Volunteering at the Austin Humane Shelter: Part 7

So last time in Volunteeering at the Austin Humane Shelter: Part 6, I talked about my move up to blue BRATT and the start of the year’s craziness which was that Bastrop Hoarding Event. And while that one event would have been enough to exhaust anyone, it was just the start of the absolute craziness that was 2011. We continue with the next big shelter drama, a rare occurrence but one that caused a lot of problems.

Early August: A Dog Gets Put Down
I mentioned in the original series that the Austin Humane Shelter is a no-kill shelter. That is, the shelter doesn’t put down dogs as a matter of course. In reality this means that dog euthanasia is kept to 10% or less; it’s also only done on a dog by dog basis. It’s never done for time (i.e. if a dog is at the shelter for too long) and it’s never done based on breed.

It generally only occurs when a dog is sick with no chance for recovery or has shown intractable behavior problems (usually aggression towards human) that make it unadoptable. If it can still be adopted, we will keep it until we find it a home. To put this in perspective, in the year and a half I’ve been at the Austin Humane Shelter, we’ve done several thousands of adoptions and in that time I can think of maybe a half dozen or so dogs that have been put down.

This number might be a bit higher due to something I’m going to talk about in the next part of this (bizarrely, as I write this, one of our long term residents, whose behavior had been worsening was put down) series. But it’s a rare enough event that I can remember most of them when they happen. Which probably puts the rate of euthanasia at around 1% or so. If that. I mean, a handful of dogs against thousands of adoptions.

But as part of the trauma of 2011 there was a specific situation worth mentioning. Earlier that year we had taken in three pit bulls rescued from a fighting ring. One was Xena who had been a breeding female. She was a beautiful dog who’s owners had botched her ear clipping and had ended up taking them off completely. Beyond that she was fairly well adjusted although the shelter wasn’t great for her. This is Xena and you can see the hatchet job her owners did with her ears.

Yes, I Can Hear You Now

She loved playing touch (where you teach the dog to target your hand and bop it with their nose to get a treat or a toy) and to cuddle in the field and get her tummy rubbed in the sun. She didn’t so much love going back to her kennel and had some issues with pottying in it (which made her feet sensitive since she walked around in the urine).

Between her ears and her pittbullness, finding an adopter for her was tough; finally, she ended up being saved by the wonderful folks at Love-A-Bull and eventually found her forever home through them. I have seen volunteers mention that they’ve seen her out walking with her family (she may actually just be in foster right now). She actually has her own Facebook page (and her name got changed a multitude of times which is why you’ll see her as Emma Rose, Xena, Tina and Peanut on her page) if you want to check her out.

But the other two pits, Alan and T-bird weren’t so lucky. They were males, bred for fighting and, when rescued, had lived their entire lives in a cage. This is Alan (left) and T-bird (right).












They weren’t socialized at all and were, simply, behaviorally broken. Dogs, like humans, have a critical period in life (around weeks 4-8 of life) where their exposure (or not) to people and certain things can sort of ‘set them’ for life and these dogs had missed it.

It’s like when children have some huge experience early in life that just locks them into a certain behavior pattern. These dogs were like that. They were scared, didn’t relate to humans at all.  Their tails were constantly tucked and they didn’t even want to come out of their kennel or go outside; everything was just terrifying to them and it was really sad to see.

Yellow volunteers worked with them exhaustively to no avail, sitting with them for extended periods to try to get them used to people or to coax them out to the field. Behaviorists were called in and couldn’t make any progress. It was really frustrating to everyone involved. They were great dogs and everybody wanted to see them make progress but it just wasn’t happening.

This actually sort of tells you whether a dog’s behavior is just a function of being in the kennel or more ‘hardwired’. That is, dogs who come in to the shelter are often terrified, either in general or of people. But within the first week or two you start to see them making progress as they get used to the environment, interact with people who treat them nicely, etc. You can see it happening on a day to day basis as they get used to it and it means that, once in their forever home, they are likely to be completely wonderful once they settle in.

But with dogs who are more ‘hardwired’ in terms of their behavior things don’t improve in any reasonable time frame. That’s when there is a problem and while I’m not saying that no progress can be made, it can often be a multi-year process to make any headway at all. And the dog may never be truly ‘normal’ or ‘fixed’. And that’s a problem looking at adopting them as a companion animal.

In any case, due to the total inability to make any progress with them, a decision was made to have at least one of them (Alan) put down. And this caused a tremendous amount of outcry. This is a place where the volunteers and the staff are often at odds; we spend most of the time with the dogs (and get attached) but, at the end of the day, have no say in what ultimately happens to individual dogs or with the shelter as a whole.

And the staff decision to put Alan down was met by a lot of volunteer resentment (I’m honestly not sure what happened to T-bird). A few volunteers left the program because of it, they were so hurt by either the decision to put Alan down or how it was handled that they left (in a related vein, two volunteers would be asked to leave the program a few months later when another dog was put down, their emotions got the best of them, and they got nasty with some people on the mailing list).

Things got so heated on the mailing list that it was shut down briefly; emotions were running high and it was getting ugly. The year had been rough on everybody already and this was just a final kick in the pants that nobody needed. After it was all said and done, a number of BRATT’s held a tribute for Alan after things had cooled down. That’s what he meant to them. So far as I can tell, some of the folks who left still haven’t returned and they might not ever.

If you’re wondering how I felt about it, I’m not sure I had an opinion. I hadn’t worked with either dog to any great degree (if at all) so I didn’t have the emotional attachment that the others had. And, honestly, I can see both sides of the issue. Do I love the dogs? Yes. Do I wish they could all be saved? Yes. Do I recognize rationally/unemotionally that some can’t be? Yes. Would it have been different if it had been a dog I had been attached to or had worked with extensively? I just don’t know and hope I never have to find out.

It’s just one of those places where there probably isn’t a right answer. To be sure, Alan could have lived his life out as a dog but he probably wasn’t ever going to be functional or bond with a human family (and ultimately our goal is finding companion dogs loving homes). So I’m not sure what kind of life it would have been. I don’t know that he ever would have recovered or would have been adoptable; he was just too fundamentally broken. At the end of the day, the decision was made (and I know it’s never easy for the staff to make that call but that’s why they get the big bucks) and so it goes.

And while you’d have thought that the above was enough to fill out 2011, you’d be wrong. Because we were only halfway through the year and the shit was still hitting the fan.


Late August: Austin Gets Hot
If there is a single thing I dislike about Austin (other than the hippies and the traffic) it’s that the summers are just brutal. And 2011 was no different. It didn’t help that the shift I usually covered was from 2-5pm, the hottest part of the day. I mean it was so hot that you’d take dogs to the doors and they would just stop.

These dogs live their lives in kennels and they would rather go back there then go out into the heat. That’s when it’s hot. And 2012 was nasty, we had a record number of triple digit days and the heat was just overwhelming. The drought was not helping.

And one Monday I rolled in for my shift to find the entire parking lot full and a line out the door. I’m usually pretty good at keeping up with adoption events and hadn’t seen anything about this. And once I got inside I found out why. Over that weekend our air conditioning had gone out. And the kennel areas are not well ventilated which meant that it was going to get deadly for the animals. And there’s nowhere else to house them.

And in order to clear the kennels until it could be fixed they had organized a free adoption day just to get the dogs out of the building. And, as the words ‘free’ tend to do, people turned out in droves but the day can be exhausting as a ton of people hit the shelter and we’re all running around trying to get everyone and everything taken care of.

And, once again we cleared the kennels completely and got the AC system fixed by some good folks here in Austin. So the next disaster had been handled, things settled back in for a few more weeks before the next hammer came down.

Read Volunteering at the Austin Humane Shelter: Part 8.