Volunteering at the Austin Humane Shelter: Part 8

So in Volunteering at the Austin Humane Shelter: Part 6 and Volunteering at the Austin Humane Shelter Part: 7, I described the insanity that made up merely the first half (or so) of 2011 there.  That included the Bastrop Hoarding Experience along with a very special dog that had to be put down, along with the loss of our air conditioning in the middle of a brutal Austin summer. And while those three events might have been enough to deal with, it was only the beginning. We still had four months left in the year and things weren’t over yet.  Today I’ll finish describing the rest of the year.


September: Bastrop Burns
Yup, Bastrop again. Because between the drought and the heat and everything else, Austin can become a tinderbox and shit sometimes burst into flames. And there was a really horrible fire out in Bastrop. Like weeks of land burning and people losing their houses kinds of fires.

And there’s a lot of farms and country out in Bastrop. Which means lots and lots of animals. I heard stories of people just letting their horses and cows out of the barns and pastures, just turning them free so they could have a chance to escape. And it happened so fast that people were evacuating their houses with no time to grab anything but the essentials before trying to get away. It was just one of those kinds of things.

A lot of them didn’t have time to get their companion animals (or couldn’t find them). Or those that did couldn’t keep them and dropped them off at the Bastrop shelter. Dogs were found wandering among the fires, burned or with various injuries. And, once again, we took them all in. Something like 155 total animals with 90 or so dogs and the rest cats were rescued and we took in the bulk of them. You can see pictures of some of them here and this video shows some of the animals.


The dogs were in various states of injury with burns and other damage, they were all scared and confused. Many of them were country or farm dogs. Some weren’t fixed (which can mean aggression issues in older males) or just had basic behavioral issues. So once again we were in disaster mode; the difference here being that a lot of the dogs were at the higher color levels on top of being bigger. The hoarding incident had been ameliorated by the dogs being so well behaved and small but now we had kennels full of very large, very time and energy demanding dogs.

Normally we have, at most a handful of yellow and orange dogs but I remember seeing a whole ton of both during this time. And those dogs can be exhausting (as I’d be finding out soon enough) to begin with; the yellow and orange BRATT’s were stretched thin by this point to begin with and this was just another crisis event to exhaust them. There are far fewer of the higher level BRATT’s (especially orange level) and the dogs take a lot more time and energy.

Now, we did everything we could to let folks know that their dogs were at the shelter. Radio spots, print ads and a Facebook page were put up with pictures of all the animals in an attempt to reunite them with their owners. I’m guessing about half of them were. There was something special about being at the shelter when someone came in and was reunited with the dog that they had thought lost or claimed by the fire.

At the same time, I was shocked when nobody had even checked on some of the dogs. We gave them weeks (before assuming that they were now ours and we tried to rehome them) and I can’t imagine someone not taking the time to call every shelter in the area to see if their dog had shown up.

Then again, the situation was insane. I can only imagine that people were having to leave Austin, go stay in hotels, stay with friends, who knows what? Maybe it was unrealistic to expect them to come after their animals. I don’t know and I’m in no position to judge.

But we took care of all of them, cleared the kennels again and it was back to normal at long last. Except that right as the Bastrop fire issue was getting taken care of, the next disaster would strike.


September: OUTBREAK!
Because right as we were getting things under control from the Bastrop fire, there was a disease outbreak at the shelter. Now make no mistake, the nature of the shelter environment is that stuff sometimes moves through the shelter. Usually it’s minor stuff like kennel cough or the occasional gastrointestinal bug. We do our best to contain it when it happens, the clinic stays right on top of things (and we have a health board to track who’s got what) but that’s what happens with dozens of animals in a closed space. But previously it had always been minor stuff.

But this was different. I won’t specify what it was; sufficed to say we were hit with a disease that is contagious, virulent and ultimate fatal to dogs if they catch it. So now we were in super duper disaster mode trying to limit exposure and do damage control.

This was also the situation I mentioned on Friday when I talked about our dog euthanasia rate; this single event probably led to the most dogs being put down but only because there is zero chance of recovery for the dog. But since almost nobody had spent time or worked with these dogs (i.e. they hadn’t had time to get attached as with Alan or other dogs we’d lost), it just didn’t carry the same emotional weight.

Now, our normal setup is that we have the main kennel (called K-9) and the pre-adopt kennel (where dogs not ready for prime time go until they are temp and medical tested). That way any dogs that the public can get to are available for adoption and the ones not yet ready can’t be seen by anybody but staff and volunteers. It’s just less of a headache when the public can’t even get a glimpse of a dog that’s not available yet. So far as the general public is concerned, those dogs don’t exist.

That changed as the pre-adopt kennel was made into a quarantine area for sick or potentially sick dogs which meant that all dogs who weren’t sick (adoptable or not) were up in the main kennel. Nobody was allowed back there for months (the final dog would be cleared in February of 2012); only staff could handle those dogs and they had to take major precautions (gloves/gowns) while doing so.

So now all of our available dogs were up in K-9, which also cut down how many dogs we could have by about 20 (since the pre-adopt kennels were being used for other things). While not a major deal this does lead to some headaches as the public can now see dogs who aren’t yet ready for adoption and there is a whole discussion/explanation that you have to have to explain why. Usually you just send them to the front desk and let them deal with it.

More importantly, everyone at the shelter was paranoid because of the danger of this disease and the very real possibility of carrying it home. Many, if not most, volunteers have their own dogs and some will have separate shelter clothes that they change in and out of so that they don’t take anything home with them to their own dogs.

And that’s just for minor stuff. But this outbreak meant that many, especially those with older dogs (who are apparently more susceptible) simply didn’t come in at all. They weren’t willing to risk the death of their own dogs while the outbreak was going on. And, as I noted above, this went on for months.

So not only were we still overwhelmed with dogs (and we still seemed to have an unusually large number of higher color dogs) but we were understaffed on volunteers (especially at higher color levels). Between having lost a lot to simple attrition, stress and everything else, now we had folks who couldn’t come in to keep their own dogs safe. That left everyone else to pick up the slack. And what that usually means is shorting time with the dogs. You just have to get them in and out of the door, leash them, potty them, short walk, back to the kennels. No time for training, no time for socializing.

As I noted, it would be months before the outbreak would be resolved but it was the last major disaster that would occur.


The High Point of 2011: Rags to Wags
Finally things would start to return to normal and, at least we could end the year on a high-note. Our major fundraiser, Rags to Wags would hit in December. It’s super silly with a dog fashion show (volunteers got to walk the dogs down the runway this year), a silent auction and $150/plate dinners. As a dog volunteer, our job is to keep the dogs calm for 6 hours for their 5 minute walk down the runway. But we get fed and it’s totally worth it. Mainly because we get to wear jeans and tennis shoes while everyone else is in formal wear.

The theme this year was super heroes, shelter dogs wore capes and owner dogs wore some pretty elaborate costumes (one set of dogs were done up as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). I think this picture says it all.


I don't know what to say about this


But, silly as hell or not, after a long 2011 and everything that the shelter had survived, the event raised something stupid like $300k when all was said and done, got insane exposure for the Austin Humane Shelter, got some dogs adopted, etc. It was a much needed high point after a year of absolute craziness.


Into 2012
Mind you, by comparison 2012 has been a breeze. Sure, the outbreak took until February or so to finally resolve but once we were in a rhythm with things, it was minor and it was only a small handful of dogs that had to be tested clear for things to return to normal. It kept the pre-adopt kennel tied up which was a bit problematic but overall the first of this year was no big deal.

We’ve had a couple of minor hoarding incidents (including a bunch of rabbits, of all things, a few months back) in the last couple of months but nothing to compare to the craziness of last year. For example, we took in 20+ something chiweenies (I still think they are some kind of daschunds mix) the other week; we also had 18 dogs come in off a farm when their owner got too sick or died and that’s left us with a lot of higher color dogs (all of whom are very scared) to contend with.

Still, compared to last year, this is nothing. We’d had lots of dogs coming and going, plenty of adoptions, only one or two long term residents who haven’t found the perfect home, did a Mega-adoption event with over 150 total adoptions (cats and dogs), etc.

But going into the end of 2012, things were as back to normal as they get, we were getting new volunteers and some of the higher level volunteers who had left were being replaced by those of us who were moving up in color level. Yes, I said us, meaning me. Which is the best segue to talk about what I was doing during this entire time other than not working on my book projects.

Read Volunteering at the Austin Humane Shelter: Part 9.