* This originally ran in The Austin Post on Nov. 13, 2011*
Saturday morning marked the official opening of the new Austin Animal Center (AAC) at its East Austin location.
“This facility is a new beginning for animal welfare in Austin,” said Abigail Smith, Chief Animal Services Officer. “We hope the center is trendsetting for the rest of the country.”
The $12 million facility was approved in 2006 as a bond election by taxpayers. It spans 41,400 square feet of space, which includes 40 canine townhomes and 10 cat rooms with screened-in porches. The animal areas have memorable monikers such as Divine Doghouse and Fraidy Cats. The fun names even extend to the human restrooms, which are labeled Tom Cats and Queen Cats.
Carolyn Schoenemann has volunteered at the shelter since 2003 and sits on the board of directors for the Friends of Austin Animal Center, a non-profit that raises money for AAC. She praised the new facility’s comfortable atmosphere, and said it makes the animals appear more adoptable.
“I think this place will give these pets more perceived value,” Schoenemann said. “They’re not just ‘pound dogs’ here.”
Other volunteers applauded the shelter’s design.
“I love what the new facility does for the dogs,” said Amy Krause, a two-year veteran of shelter volunteering. “The dog area is a lot quieter and more peaceful here than the previous facility. I think its setup will change the way volunteers interact with the dogs to encourage better leash manners and other behaviors that will make them more adoptable.”
In March 2010, the Austin City Council approved a No-Kill Implementation Plan. By February 2011, Austin achieved the rare status of no-kill, meaning more than 90 percent of the animals entering the shelter left it alive. The city has maintained and even surpassed the no-kill threshold since February, which led Austin City Council Member Laura Morrison to say the new shelter can truly be seen as “transitional housing”.
Despite this landmark achievement, there are groups that want to close the gap and get closer to a 100 percent live outcome at the shelter.
Hard Luck Hounds is one of them.
The group focuses on the dogs that have the hardest time finding adopters. Usually this is because they are older, less “cute”, or have significant health or behavioral issues.
David Pasztor has volunteered at the shelter for five years, and started Hard Luck Hounds in September with the goal of using old-fashioned customer service and post-purchase support to increase the adoptability of “the last ten percent.” Each Hard Luck Hound has a waived adoption fee, and comes with a free crate and wellness exam. After taking their new pet home, adopters can call a Hard Luck Hounds volunteer and ask questions about training, behavior or any other issues they are having.
“One of the byproducts of Austin’s no-kill success is we end up having dogs that stay at the shelter for a very long time,” Pasztor said. “These are the dogs that would have been deemed unadoptable and euthanized before the no-kill plan began. They are also the dogs that rescue groups have chosen not to pull from the shelter.”
During AAC‘s busy weekend business hours, Pasztor and his team of Hard Luck Hounds volunteers can be seen approaching customers and drawing their attention toward the dogs that might otherwise be overlooked. They tell each dog’s story and are honest about the problems each pet has.
Their tactics seem to be working.
Since they started less than three months ago, the group has successfully placed 15 dogs in homes. The fact that these dogs would have previously been seen as unadoptable makes this achievement significant, Pasztor said.
On its first day of operation, AAC placed 39 animals in adoptive homes. With a committed group of staff, volunteers and partners such as Hard Luck Hounds, the shelter’s continued success in the no-kill movement seems guaranteed.