No Kill? No Problem!

Story at-a-glance -

  • In 2008, Austin Pets Alive! began rescuing animals with the simple but “impossible” goal of saving every shelter pet in the city from euthanasia
  • The effort began with no funding and no facility, only foster homes and a daily list of animals scheduled for euthanasia at the city shelter
  • Within a short time, shelter staff and volunteers had secured a facility and created programs to treat and find homes for at-risk shelter populations, including orphaned kittens, pets with infectious diseases, large dogs with behavior problems and even feral cats
  • Today, thanks largely to the work of Austin Pets Alive!, the city of Austin has achieved a 98 percent or greater live release rate, making them the largest “No-Kill City” in the country
  • The shelter holds a yearly conference and will soon be opening a training academy to provide help, support and resources to shelters across the U.S. that want to become part of the no-kill movement

By Dr. Becker

Today I'm in Austin, Texas with Monica Frenden of Austin Pets Alive!, what I consider the gold standard of no-kill animal shelters.

Monica and I met about 20 years ago when she was a client at my Chicago-area veterinary practice. I was heartbroken when in 2012 she moved away and settled in Austin. Monica has been doing rescue work forever, and while she takes in any animal who needs help, her passion has always been feral cats.

'Beacon of Light' in the Animal Sheltering Industry

In Chicago, Monica worked with another no-kill shelter, PAWS Chicago, and I wanted to know what made her decide to sign up with Austin Pets Alive! once she made the move to Texas. She replied that this particular shelter has been involved in cutting-edge programs to save animals' lives for a long time.

She was familiar with the Austin shelter from her rescue work in Illinois, and in fact had begun to implement some of Austin Pets Alive!'s programs at the Chicago shelter.

"When I moved down to Austin," explains Monica, "this was the beacon of light. If you want to save every animal and you want to do things that are cutting edge and progressive and really make a difference, this is where you want to be in the Austin community. I started here immediately upon moving into Austin."

Goal: Find a Foster Home for Every Pet on the Daily Euthanasia List

Austin Pets Alive! was started in 2008. At the time, the executive director, Dr. Ellen Jefferson, was involved in a high-volume community-wide spay and neuter campaign. Unfortunately, euthanasia at the city shelter didn't decrease at the rate she thought it should by implementing the spay/neuter program.

So since her goal was to get as many animals as possible out of the city shelter alive, Jefferson launched Austin Pets Alive!. It was a brand new concept in sheltering. She began requesting a daily euthanasia list from the city shelter.

Back in 2008, Austin Pets Alive! was run by Jefferson and a handful of friends. There was no funding, no organization and no shelter facility — nothing. The effort was entirely foster-based. Volunteers walked the kennels and condos at the city shelter every night, euthanasia list in hand.

They made calls to potential foster homes as they walked the shelter, finding out who could take animals scheduled to die at 8:00 pm that evening, and who could take pets scheduled to die at 8:00 am the next morning. The volunteers could only take an animal out of the shelter if they had a foster home for it.

Goal: Secure a Facility and Set Up a Shelter

That was the first step in getting animals out of the city shelter alive. Next came the first shelter facility, which was in an empty warehouse space Jefferson and her volunteers turned into a makeshift shelter. Once they had a facility, they were able to rescue animals from the city shelter on a larger scale. Monica explains:

"Imperative to the mission was getting that euthanasia list every single night so we could identify who exactly was at risk, as we didn't want to replicate the efforts of other shelters. If another rescue group wanted to come in and take X, Y and Z animals, we didn't want to replicate that.

We're focusing strictly on who is at immediate risk, and getting him out the door alive."

They took over their current facility, which had housed the city shelter for over a half century, in 2012. The city shelter relocated and allowed Austin Pets Alive! to use their vacated facility, because by 2012, the city recognized that Austin Pets Alive! was critical in the effort to make Austin a "No-Kill City."

"The city very much needed us for the special programs we've started," says Monica. This month marks the six-year anniversary of Austin's first achieving "No-Kill" status. In recent months, the city has achieved a 98 percent or greater live release rate, making them the largest "No-Kill City" in the country.

Having once worked in a kill shelter, I'm aware that many of them simply don't believe it's possible to operate a no-kill facility.

"Our city shelter told us the same thing," says Monica. "It can't be done. It's a lovely thought but it can't be done. Yet, here we are six years later, doing it."

Goal: Create Programs to Treat Sick Animals so They, Too, Can Be Adopted

I asked Monica to discuss how Austin Pets Alive! goes about finding forever homes for the least adoptable pets. She explained that in reviewing the city shelter's euthanasia lists to identify animals at risk, it quickly became obvious there are certain groups that are always at risk.

One such group is cats and kittens with ringworm. As Monica explains, "Ringworm has never killed anyone, but it spreads like wildfire in a shelter. In most shelters in the country, pets with ringworm are euthanized." So they knew they needed a program to get that group of cats out of the city shelter alive.

"Born from that was our ringworm treatment program and ringworm adoption center," says Monica, "which is a dedicated facility where we treat cats with ringworm. They either go into foster homes or they come to our dedicated facility to be treated, which takes a couple months on average. Then they get adopted.

You end up with a perfectly beautiful, adoptable animal — often a kitten, which is one of the most easily adoptable animals in the world. It made no sense to us that kittens with ringworm should be euthanized for a harmless fungus. The fix was easy."

There are many similar programs created at Austin Pets Alive! to deal with high-risk populations of shelter animals. Another example is cats with feline leukemia (FeLV). They, too, are continually at risk in most shelters across the country.

"We identified a program to help them," says Monica. "We bring them in, treat them medically and find them forever homes. It's possible to adopt out FeLV cats. We do it every day."

Another example is puppies with parvovirus. Monica explains:

"We created a parvo ICU ward where we can treat puppies with parvo and do it affordably. When they're cured, they get adopted. Highly adoptable puppies come out of the parvo ICU ward. The easiest thing in the world to adopt out is a little puppy."

Goal: Create Programs to Rehabilitate Pets With Behavior Issues

Austin Pets Alive! has also assembled a behavior team to rehabilitate dogs with behavior issues. It's one of the shelter's biggest programs, and it was created to address large dogs with behavior problems — one of the populations of at-risk animals least likely to come out of a shelter alive.

"We had to create a very vigorous program to train those dogs," says Monica, "and get them ready for good homes. We had to get them canine good citizen certified, prepare them for life in the community and to be good stewards of the community."

The shelter also has a cat behavior program in which a volunteer behaviorist works with cats and their families to keep them in the home if they're having behavior problems. Cats living at the shelter who've been abused or traumatized also get behavioral help so they can have a successful adoption down the road.

Goal: Set Up a Bottle Baby Nursery to Stop Large-Scale Euthanasia of Orphaned Kittens

Orphaned kittens are one of the largest populations euthanized in shelters because their care is so intensive. So Austin Pets Alive! set up a bottle baby kitten nursery.

"We have an Airstream trailer where our bottle baby nursery first originated in 2008," explains Monica. "We would pull bottle baby kittens out of the city shelter, set them up in the Airstream and volunteers would come 24 hours a day and do shifts feeding and caring for the kittens."

"Again, you come out of that with the most adoptable animal in the world, an orphaned baby kitten who has been bottle-fed. The bottle baby program cares for about 1,700 neonatal kittens a year. It's a huge program that can be easily replicated on a smaller scale to meet the needs of any community. It has tremendous volunteer support because who doesn't want to bottle-feed an orphaned baby kitten?"

Goal: Care for Feral Cat Populations

Another at-risk population is feral cats. Fortunately, Austin has a robust trap-neuter-return (TNR) program, according to Monica. Feral cats brought to the shelter are neutered, vaccinated and returned to their outdoor habitats. However, there are also feral cats brought to the shelter who can't be returned for some reason. Perhaps their habitat has been destroyed, or they're at high risk for abuse, or they came from a hoarding situation.

"We have a really robust barn cat program here at Austin Pets Alive!," says Monica. "It's my favorite thing in the world. We adopt out about 300 working cats a year. They go to farms, stables, ranches, wineries, shops [and] all manner of facilities and homes that have rodent and snake issues here in Texas. Those cats are very, very safe in the city of Austin. We have a waitlist at all times to adopt barn cats."

My experience during my time at the kill shelter was that every single feral and semi-feral cat who came in was automatically euthanized. I'm talking hundreds of cats over the years that could've been placed into environments where they were safe and had jobs they were born to do. The barn cat program is a win-win.

As Monica mentioned, her shelter has a waiting list for healthy, neutered barn cats. The community heavily supports the program because it makes sense.

"Everyone grew up on grandpa's farm and there were barn cats," says Monica. "If you have a barn, you have cats. This is something that makes sense to people. They like it. They support it."

'We Couldn't Do This Without Our Volunteers and Our Fosters'

Currently, Austin Pets Alive! has a staff of about 100 and an army of volunteers and foster homes numbering more than 1,500. "We couldn't do this without our volunteers and our fosters," says Monica. The community in and around Austin is very supportive of the no-kill concept.

"If you look at the surveys and data collected from across the country," says Monica, "communities don't support euthanizing animals where there's an alternative. They don't want their tax dollars going toward euthanizing animals if there's a non-profit willing to do things a different way. No community wants more dead animals. There's not a community in America that wants that."

Austin Pets Alive! doesn't cost the taxpayers anything. The shelter is funded entirely by private donations. "We save the city lots and lots of money," says Monica.

How Fast Is the No-Kill Approach Catching On?

The way Austin Pets Alive does things seems so logical to me that I asked Monica what kind of pushback she gets from kill shelters who still insist the no-kill model is impossible to achieve. What's holding them back?

"I think it comes from a place of hurt and defensiveness," she replied. "If you're working your heart out trying to save every animal and it's just not happening for you, it's a slap in the face for someone to say it's your fault that these animals are not being saved.

That's a painful realization. No one wants to hear that. I think it comes from a place of 'I want to do better but I can't do it. I have to believe that it's not possible because I'm really trying everything I know how to do.'"

Monica says it's not the intent of Austin Pets Alive! to put kill shelters on the defensive. Everyone who works in sheltering knows it's an overwhelming emotional commitment.

But Austin Pets Alive! is a great example of how sheltering can be done in a much more constructive way. Their goal is to help build other no-kill communities. Not just individual no-kill shelters, but entire communities. They're prioritizing teaching other shelters and communities how to replicate their success.

And the good news is there are a growing number of no-kill communities popping up across the U.S. Austin Pets Alive! wants to continue to spread the word that what they're doing, anyone can do, and they're ready to help with resources and support.

They host an American Pets Alive! conference each year to share their life-saving programs with other shelters. "We're also opening a training academy where you can come learn an individual program," adds Monica, "and spend a week here with us, hands on, doing the work we do. We will teach you."

Many Thanks to Monica Frenden and Austin Pets Alive!

The work Austin Pets Alive! is doing is so inspiring and heartwarming. Monica and the other staff members, along with their army of volunteers and fosters, are changing the face of the shelter industry for the better. I want to extend my sincere thanks to Monica for making time today to share all the innovative, wonderful work Austin Pets Alive! is doing for homeless pets and the no-kill movement.