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Does the Future of Austin's 'No Kill' Animal Policy Lie in Creating a 'No Birth' Policy?

Joy Diaz/KUT News

Among the many politically contentious issues the new Austin City Council will need to grapple with is the issue of “No Kill.” This February will mark the fourth consecutive year that Austin's shelters have achieved a no kill status, meaning that ten percent or fewer animals in shelter care are euthanized.

But, even with several measures including "no kill," Austin is still dealing with a large number of homeless animals.

Del Goss lives in Montopolis, one of Austin's poorest neighborhoods in City Council District 3. Every evening, he hops on his old white pick-up truck and heads to his friend Florence's. On the truck's bed sits a five-gallon plastic bucket full of cat food.

Goss feeds Florence's cats. And then he makes seven other stops to feed colonies of homeless animals.

Goss pulls over. "Okay, we've got kitties waiting for dinner," he says as he steps off his truck and grabs his bucket. He calls the animals by name, the names he's given them.

Goss' actions keep some animals alive. But they don't keep them safe.

So, why aren't these animals in shelters?

Probably because the Austin Animal Center and the shelter run by Austin Pets Alive are always full beyond capacity.

Even with an active network of other non-profits, volunteers and foster homes, the city of Austin has more animals, both on the streets and in shelters, than Austinites can adopt.

One strategy shelters opt for as a way to entice more people to adopt is to constantly waive adoption fees.

But Teresa Chagrin with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in Washington, D.C., says waiving adoption fees is a mistake.

"The only way for any community to become a sustainable and humane "no kill" community is to make it a "no birth" community," says Chagrin. PETA's position is to promote spay and neuter ordinances.

Texas is one of 32 states that require shelters to spay or neuter the animals it puts up for adoption. But cities have the leeway to decide whether owners are required to spay or neuter their pets. Dallas does it and so does Waco.

But Austin does not.

Former Council member and former mayoral contender Mike Martinez says there's no will in Austin to have a mandatory spay and neuter ordinance because "[it] would create a punitive environment for someone who maybe wanted to own a pet and not have it altered."

But pets and homeless animals like the ones Goss feeds are two different things. The strays are reproducing beyond control. Goss calls it "cat mathematics," and the formula goes a little bit like this: "A female cat goes into heat at four-and-a-half to five months," says Goss. "By the time she is six months old, she is dropping a litter of kittens, six to eight kittens. Three months later she is dropping another litter of four to eight kittens. Three months later her kittens and her are dropping kittens."

By some estimates, a single unspayed female cat can multiply into 370,000 other cats in seven years.

Mike Martinez says the city has what he calls "a controversial policy" in place to prevent overpopulation.

It's called TNR, or Trap-Neuter and Release. But what Goss sees in his neighborhood, which is not the same as in other Austin neighborhoods, is that TNR is not working as quickly as it should and is not being implemented as widely as it could be.

Mayor Steve Adler has been on the job less than a month, and he says the council has yet to talk about if or how they will address "no kill." But he says if it's important to Austinites, then they need to contact their city council members. "I think that this issue, like many issues, will be able to be given additional attention, if council members want to do that, as part of the new committee structure," Adler said.

Credit Joy Diaz/KUT News
Goss says he's been feeding seven cat colonies over the last nine years. He says the merits of "no kill" are undeniable, but the lives of homeless animals are horrendous. For some, a humane death could be a better ending than life under some circumstances.

The new Austin City Council wants to start working in committees where every committee specializes in one thing and brings the issue to the rest of the council in a similar way to how state and federal legislative bodies work.

It will take some time before the committees are up to speed and take action on issues like this one. 

In the meantime, while Goss continues to feed the strays, he hopes the city council will quickly revise its "no kill" policy or consider implementing a mandatory spay and neuter ordinance. He says every day, he sees homeless animals being hit by cars or die, eaten by disease.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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