Ac­tivist fo­cuses on sav­ing an­i­mals

Barnes

Austin American-Statesman - - LIFE & ARTS - CONTRIBUTED by THAO NGUYEN Con­tact Michael Barnes at 445-3970 or mbarnes@ states­man.com. Twit­ter: @ outandabout

Univer­sity in San An­to­nio be­fore en­ter­ing vet school at Vir­ginia Tech Univer­sity.

“I was plan­ning to open a spay-neuter clinic,” she says. “I wanted to help the dis­en­fran­chised an­i­mals of the world.”

In­stead, she first en­tered pri­vate prac­tice in ru­ral Rocky Moun­tain, Va.

“There were no bells or whis­tles,” she re­calls. “It made me uti­lize what’s in front of me rather than shift­ing things off to a spe­cial­ist.”

Af­ter mov­ing to Austin in 1998, Jef­fer­son prac­ticed emer­gency medicine at a North Austin clinic.

“You can’t pre­dict what will come through the door,” she says. “There’s typ­i­cally only one vet on the premises. You think fast and triage. It’s a great learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Build­ing Emancipet from scratch taught her many things as well. But it didn’t achieve the orig­i­nal goal: Stop the killing.

“I really thought the only an­swer to shel­ter eu­thana­sia was spay and neuter,” she says. “But we needed to im­prove the pro­cesses at the shel­ter, not just in the com­mu­nity.”

So Jef­fer­son fo­cused on bot­tle­necks. The city shel­ter em­ployed only one part-time be­hav­ior eval­u­a­tor. It couldn’t keep up with in-house spay­ing and neu­ter­ing. And the adop­tion process could take as long as two hours on busy days.

So Austin Pets Alive, like other res­cue groups, re­moved the an­i­mals be­fore they were killed.

“So if one part of the process was backed up,” Jef­fer­son says, “an­other an­i­mal wouldn’t die be­cause there wasn’t enough turnover or space.”

The group and its army of vol­un­teers used a daz­zlingly sim­ple method for res­cu­ing the sav­able an­i­mals. They broke them down into cat­e­gories.

Just a few years ago, any kit­ten un­der 6 weeks of age was killed on in­take. So her group cre­ated a mass nurs­ing ward with bot­tle feed­ing for or­phans. That saved an es­ti­mated 1,200 kit­tens each year, in­stantly adopted when they reached 6 weeks.

Back in 2007, as many as 9,500 cats were killed be­cause they came in all at once dur­ing breed­ing sea­son, April to Oc­to­ber. So Austin Pets Alive scooped them up and scat­tered them to fos­ter net­works and re­mote adop­tions sites in pedes­trian ar­eas.

“We got them in front of peo­ple in as many places as pos­si­ble,” she says. “That way they were more likely to be adopted.”

Cats with ring­worm were killed be­cause they are of­ten con­ta­gious to peo­ple and other cats. So Jef­fer­son’s group cre­ated a ward to treat them in three to six weeks.

More sadly, cats di­ag­nosed with fe­line leukemia were ex­pected to live only from six months to two years. So Austin Pets Alive found peo­ple will­ing to adopt for what was un­der­stood to be a shorter time than usual.

“Even though it’s painful to lose a pet, they want to give it a home,” Jef­fer­son says. “It’s like a hospice sit­u­a­tion. Some­times their own lives are in flux, so a short-time pet is not so bad. It saves a life and gives the owner com­pan­ion­ship.”

Parvo pup­pies got a parvo ward.

“It’s pretty la­bor in­ten­sive, but treat­able,” Jef­fer­son says. “You end up with a highly de­sir­able puppy.”

The hard­est an­i­mals to save were — and con­tinue to be — big dogs with be­hav­ior prob­lems.

“I’m not talk­ing about truly dan­ger­ous dogs,” she says. “Just dogs who are down on their luck.”

Com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters, big dogs at shel­ters are seen in rows of cages or on re­straints which am­plify re­ac­tive be­hav­ior. So the group now uses pack play time and other meth­ods to re­train the big dogs.

“The longer they stay, the more likely they are to go cage crazy,” she says. “Play groups pre­vent that from hap­pen­ing.”

Work­ing with a $2 mil­lion an­nual bud­get, the group has saved more than 6,000 an­i­mals this year alone. The group em­ploys 75 staff mem- bers, half of them part­time, and has trained more than 8,000 vol­un­teers over the past four years.

Jef­fer­son, who al­ways keeps num­bers and charts handy, is no an­i­mal-wel­fare hard­liner.

“I do be­lieve in eu­thana­sia for an­i­mals that are suf­fer­ing and have no hope of get­ting bet­ter,” she says. “It is the kind­est thing to do. It is just that we use ‘eu­thana­sia’ to mean some­thing very dif­fer­ent in the an­i­mal shel­ter world.”

She thinks Austin is po­si­tioned uniquely to set a na­tional ex­am­ple.

“Rec­og­niz­ing that all the sys­tems are not per­fect yet, Austin is at an amaz­ing place,” she says while tip­ping her hat to lead­ers in city government who have sup­ported the evo­lu­tion. “We, all the an­i­mal wel­fare groups, have ac­com­plished so much. The rest of the coun­try is com­pletely blown away by what Austin has been able to do in such a short pe­riod of time.”

She also praises county shel­ters in Wil­liamson County, which have reached the 90 per­cent save rate as well.

Jef­fer­son’s crit­ics be­lieve that Austin Pets Alive em­pha­sizes the quan­tity of adop­tions over the qual­ity of them. They also de­cry the group’s train­ing meth­ods and its main­te­nance of the de­cay­ing Town Lake shel­ter.

“There’s so much peo­ple drama!” Jef­fer­son says. “An­i­mal wel­fare tends to be po­lar­iz­ing like most passionate causes. There are few (causes) in Amer­ica that are cen­tered around life and death, and the fact that no-kill is squarely cen­tered on that topic is in and of it­self dra­matic.”

Bull­frog, 7 months, stands on the bed next to Ellen Jef­fer­son as she feeds a treat to Pidgey, 12, at her home. Bull­frog has con­stant tremors caused by nerve dam­age from hav­ing dis­tem­per.

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