."
To Clinton's list, Birkelbach added the need for a medical triage unit, a ringworm ward, a dog behavior program and other efforts aimed at groups of animals that need to improve in some way before being adoptable.
"That is all that has been missing in the animal welfare ecosystem in Houston," she said. "We provide that missing piece and then adopt them out."
Clinton said he would not be surprised to see Houston attain the no-kill label faster than activists thought possible several years ago.
"The last couple things tend to be much harder and labor intensive. But Houston should be proud," he said. "I think you're right on the cusp of seeing some amazing things happening there."