Austin Pets Alive! bringing changes to the model of the animal care system.

By Delilah Alvarado, Photography courtesy of Austin Pets Alive!

Austin Pets Alive! Dr. Ellen Jefferson

Along with school systems, jobs and medical care adapting to changes due to the pandemic, many other services are working to revise their systems. Dr. Ellen Jefferson of Austin Pets Alive! has devised a new model for running animal shelters with limited human contact during the pandemic.

“Austin Pets Alive! has an education and outreach arm called American Pets Alive!,” Jefferson said. This nation-wide educational program’s mission is to save as many animals as possible from unnecessary deaths. They do this by empowering individuals as well as communities and organizations with proven lifesaving protocols and knowledge that have made Austin the largest No Kill city in the nation. 

“The three top reasons that animals are surrendered to shelters, is not enough money to care for their medical problems, not enough money period, and not being able to house them,” Jefferson said. “We should be expecting a two- to three-fold increase in the number of animals and people that are in crisis and are going to need support and the current shelter system can’t support that even when it’s working the best that it can.”      

Part of the American Pets Alive! programming is the Human Animal Support Services or HASS model, which focuses on bringing together organizations and communities to make sure animals are not in a facility any longer than they need to be, and so they don’t get put down. It looks at fostering, making sure lost animals can be returned to their owners, and providing services to ensure that someone can continue to care for their animal. The model was put in the works throughout the country as a response to a pandemic that is causing a lack of funds for private organizations such as Austin Pets Alive! and animal parents.  

“We recognize that we need to be part of the social justice movement as an industry,” Jefferson said. “We need to set up the services to be happening in the neighborhood, all across the city. No matter what neighborhood it is – everybody has equal access to support when they need it.”

Although the model is gaining traction across the country including in Dallas and El Paso, the City of Austin has not yet agreed to be a part of the project. Jefferson along with others in the shelter community are continuing their efforts to bring the HASS program to Austin by attending city council meetings and speaking to the council about this program.

“The heart of the change has to happen in public service,” said Jefferson. “Private organizations like Austin Pets Alive! can’t be the driver of it, because if the city goes back to doing the things they’ve always done, then there’s no net improvement. And then the second piece we’re doing is trying to understand what our community wants and needs. Nobody has asked their community what they want and need from animal services which I think is just so fascinating that it’s all just the same thing we’ve been doing for 120 years with no input from people.”

Despite the pushback from the city, the Austin community has been helping to keep shelters empty. Many fosters have been working hard to make sure animals get the safe space and care they need.

“We’ve had really good success,” Jefferson said. “And that’s what we’re hearing across the country, too, is that there are actually more than enough fosters, and there’s more than enough adopters. In fact, most shelters can’t keep up with the demands. And what that really proves is that there’s a huge interest in helping animals, even while people are under so much stress.”

With the success of fostering and adoptions, our biggest concern now is funding and keeping workers safe. Many donors have continued to contribute during this crisis, but the future is still unclear.

“We are funding to just keep saving the lives that we do in Austin and the surrounding area, and part of that is because so far this year we’ve had a tremendous response from donors helping to make sure that we don’t suffer because of the economic downturn,” Jefferson said. 

Jefferson and the team at Austin Pets Alive! continue to practice what they can of the HASS model and promote the model to change-makers in the city.

“I really believe that moving towards the HASS model is the right thing and that it will eventually get there,” Jefferson said. “Even if we are behind the curve we do it because it’s the right thing, it’s the right thing for people, it’s the right thing for animals, it’s the right thing for the bonds that people have with their animals.”

Please consider volunteering, donating and fostering if you’re interested in getting involved. More information on the HASS model can also be found here:

Read more coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic.


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