There’s a team of people at Animal Care Services whose job it is, every day, to determine which dogs and cats have been in the shelter the longest. (The limit for a stay is three to five days from intake).
It’s a formula intended to make space for the near nonstop flow of dogs and cats either captured as strays or surrendered by their owners. The shelter takes in an average of 25,000 to 30,000 animals every year.
The ones that aren’t reclaimed, adopted or rescued go on the daily “urgent list,” a pages-long inventory of dogs and cats, puppies and kittens that are scheduled for euthanasia.
Between Oct. 2020 and Sept. 2021, more than 2,000 animals were killed at the shelter.
This week, we profiled several animals and animal care workers facing that deadline. Good news: Hutchins and the two other dogs we featured have been placed in a foster homes, giving them more time to find a permanent home.
But we wanted to know more about the people who make those life-and-death decisions, so we sat down with Jessica Travis, a live release manager for Animal Care Services, to talk about the process these public servants go through every day but Sundays, and what they wish the community knew about the job most of us would not want.
(Responses are lightly edited for clarity and brevity.)
San Antonio Report: Thank you for agreeing to talk to us. Could you describe the process of managing the urgent list?
Travis: There’s a lot that goes into it and it’s incredibly difficult and impactful to staff members. It’s never something we look forward to but I can tell you we do every single thing in our effort to plead these animals out as far in advance as possible.
During intake, we do as much as we can for them. We get the best possible portrait of the animals and do a full health and behavior assessment. All of this information goes into our capacity euthanasia report.
If an animal comes into the shelter with some form of identification, such as a microchip, we give it a five-day “due-out.” We always look at whether there are any potential owners that we could track down before we add an animal to the capacity euthanasia list.
For others, the standard number of days is three. But the “due-out date” is a legal term and does not automatically equate to euthanasia. Once they are past that due-out date, they become City of San Antonio property.
As temperatures rise, so does the number of dogs and cats in San Antonio shelters where capacity limits lead to “code red days” and higher kill rates.
SAR: Three days isn’t very long for an animal to have a chance at being adopted or fostered. Do all of those animals get euthanized after that time?
Travis: Not at all. But we’re a shelter that takes in well over 20,000 animals a year.
Every morning, we have to figure out how much space we will need for the next day. We put out a list of the animals that are at the end of their due-out date, and thus scheduled to be euthanized that afternoon.
Rescue groups have until 12:30 p.m. to move any of those animals to another shelter or foster home where they can stay until they can be adopted.
SAR: If animals are being euthanized, how can San Antonio be considered a “no-kill” city?
Travis: “No-kill” is kind of a misnomer. Basically, we’re at a 90% or above release rate. The fact is, once an animal becomes City property, we need to figure out what the placement options are for that dog or cat.
It’s always a collective decision that takes into account health, behavior and other factors. We take a hard look at it and, at the end of the day, it’s all about placement and if that’s going to be possible given those factors.
SAR: What are you doing to keep animals off the urgent list?
Travis: I oversee a team of 30 people who work nonstop to secure placement for these animals — in a permanent home, a foster or with our partner agencies like San Antonio Pets Alive. As soon as they get here, they’re available online. As soon as they’re impounded, everyone can see them and they’re available for adoption.
About 90% of the animals that we bring in to Animal Care Services are owned by someone. Every day, we walk through the kennels with people who are looking for their lost pet. About 30% of the animals we take in go back to their owners.
Animal Care workers also take animals from the kennels into their offices to give them more time. At least two days a week, I personally walk back and pull animals from the building right before they’re euthanized — just because they’re good dogs.
That’s very routine practice here. And it’s something of a breakthrough during my time here. Other divisions participate as well. So we have dogs in offices all across the campus simply because no one is coming for these dogs.
Sometimes the reward is that two hours later we get placement for that animal or it is adopted. I’m glad you brought that up because we sometimes don’t give ourselves enough credit for the work we do.
SAR: What frustrates you the most about your job?
Travis: I think one of the biggest frustrations for us is that our community is not connected to euthanasia. We have all these people who live in other states who are trying to secure placements for our animals. We have one woman who calls us regularly from Canada to ask how she can help.
SAR: When you say that the community is not connected to euthanasia, what do you mean by that?
Travis: Let me give you an example. All of these animals at the shelter are not stray dogs and cats. We have five owner-surrender appointments a day and we are booked out until November at this point.
So we see a pattern of people who don’t want their pets anymore. These are animals that people have owned and microchipped and loved for some years. Then something changes and they say, “Come take care of my problem.”
SAR: Are you an animal lover?
Travis: That’s a natural yes for me. I actually left animal welfare at one point during my career to go work in public health for a while, and here I am again. I’ve been doing this for about 20 years now. “Animal people” are my kind of people. I could not imagine life without animals.
SAR: Then how do you cope with the daily task of sending animals to be euthanized?
Travis: It’s tough, I’ll be real honest.
There are four of us who do this work. We have systems in place to minimize the amount of emotional and mental impact that this has on us. For instance, the people who are responsible for capacity euthanasia decisions at Animal Care Services don’t have a lot of interaction with the pets that come in.
But I will tell you, it doesn’t matter. We still see these animals, we still have to look into their faces and make decisions. And so there are days when staff has to close the door and cry or take a walk around campus.
I think what keeps us going is just knowing that the work that we do matters. The number of lives that we do save is far greater than the number of animals that we have to make those difficult decisions on. It’s the reward in public service that kind of comes with the territory.