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Success in San Antonio

City shelter achieves remarkable turnaround, leaving behind 60 years as 'the pound'

From Animal Sheltering magazine March/April 2013

The municipal shelter run by San Antonio Animal Care Services used to be a sad place where only about one in 10 pets ever left alive. Now it’s the setting for many happy moments for visitors like Devin Hall, 9, who cuddles an adoptable dog in an outdoor play area.Animal care officer Roland Gonzales gives a citation to a San Antonio resident as part of the department’s ongoing Community Neighborhood Sweeps Initiative (CNSI). San Antonio Pets Alive! (SAPA!) representative Robyn Slusky helps Rich Bowler of Boerne, Texas, with an adoption at the city shelter. SAPA! pulled 5,827 pets from San Antonio ACS in 2012.San Antonio ACS has increasingly become the place where city residents go to look for a new pet, according to staff and rescue partners. Joe and Christy Pizana and their daughter Amanda, 5, meet adoptable dogs at the city shelter. San Antonio Pets Alive! representative Mary Flanagan has her hands full with an armload of puppies at the San Antonio ACS shelter. The pets SAPA! pulls from the shelter go into the organization’s extensive foster network. Tiffany Coflin, a visitor to the shelter, looks at the selection of adoptable cats at San Antonio ACS. More pets are getting adopted from the shelter than ever before. By the end of fiscal 2012, the live-release rate hit 61 percent.

In 2004, the City of San Antonio Animal Care Services (ACS) hit rock bottom.

That year, the San Antonio Express-News published a special report, “Death by the Pound: San Antonio Faces a Grim Reality,” the result of 50 hours spent by reporters observing operations and talking to staff at the city shelter. The story gave readers an up-close view of what euthanizing nearly 50,000 cats and dogs a year really looks like, noting that the figure was more per capita than any other major American city. Its description of dozens of pets at a time going to their deaths in three gas chambers—then a daily occurrence—is gut-wrenching.

“The newspaper found a facility that’s woefully behind the times, one overseen by officials with no plan for promoting adoptions or reducing the number of unwanted animals coming through its doors and few designs for bringing in volunteers or partnering with animal-rescue groups,” the story reads.

The report brought San Antonio residents face to face with an ugly fact: “Almost nine of every 10 cats and dogs that enter the pound are put to death, many within an hour of arriving.”

Published at a time when euthanasia rates were plummeting nationwide, the story shocked residents. Miami was rehoming pets at a rate five times higher than San Antonio, and Dallas was placing animals at twice the city’s rate. But the story also prodded the conscience of the community and city leaders, and, more importantly, it marked the beginning of a turnaround.“It was a wake-up call,” says Lisa Norwood, public information officer for ACS, “not only for the department, but for the community. For so long, nobody had ever really heard of Animal Care Services.” The city shelter hadn’t changed its ways in decades, and now it was painfully obvious: “This mindset was ingrained. And not just with staff, with the community as well: This was ‘the pound.’”

Come Together, Right Now

After the story came out—amplified by a disturbing NPR report on the shelter in February 2005—things started changing. City leaders began to advocate for making San Antonio a no-kill community, and in 2006 they drafted a strategic plan that called for the city to achieve that status by 2012.

Meanwhile, voters approved a bond issue to fund a new, 12-building, 38,000-square-foot complex on 15 acres to replace the antiquated shelter that had housed ACS for 60 years; the department moved into the $12 million campus in January 2008.

According to the ACS fiscal 2012 annual report, the department received 84,987 calls for service, impounded 34,946 animals, and issued 5,681 citations—increases of 5 percent, 19 percent, and 41 percent, respectively, compared to the 2011 figures.

To address the stray animal problem, ACS partnered with Spay Neuter Inject Protect San Antonio (SNIPSA), Spay-Neuter Assistance Program (SNAP), and SpaySA to increase the number of community-wide, free or low-cost spay/neuter surgeries in the city. In fiscal 2012, ACS performed 11,086 in-house surgeries, a 21 percent increase from 2011. ACS partners performed an additional 8,856 surgeries, funded by the city.

Live-release rates rose, too: In fiscal 2006, only 10 percent of animals who entered the ACS shelter were adopted out; by September 2011, that figure had more than tripled to 31 percent. By the end of fiscal 2012, the year-to-date live-release rate had reached 61 percent. Better still, the live-release rate for the month of September hit a whopping 72 percent.

But what made the biggest difference, say some city leaders, ACS staff, and local shelter and rescue organizations, was a call in June 2011 by city manager Sheryl Sculley and deputy city manager Erik Walsh for the city’s Office of Innovation and Reform to rework the strategic plan drafted in 2006.Joe Angelo, now chief human resources officer for the city, was assistant director of the team of in-house consultants charged with overhauling ACS. The team spent that summer studying communities across the country that have robust, successful shelter programs to address stray and homeless pets, singling out the Nevada Humane Society in Reno, Austin Pets Alive! in Texas, and the City of Jacksonville, Fla. Team members used those organizations and communities as benchmarks, then carefully studied them to see what they’re doing right.

“We found some familiar traits. They all had a strong enforcement program, they all had a very regimented spay/neuter program for controlling the stray pets and [homeless] animals, and they all had a very robust live-release program that included a high-volume partner,” Angelo says, referring to a contract with other local shelters or rescues agreeing to pull thousands of pets, and place them into their own facilities or foster networks.

The team issued its report in fall 2011, outlining its new strategic plan. “I’ll tell you, it’s probably the shortest and most succinct plan in government; it’s only 16 pages,” Walsh says.

It boiled down to three main objectives: Enhanced enforcement of existing laws and codes; controlling the stray population (estimated in 2007 at more than 150,000 animals); and improving the city’s live-release rate. The plan commits the city to achieving a 70 percent annual live-release rate by 2015. And the theme that runs through it is that ACS can’t accomplish its goals alone—it will need help.

In August 2011, the city organized a workshop with 28 stakeholders from the animal rescue, advocacy, and business communities, plus city staff, to unveil the strategic plan and reach consensus to address the challenges ahead, and then implement the changes. “When I was giving this presentation to the stakeholders, I kept saying, ‘This is not a city issue, this is a community issue that we need to work together on,’” Walsh recalls.

“Well, fast forward, and we’ve had all kinds of success. It’s not all because of the city; it’s because the community has come together. It’s really been exciting to watch it change over the last 13, 14 months so dramatically.”

You’ve Gotta Have Friends

When you ask San Antonio stakeholders what has really made the difference in outcomes for animals there, one word keeps cropping up: partnerships. It’s at the heart of just about everything ACS has accomplished since the department overhaul. In order to increase the city’s live-release rate, ACS reached out to shelters and rescues, and engaged them in two new initiatives: the High Volume Pet Partner program (HVPP) and the Rescue Partner Incentive Program (RPIP). ACS had had relationships with other shelters and rescues in the past, but only on an informal, small-scale basis.

Now, for the first time, these partners signed contracts with ACS, approved by the city council, in which they agreed to pull a specific number of animals from the city shelter in 2012. In return, each organization receives financial compensation of $50 per animal to support their efforts, with a goal of rescuing 6,000 animals that year. These initiatives involved nine local partner organizations, two of which—the San Antonio Humane Society and San Antonio Pets Alive! (SAPA!)—have space to temporarily house animals on the ACS campus, and have staff or volunteers present on site almost every day, pulling pets for rescue in their own shelters or foster networks. These capacity-building programs have dramatically increased the city’s live-release rate, removing thousands of animals per year from ACS, and moving them toward good outcomes.ACS has given SAPA! an entire kennel to temporarily house pets pulled from the city shelter before they’re placed in the organization’s extensive foster network. A volunteer team of 33 people runs the network, which has around 500 fosterers, according to Renee Nank, the rescue’s director of marketing. Four or five SAPA! staff members are on site every day, caring for animals, marketing them on Facebook, and answering questions about fostering and adopting.

SAPA! pulls healthy and treatable animals who are scheduled for euthanasia within 24 hours; these are the pets who remain after other shelters and rescues have already pulled those they want for their own adoption programs. The rescue also intervenes at the point of owner surrender to help people consider alternatives to relinquishment. SAPA! signed a contract to rescue 4,041 animals in 2012 and actually pulled 5,827 pets last year, according to ACS records.

“City entities are fearful of something bad happening, and it ending up in the newspaper, and the fact that they are willing to risk letting go of some authority, and engaging in this partnership, I think says a lot for the city,” says Nank, a professor of public administration at the University of Texas-San Antonio who specializes in nonprofit and public partnerships. “ … Cities like San Antonio are one of the few that are willing to do this extra work.”

The private, nonprofit San Antonio Humane Society—the other High-Volume Pet Partner—agreed to pull 2,000 animals from ACS in fiscal 2012. The shelter was able to rescue 2,213 pets last year, according to ACS records, and it has signed a new contract to pull 2,500 animals in 2013. Prior to the HVPP program, its baseline was 361 per year.“We’ve got space at Animal Care Services, so we’re there three to four times a week, all day long. We actually can take in animals prior to them going into the facility, as people are bringing them in,” says executive director Nancy May.

The HVPP and RPIP programs were projected to save 6,000 animals in 2012 but resulted in 7,927 pets being rescued, according to the ACS 2012 annual report. “I’ve certainly seen things change for the better in Animal Care Services,” says Janice Darling, executive director of the Animal Defense League of Texas, a rescue group in the RPIP program. “It’s like they’ve become enlightened, and they realized that things had to change. The fact that they’re developing these partnerships … I think is really to the city’s credit.”

Rising from the Ashes

City leaders and ACS staff point to another innovative program that’s helped power the department’s turnaround, and improved outcomes for San Antonio pets: the Comprehensive Neighborhood Sweeps Initiative (CNSI). Implemented in October 2011, the first month the new strategic plan took effect, the program was designed to educate the public about responsible pet ownership, and reduce the number of stray and roaming pets in target areas that had been identified as recording the highest call-for-service requests and bite cases.ACS budgeted $70,000 to support neighborhood block walks, enforcement sweeps, low-cost spay/neuter clinics, outreach, and vaccination events. In 2012, CNSI covered 10 target areas, visiting 25,350 homes, according to the 2012 annual report. Each sweep of the neighborhood-based assistance program takes about a month, over successive weekly visits.

“We leave literature on the door, we offer free vaccinations, free licenses, free spay and neuter [opportunities], free education, and we pick up stray dogs and try to rehome them if they’ve got identification, or at least give them shelter if they don’t,” says Angelo, who served as ACS interim director to implement the strategic plan. (Kathy Davis started as ACS director in August 2012.) “The call volume in those areas has dropped significantly since we started the program.”

ACS has taken steps in recent years to address feral cat issues, too. In 2007, the department became one of the largest in the nation to legally endorse the practice of trap-neuter-return (TNR), making it part of the city ordinance. The city was also chosen as one of only two municipalities in the nation to participate in an innovative enforcement initiative for community cats. Best Friends Animal Society and PetSmart Charities have committed to a $700,000 grant, over three years, to fund a new TNR program for the city. Launched in April 2012, the program uses data to target ZIP codes that have a high concentration of feral cats. In 2012, 945 cats were successfully placed in the TNR program. There’s also been a managed feral cat colony at the ACS shelter since 2009.

More good things are on the way for the department. In summer 2013, a new, $3.98 million adoption center—which will house 50-56 dogs and 26-30 cats—will open in Brackenridge Park, on the site of the old ACS shelter, which has been razed. ACS expects an additional 3,000 pets will be adopted out there each year.

Norwood finds a deeper meaning in the location chosen for the center.

“It was the ‘dog pound’ for 60-plus years. … We keep calling it the ‘phoenix,’” she says, “It’s kind of an inside joke, but it’s apropos.”


As we were reporting this story, we found out that the City of San Antonio Animal Care Services had won the Grand Prize in the 2012 ASPCA Rachael Ray $100K Challenge. With the support of the community and its rescue partners, ACS found homes for 4,054 pets during the contest period (August, September, and October). Congratulations San Antonio!

About the Author

Jim Baker is a former staff writer for the Humane Society of the United States.