Pilot program tries to figure out what’s separating people from their pets

Chris Tulowetzke, left, with Johnny Morris, his child and their pets. (KXAN Photo)
Chris Tulowetzke, left, with Johnny Morris, his child and their pets. (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) —  A pilot program designed to cut down on stray animals in Austin and free up shelter space is seeing early success. Overall, the number of Austin 311 calls related to stray cats and dogs is down this year from the same time last year.

The $1.1 million grant program, made possible by Maddie’s Fund, launched six months ago. KXAN rode along with those leading the effort to see how they’re making progress.

Chris Tulowetzke holds one of four positions the grant is helping to fund.

“I’m seeing a lot of issues with access to resources,” the pet resource specialist told KXAN, driving around east Austin zip code 78724. “I kind of created a list of resources they had compared to other zip codes and… there’s almost nothing. I mean there are very few vet clinics.”

That zip code and two others between east Austin and Del Valle, 78702 and 78617, were identified as areas where the Austin Animal Center takes in about three times the average number of animals.

Tulowetzke says transportation issues can be another barrier preventing people from reuniting with their pet or getting their pet proper care.

“We have people that know about low-cost vet care services like Emancipet but they can’t get their pets there,” he said, giving examples of people not having a car or an available ride.

Chris Tulowetzke, left, with Johnny Morris, his child and their pets. (KXAN Photo)
Chris Tulowetzke, left, with Johnny Morris, his child and their pets. (KXAN Photo)

Tulowetzke introduced KXAN to Johnny Morris, a dog owner whose story he says is a great example of what the program is all about—figuring out what’s separating people from their pets. Recently, one of Morris’ dogs showed up at the shelter after getting out through the fence. Fortunately, since he was microchipped, Tulowetzke was easily able to bring him home to Morris.

“Be honest, if he wouldn’t have came, I wouldn’t have no idea where he was,” Morris said, admitting he wouldn’t have immediately known to check the Austin Animal Center.

Tulowetzke was able to explain what resources the center provides and help fix Morris’ fence. A seemingly simple fix that can make a big difference. Part of the program’s mission is to meet people where they’re at and learn from what struggles are happening in different communities.

“This is the part where he came and helped, put these on and these zip ties,” Morris said, pointing at the fence. “I had tried everything, I mean he come out and just, bam. I really appreciate it.”

The Austin Animal Center says boots on the ground is how they’re making breakthroughs and changing the perception many have about animal services.

“The more pets we can get back home again, the more resources we have to spend on the animals that really, truly don’t have a family,” Interim Chief Animal Services Officer Lee Ann Shenefiel said.

Because the bottom line is, the shelter is full.

“In July alone we took in about 1,500 pets and over three-quarters of those pets were stray. So they’re lost pets who somehow got away from their home and most of those pets don’t go back home again,” Shenefield said. “So we end up re-homing them for adoption when we know there’s people in the community who loved and cared for them.”

The pilot program has funded “pop-up” microchip clinics in the targeted areas, spay and neuter vouchers, and an opportunity to educate and connect people with pet services that more than half of the people they’ve interacted with didn’t really know existed.

“I’m really appreciate what they’ve done for me,” Morris said. “I love my dogs. I’ve had them all since they was babies. It’s very important to me that I keep them.”

The Austin Animal Center is also working to partner with public locations in these communities, such as libraries, to provide resources like microchip scanners. The pilot program will run for another year and a half.

In the last year, there have been more than 11,000 calls about stray dogs and cats to Austin 311. The biggest area with calls is southeast Austin, 78744, with more than 1,000 calls in the last year.

Back in November, city council members worked to reduce the number of stray animals in Austin by allowing shelters to spay or neuter cats and dogs the first time they enter the shelter. It’s meant to support the city’s “no kill” policy. Shelters do have to wait three days before spaying or neutering cats. The surgery won’t happen if animals are too old or not healthy enough for the surgery.

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