|MF: Mike Fry |
BN: Beth Nelson
LT: Larry Tucker
MF: I just have to say before we introduce our next guest, who is Larry Tucker, I want to put a shout out to all the great folks in Austin, Texas. I was recently down in Huntsville, Alabama helping to host a no kill workshop there, and we were talking with …
BN: Kelly Jedlicki.
MF: Yes, and the wonderful folks at No Kill Huntsville, and we were talking about the folks in Austin. Every time I think about them, I am so inspired by them, because Larry is one of a large team of people who really worked together to make Austin the largest no kill city in the United States. It’s people at every level.
BN: Volunteers, advocates.
MF: City Council member Mark Martinez, his policy aide, the Animal Advisory Commission, the incredible folks at Austin Pets Alive, Fix Austin, and others who all came together. When you look at each of those areas, you’re looking at a team of people who are creative, intelligent, passionate.
I think the conversation we’re about to have here takes that one step further, because not only did they get it done in Austin, they continue to work. You don’t cross the finish line and you’re done. It’s ongoing, constant work, and they’re continuing to do it in Austin, but they’re also doing things like reaching out and helping others, too. That I just find to be so …
BN: Another layer of inspiring.
MF: Right. With that, Larry, welcome back to Animal Wise Radio.
LT: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
BN: Larry, maybe you can give a little context for how it is that you became part of Austin’s animal welfare efforts in the early stages of the no kill efforts down here.
LT: Sure. I remember watching a news clip on TV where the shelter director at that time had mentioned there was an IBM building that was going to be demolished, and there were some feral cats there, or community cats as they are now called, rightly so. There were a group of trappers that were relocating the cats. I was watching this station, and I was really pulled into this story and was watching it pretty intently. They were interviewing the rescuers.
Then, the shelter director said, “Well, it’s better off if those cats are just left there instead of being relocated, because it’s too stressful for them to be relocated, and they might suffer as a result of being relocated.” So in other words, “just blow them up where they are” was their message.
That pulled me in and quickly got me involved. I was just horrified at what she was saying. That was the first real thing that pulled me into the movement.
BN: So you must have started looking around thinking, “Is anyone else thinking the same way I am? Where’s my tribe?”
LT: Absolutely. Once we starting finding each other in the mist, then it quickly started snowballing from there. I remember being at a council meeting once – and this was probably two years into the push for no kill – and I remember listening to people speak. All at once, this very intelligent well-spoken attorney, which sounds like Ryan Clinton, who is also a very intelligent well-spoken attorney, but yet another one was in the crowd that none of us had ever heard from, and we had never seen him before. I said, “I’ve got to meet with this guy and talk to him.” He since has become involved in Austin Pets Alive and is the chair of their board. Things like that happen where you really just find each other in the mist, and then it just starts to gel and solidify.
MF: One of the things that caused me to want to talk to you today is my recent experience in Huntsville. While I was down there, not surprisingly from people who are not necessarily yet on board with no kill in Huntsville kept saying all the same things they’ve heard in other communities, which is why I wanted to revisit that.
One of the things that they’ve said consistently is, “It takes years. It’s a slow, methodic, step-by-step process.” It’s going to be a long question, and hopefully you can answer it relatively short because we’re coming up on a break. It seems to me like in Austin, the long trudging part was getting people on board. Once the commitment was made, it happened really fast. Is that reasonably true?
LT: Yes, that’s absolutely true. It was getting the politicians on board, who were the only reason that it would take a long time – politicians and city staff. Once they were on board, it happened literally overnight with the passing of the moratorium on killing.
MF: I would argue in fact you actually didn’t get the director of the shelter on board. She ended up leaving, and it was when she finally left that you actually achieved it.
LT: That’s correct. We brought in an interim director who was no nonsense. Actually, there were two interim directors that were sharing the responsibility – a retired police lieutenant and a problem solver within the city that was responsible for putting together a disaster plan in other areas of the city. They just really had very little if no experience in animal welfare. They listened to what we were saying was successful in other cities, and together we put together the policies and procedures of other no kill cities that were successful and what they were doing in their cities, and they implemented it. We achieved no kill in a very short time.
MF: That’s great. We’re going to come back, and we’re going to talk more about what some of the other communities are saying, and what actually has happened in Austin, because it’s an important story. We’ll be back with more of it.
MF: A revolution is already underway, and one of the revolutionaries in the animal welfare world is on the line with us. His name is Larry Tucker. He was the chair of the Animal Advisory Commission in Austin, Texas, before, during, and after the transition to no kill in that city. He’s still on the Animal Advisory Commission. We’re revisiting that story in the context of other communities and the resistance that sometimes shows up there. It’s kind of funny – no matter where you go, it’s the same. It’s the same archetype that plays out over and over and over. Is that your experience of it, too, Larry, watching other communities, and that they follow the same path that you did?
LT: Sure, absolutely. Everybody I think feels that their city is different somehow, but yet somebody like me who hears from these people, it becomes obvious that the stories they’re telling in every city are the same. “We can't do this. We can't do that. We don’t have the talent. We have a shelter director that’s entrenched in maintaining the status quo and entrenched in old, archaic policies and hasn’t evolved. We have a city council that isn’t supportive.”
While there are a lot of similarities in every market, the difference comes in that out of 10 things that are in common across all of these cities, they may find one thing that’s slightly different or they don’t realize that they’re all similar. There’s just an awareness that happens once you get into it. We’ve heard every single reason from politicians to staff members as to why they can't do it, and really it comes down to them being the obstacle.
MF: Yes. I think that’s really true. If people are making excuses, immediately we know that they’re not looking to how they can change the model. While we talk about this as archetypal, there’s one community that I know of that really stands out as different, and that was Reno. That was because Bonney Brown from the Nevada Humane Society and Mitch Schneider from Washoe Regional Animal Services, instead of requiring the public to come forward and demand that they change, and instead of them resisting it, they actually took charge and led the charge. A lot of the nasty dynamics that have shown up in other communities pretty much didn’t happen there that much.
LT: That’s true, and we would have loved to have that structure in Austin. It would have made it a lot easier, definitely. You’re absolutely right, Mike.
MF: One of the other common factors that I find is that with the people who are opposing no kill for whatever reason they oppose it, they have a tendency to spread around some misinformation. One of the things that I heard recently from folks down in Huntsville who may not be happy about no kill were saying things like – and I believe that this is completely untrue – it cost the city of Austin five million dollars to implement no kill.
LT: I had not heard that before, and I don’t know where that number came from at all. That’s certainly not the case. Five million dollars is almost the total current operating budget.
We did a lot of things wrong in Austin, which made it more difficult to achieve no kill status, including building a new shelter six miles east from where it was before. The old shelter location was perfectly situated where people lived, worked, and played, and we moved it against the no kill advocates objections six miles east to a heavily industrial area. Volunteerism dropped off as a result, because a lot of the UT students that were directly north of the old shelter weren’t willing to commute over six miles, and there really was no easy way for them to commute like there was at the old location. I had not heard that five million dollar number, and it certainly isn’t true.
MF: I want to make a point that the decision to build the new shelter and move it actually happened before the commitment to no kill and before the no kill effort happened. Those two things are going on in parallel.
BN: But they’re not connected.
MF: Right. The freight train has left the station. The new shelter was going to be built anyway, and then the no kill effort kicked in. Those two things are going on really in parallel, and anybody who looks at the costs of that shelter and tries to correlate it to no kill, I think they’re just mixing things up.
BN: Wouldn’t you say, Larry, and I’m betting that you hear this from other communities, we certainly have – “It’s just going to cost us too much.” You know, we know, and if you look at the numbers, it’s just not an argument that stacks up.
LT: That’s correct. Absolutely. Definitely, the building of that new shelter and the relocation of the new shelter has made it significantly harder for us to maintain no kill status.
MF: Not to point fingers at anybody or anything, but when they designed the building and things, there were some mistakes made. I don’t remember what the exact number is, but for example, they built the new building, and it houses significantly fewer dogs than the old facility, so there they were with no kill policy in place and they were moving, and they didn’t have enough room for the dogs at the new place.
LT: That’s correct. There were 38 fewer dog kennels, but the solution at that time was we had to look at the goal. The goal was to kill them not save them. Their solution at the time that the shelter was voted on was to put a crematorium in. Kill them and burn them. That’s basically what they wanted to do at that time. It wasn’t to save them. Poor decisions prior to the no kill movement moving forward in Austin that we were locked into that came to fruition years down the road.
BN: Larry, could you talk to us just a little bit, just thinking about the theme of no kill reaching out – I can't but help think about how Texas in and around Austin, it just seems like there’s this contagion that’s been seeping out of Austin.
LT: That’s right.
BN: The reaching out is happening in very tangible ways in your community, even as Mike was going down to Huntsville, there was a contagion that grew around the idea of a new and good idea that was going to be presented and be talked about. I’d just like to hear your perspective a little bit on how it’s been growing in Texas in some really unexpected places.
LT: We’re really fortunate to have good city council members currently on the Austin City Council; Mike Martinez and Laura Morrison also. I think they’ve helped spread the word. They’re very accessible to other politicians. When the community starts talking about no kill in their cities, and they raise that and escalate it to politicians, it makes it easier for them to reach out to Mike and Laura for advice. I think once those politicians from other cities talk to Mike and Laura, they quickly realize that this is doable, and not only is it doable, but it is really a gold star on our city once we achieved it.
Austin is really proud of achieving no kill status. We just closed out the month of July. I just saw the numbers over the weekend. We closed out the month with a 94% save rate.
MF: Which is I think one of your highest. Even though you’ve got the challenges of this new shelter that was not really designed for the no kill ideal, you continue to get better very year.
LT: Yes. We’re sure pushing for it, and we’re going to push as close to 100% as possible.
MF: Again, to put a thanks out to you, when I was down in Huntsville, because of the big splash that you all made down there, everybody was talking about Austin. In meeting with city officials down there, I had said, “I can see if I can try to hook you up with some of the Austin folks.” I got back and I sent an email out to some of the folks in Austin, including you, including council member Mike Martinez, and literally within minutes got a very pleasant email back from council member Martinez with a note to the mayor of Huntsville saying, “I’m available. Let’s talk.”
I think that level of commitment to support others is just absolutely inspiring and wonderful. It’s great to get it done in your own community; it’s even that much better to be so open to helping other people.
LT: Absolutely. I agree. We’re very fortunate that we have Mike on the council. We’re very lucky.
BN: So, Larry, as you look at this path that you’ve taken – because there were times as you mentioned there was a lot of hard work leading up to the tipping point when the decision was made to adopt the no kill model and to stop killing in the shelter health and treatable animals – to now. You’ve been on the Animal Advisory Commission for some time, and I’m wondering, has the job changed of the Animal Advisory Commission? How has that shifted?
LT: I have more time now that we have a well-oiled machine going. What we had to do in Austin was we knew what would work, which was the no kill equation. Instead of just moving this forward without any research or documentation to prove that it would work, what we had to do was spend 28 weeks – we met once a week for three hours a week on average, 28 weeks of public meetings, and we did was during those public meetings we researched other markets. I believe there were only seven at that time, and I think there are well over 100 right now. We researched those other seven markets and put together a plan that was proven to have worked in other markets. We looked at the commonalities, and of course in the end, we came out with a no kill equation.
That’s gotten a lot easier for me personally, because we aren’t spending 28 consecutive weeks working on that plan. What we’ve done now is we really made sure that we’ve kept our eye on the ball, that we’re getting back to every single basic and everything that we are supposed to be doing is still working, that we don’t let anything fall through the cracks.
MF: Wow – that’s amazing. The other thing that I’ll say is I have to get a plug out. We mentioned Reno, Nevada earlier. Not only are the folks in Austin reaching out, but the folks in Reno – Bonney Brown has started her new endeavor, the Humane Network, which you find on the web at www.humanenetwork.org. They’ve specifically set up this entity that is there to help other communities get there and do it. As more communities get on board and achieve success, there’s more and more resources available for those who want to get there.
I just find that to be really inspiring, that the people who’ve gotten there and have done it, are now in many ways stepping up. There’s something just special about Austin. Larry, there just is.
BN: And he’s using that word I think in a good way, Larry!
LT: Thank you.
MF: I love that community. It’s a fun city. There’s so much to say, but it’s worth noting that during that time period, Austin was one of the fastest if not the fastest growing city in the united States. That adds extra challenges and complexities. You were also taking in way more than the national average intake to your shelters. What you took on was breathtaking, and you just did it amazingly well, Larry.
We’re going to have to leave it at that, but thank you so much for all your work and for a fascinating conversation and more insights into how you did it, and how you keep doing it.
BN: We also look forward to the crew down in Austin continuing to be a light. We continue to be big fans, because we see that the work continues. The thinking continues. The passion continues. The learning continues. I think that that inspires us as well. Like you said, you just don’t get there and get done. You keep getting better. Thanks for all of that goodness, Larry.
LT: Thank you.
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