Dr. Ellen Jefferson of Austin Pets Alive! reflects on Austin’s anniversary as the largest no-kill city in the nation.

By Hannah J. Phillips, Dog photo by Alex Hopes and courtesy of Zilker Bark, Dr. Ellen Jefferson photo courtesy of Austin Pets Alive! 

Before Dr. Ellen Jefferson joined the team at Austin Pets Alive! in 2008, the no-kill movement was little more than a daydream. Defined as saving 90 percent of a city’s most vulnerable animals, the no-kill movement was a noble vision clouded by lack of data and the absence of best practices in city shelters. Ten years later, 2018 marks Austin’s seventh anniversary as the nation’s largest no-kill city, which APA! commemorates in style with its annual party this weekend. In the lead up to the celebration, Jefferson reflects on the partnerships that have made this pipe dream possible, sharing her hopes for the next 10 years.

In 2007, as the national no-kill conversation sprouted roots in small cities throughout America, a local organization called Fix Austin demanded action. By then, Jefferson was already a leader in the animal-welfare community through her work with Emancipet, a low-cost spay and neuter clinic she founded in 1999. Her initial focus was prevention rather than saving lives.

“Tackling no kill felt like using a Dixie cup to empty a boat with a hole in it,” she says.

But ongoing dialogues with the volunteers at Fix Austin convinced her Austin could do more as a community. The data spoke for itself: At the time, the city was killing about 14,000 animals per year, yet demographical surveys revealed 75,000 people acquired a pet in Austin every year. Moving to APA! as executive director in 2008, Jefferson knew the group could bridge that widening gap if it filled those homes with adopted animals instead. Then the question became: How? If data revealed the problem, she discerned data could solve it too.

“Almost everything that had been created to deal with animals was centered around fear and feelings as opposed to data,” Jefferson says. “By examining who was dying and why, we were able to build programs to shoot them back into the community.”

Early Austin Pets Alive! initiatives concentrated on volunteer programs, seven-day adoption hours and increasing the city shelter budget. Under Jefferson’s leadership, APA! helped reduce the killing of homeless cats and dogs in Austin by more than 20 percent in her first year as director. As the organization grew, APA! began to implement new programs, including the neonatal nursery and puppy parvo clinic.

“You can’t build the infrastructure without understanding who’s going to need it,” Jefferson says. “And it goes back to the data. A lot of shelters just don’t have the data, which helps clarify what you need.”

Where most shelters aren’t built to accommodate the enormous influx of kittens or sick puppies, APA! fine-tuned its systems to handle both. Ultimately, such programs set a new precedent, simultaneously pressuring the city shelter to do better and proving what was possible. Over time, sharing that data enabled the two groups to partner together toward the same no-kill objective.

“We were willing to build the engine to help them move forward,” Jefferson says, “and things really started to click when we got on the same page. Since then, we’ve had several directors who are 100 percent on board with the no-kill goal year after year.”

The result was exponential progress: The save rate doubled from 45 percent to 90 percent, increasing every year after that. In July, the city saw a 99 percent save rate for both cats and dogs, especially rare in summer months.

Beyond partnering with the city shelter, Jefferson and her team have also made marketing a huge priority since the early days of APA!

“We were really lucky to have an excellent marketing lead, Gretchen Meyer, step up and really build the social-media profile of APA!” Jefferson says. “Our marketing plan was creating a massive social-media voice and to be everywhereso people can’t help but run into [it]wherever they are.”

In 2011, Austin became the nation’s largest no-kill city, a date APA! celebrates annually. This weekend marks its seventh annual No-kill Anniversary Party, which takes place at the Palm Door from 6 to 9 p.m. It also marks the organization’s 10th anniversary and an estimated 60,000 animal lives saved so far.

“It’s a remarkable achievement for a city of this size,” Jefferson says. “We started this movement, but so many people were involved: Fix Austin, the city shelter—all these people and all these agencies responsible for making this happen.”

The author’s beloved Lucydog, who she adopted from Austin Pets Alive!, is a parvo survivor and now a certified therapy dog.

Jefferson describes this weekend’s festivity as a fantastic double whammy for lifesaving, celebrating the city’s astonishing achievement and raising funds at the same time. Dreaming of the organization’s next 10 years, Jefferson says her vision is to continue streamlining its processes, rebuilding the shelter on Lady Bird Lake and partnering with animal-focused foundation Maddie’s Fund to share the best practices APA! has learned with other communities.

“The world is changing and it’s really exciting to see that shelter killing will be a thing of the past,” Jefferson says.

With live music, a silent auction, drinks and light vegetarian bites provided by APA! partners, the annual bash is set to be one of the organization’s biggest events yet. Stop by Saturday to party for a cause, congratulate Jefferson and her team and raise a glass to the next decade of their life-saving work.


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