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'Dogs coming out of our ears': Pandemic, no-kill policy worsen overcrowding at Austin Animal Center

A dog sits in a crate in a hallway
Patricia Lim
Dogs sit in crates in the hallway at the Austin Animal Center due to limited space.

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The Austin Animal Center doesn’t want its halls lined with crates, but they are. It doesn’t want to keep three puppies in a kennel meant for cats, but it does. And, it doesn't want to keep crates of large dogs in its loading dock in the middle of the Texas summer, but it has to.

The center opened in 2011 to accommodate 309 dogs and 165 cats. As of last week, it had 562 dogs and 669 cats.

Animal advocacy groups and the Austin Animal Center pin the overcrowding on a few factors: lack of resources, the pandemic and the city’s no-kill policy.

Dogs in crates on concrete
Patricia Lim
Dog are left in crates in Austin Animal Center's truck port because there's no room inside the shelter. "We hate to have them here, but this is the last resort for dogs," Kelsey Cler, marketing and communications coordinator with the Austin Animal Center, said.

How did it get like this?

Austin adopted a no-kill policy in 2011 that requires 90% of animals it takes in to leave the shelter alive. Now, the save rate is about 98%.

But not killing animals has put the shelter in a difficult position.

“We've got dogs coming out of our ears,” Kelsey Cler, marketing and communications coordinator with the Austin Animal Center, said. “We've got them in crates in our conference room. We've got them in crates in larger kennels. So normally, kennels would hold two dogs and now we've got three or four dogs in crates. And then we've got crates on our truck port, and we're just struggling to keep up with the amount of animals that we have.”

Dogs sit in crates in a conference room.
Patricia Lim
The Austin Animal Center is struggling to keep up with the number of animals it has taken in.

Cler said things got worse after COVID-19 hit. People who adopted newborn or young pets weren’t able to socialize them. Their pets didn’t go to parks, didn’t interact with other animals and weren’t on bar patios with their people.

And as workplaces reopened, pet owners began to see behavioral issues and gave their pets up. These animals need a unique type of adopter.

“We call them unicorn homes that don't have other dogs,” Cler said, “don't have cats, don't have kids, maybe they don't have very many visitors.”

These adopters are rare, which means emptying out the shelter’s crates is difficult.

Solutions, if any

Austin Pets Alive, a local animal rescue, argues the Austin Animal Center doesn’t have an overcrowding problem, it has a resource problem.

“In Austin, we would argue that many of those levers are not being used in the way that they can be used,” Neil Hay, APA’s senior operations director, said. “If I've got one kennel, two dogs, and I've got four fosters that want those dogs, am I really overcrowded? If I don't try and speak to those four fosters, am I overcrowded? If I'm not holding adoption events, am I overcrowded? Yes, you've still got more dogs than you've got kennels, but if you're not actually using the tools that are available to you to do something about that, then you'll always be fighting a capacity issue.”

APA has offered solutions, but the Austin Animal Center said it's a lot more difficult in practice.

Recommendation 1: APA suggests increasing spay and neuter services to reduce animal populations, and microchipping to help relocate strays brought into the center.

Austin Animal Center: “We don't have extra money to throw at spay/neuter as much as we want to,” Cler said. “We're restricted to the limitations of the city and the limitations of Emancipet [the clinic that provides these services for the AAC] and their capacity to do spay/neuter.”

Recommendation 2: APA suggests transporting animals to other no-kill shelters in the northern United States, where APA said there is a higher demand for animals so they could be adopted out.

Austin Animal Center: "There was quite a bit of backlash about our transport program, even though we were ensuring that these animals were going to other no-kill shelters," Cler said. "Some people felt that we should have been able to adopt out those animals ourselves. So we struggled to get that program off the ground. We had a change in staff and now we're trying to rebuild that program back up.”

Recommendation 3: APA recommends the Austin Animal Center amp up resources and outreach events. APA said the center isn’t doing enough to meet people where they are by holding regular adoption events.

Austin Animal Center: “It takes a ton of human hours to coordinate those, to select dogs that would be good to attend those, and to get all the I’s dotted and T’s crossed,” Cler said. “In 2022, we ramped up those events and we honestly had managers spending 10 hours to get one or two dogs adopted or none, and so the return on investment isn't there for those kinds of events.”

A cat looks out from a crate in a room stacked with crates.
Patricia Lim
The Austin Animal Center opened in 2011 to accommodate 165 cats. As of last week, it had 669.

There’s one recommendation APA doesn’t make, but People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said is the most effective way to reduce overcrowding: eliminating the no-kill policy.

“The no-kill idea is nice, but it's not a reality,” said Rachel Bellis, associate director for PETA’s cruelty investigations. “It's kind of a pie-in-the-sky idea.”

The Austin Animal Center doesn't want to lose its no-kill status, but Cler said the current system isn’t sustainable.

“Nobody wants to look at a healthy, adoptable animal and say, ‘You can't live because we have no space,’” she said. “We have to figure out how to make a system where we aren't having to euthanize healthy, adoptable animals, but we're also not in this place of inhumane care for animals.”

On Monday, Austin City Council Member Mackenzie Kelly sent a letter to the interim city manager detailing the conditions at the Austin Animal Center and its lack of resources.

Kelly said she supports the no-kill policy, but that something should be done right now to accommodate animals in triple- digit heat. She also recommended coming up with a long-term business plan to address capacity issues.

Cler said the center welcomes recommendations to help with overcrowding, but right now, AAC is stretched thin.

“It's hard when you're drowning to think of how can I not be here in the first place, right?” Cler said. “Every resource, every person's time is spent just getting through the day, providing what care we can to the animals. That's not an excuse, but it does make it really difficult to innovate and try new things when we're not even keeping our heads above water.”

If you are interested in adopting a pet, visit the city's website.

Haya Panjwani is a general assignment reporter, with a focus on Travis County. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @hayapanjw.
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