Following a City Council mandate in May, San Antonio Pets Alive hired an executive director this summer. Pets Alive introduced its new leader Maureen O’Nell, a nonprofit consultant and former CEO of the Humane Society of Southern Arizona, to its staff via email Friday. The City is considering a new model for how it compensates partner agencies that could help subsidize Pets Alive’s work towards maintaining San Antonio’s “no kill” status.

The mandate came as a condition of an emergency, one-time $375,000 grant from the City following a period of financial uncertainty for the nonprofit, which is the City’s largest animal rescue partner and accounts for about 20% of San Antonio’s total live-release rate from City shelters.

The position had been vacant since March, when CEO Drue Placette was fired after less than five months at the helm. That marked the end of a tumultuous 18-month period in which other leaders struggled to put the organization on a sustainable path.

By April, when Pets Alive put in its funding request to the City, the nonprofit was reportedly only a few weeks out from insolvency. In addition to requiring the new executive hire, the City instructed Pets Alive to raise an additional $150,000 to supplement its own grant. According to Pets Alive Chief Operating Officer Tommy McNish, the organization has exceeded that goal.

“We got that additional (money), no problem, we had that within the next month,” McNish said. “We also got a $318,000 grant from an organization called Maddie’s Fund. That grant is specifically to find and hire our new (executive director), operations director, and development director.”

While Pets Alive has already put that grant to use by selecting O’Nell in August, it is still on the hunt for candidates to fill the other two positions, which will be crucial if Pets Alive is to keep on a viable long-term path without further infusion of City funds.

In the meantime, the organization has also worked to bring in smaller donations. Pets Alive has received more than $100,000 in general donations since the City’s bailout, McNish said, and it is now in the midst of a matching gift drive. Local attorney Michelle Maloney has promised to match up to $25,000 in donations through Sept. 6.

In an interview with the Rivard Report last week, O’Nell took a pragmatic view of Pets Alive’s struggles.

San Antonio Pets Alive Executive Director Maureen O’Nell holds her dog, Rain. Image courtesy of O'Nell.
San Antonio Pets Alive Executive Director Maureen O’Nell holds her dog, Rain. Courtesy photo.

“Nonprofits have growth cycles, and they go through ups and downs,” she said. “Sometimes they go through chaos, and sometimes they’re stagnant, and it’s just a matter of sitting down and doing really deep self-analysis of the organization.”

Still, O’Nell believes that Pets Alive’s strategy and situation is unique.

“It’s kind of revolutionary in a lot of ways,” she said. “All of the organizations that I’ve worked at have come to the conclusion that animals are not expendable, (that) we can’t equate it to say that we have ‘X’ amount of resources so that means ‘X’ amount get to live. Pets Alive has taken that ethic, that value, and said, ‘We’re going to go above and beyond to figure this out.’ So it is a really new, innovative (strategy) – and any time you have a new, innovative approach, it’s going to have its challenges.”

O’Nell acknowledged that the nonprofit’s path forward would not be easy or clear-cut, but hopes that San Antonio can remain dedicated to creative, humane solutions to its serious animal care problems.

“It’s challenging as heck,” she said. “This is not cheap to do this, it takes a lot of resources. Each animal has to be addressed individually. We talk about numbers, we put numbers out there, because they help gauge the impact of what’s going on. But each animal is important in its own right.”

Starting Sept. 19, O’Nell will be working full-time as the new CEO to help Pets Alive navigate that potential change and others. She is currently working with Pets Alive part-time and remotely from Tuscon, Ariz. where she is a nonprofit consultant. Before moving to Arizona, she was the executive director of Alaska’s SPCA.

Pets Alive’s good news comes alongside a City announcement on Friday that Animal Care Services‘ assistant to the director Heber Lefgren has been promoted to director of ACS. That job had been temporarily filled by Parks and Recreation Director Xavier Urrutia since Kathy Davis’ retirement in March.

In an Aug. 30 City Council presentation on ACS’ proposed 2017 budget, Urrutia suggested a number of new strategies to keep San Antonio’s fluctuating live-release rate high in the next year.

One of those strategies, a tiered structure in which ACS would give all of its rescue partners more money for animals that are difficult to place, could have a major impact on Pets Alive’s sustainability efforts if implemented. Currently, ACS pays any rescue organization that pulls an animal from its shelter $50. Under the proposed change, ACS would pay more money for animals that are harder to adopt out.

“As we become more successful in our positive placement of pets, the animals that become the most difficult to place may be animals that have health issues, behavioral issues, or just aren’t in demand and may take more time to have a positive outcome, and therefore a larger cost,” Urrutia told the Rivard Report on Thursday. “So we want to help defray some of that cost.”

Xavier D. Urrutia, Parks & Recreation director, listens to a question posed by City Council about the Howard W. Peak Greenway Trails System. Photo by Camille Garcia. Xavier Urrutia  listens to a question posed by City Council about the Howard W. Peak Greenway Trails System. Photo by Camille Garcia.
The City’s Parks & Recreation Director Xavier Urrutia also served as the City’s director of Animal Care Services for about five months until a replacement was found.  File photo by Camille Garcia.

Urrutia said he is unsure exactly what that funding structure might look like, but clarified that rescues that pull mostly easily adoptable animals, such as puppies, should not see a change in their stipends.

“What we looked at is based on the type of animal you’re pulling. If you were to keep that same pattern, we wanted to make sure that you wouldn’t get less funding,” Urrutia said. “But if you ended up pulling more animals that are more difficult to place, you could get a larger stipend.”

The tiered stipend idea is potentially unique. National searches for similar strategies in other cities came up empty. The restructuring would create “an innovative program,” Lefgren stated in an email.

“The idea for this program was derived not by looking at other agencies, but from multiple discussion(s) with our rescue partners,” he said. “We understand that pulling the unhealthy pets require(s) additional care and attention from our partners and concluded that this was a way we could help.”

Pets Alive considers itself different from many other large rescue groups in that it focuses on animals that have few other options. It pulls exclusively from the euthanasia list at ACS, after other rescues have had their pick of the City shelter’s dogs and cats. Many of the animals Pets Alive pulls are very young, like kittens that need to be bottle-fed every few hours, or have medical or behavioral issues that need attention before they can be placed in a permanent home. Pets Alive also pulls a lot of pit bull-type dogs, as well as larger, older dogs, for which there are fewer interested adopters. Though other organizations also pull these types of animals, they often try to balance them with animals that they can quickly adopt out.

San Antonio Pets Alive Chief Operating Officer Tommy McNish answers questions from City Council. Photo by Iris Dimmick
San Antonio Pets Alive Chief Operating Officer Tommy McNish answers questions from City Council in May 2016. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

While Pets Alive’s mission has always been to save those harder cases, McNish says if they were tied to a higher reimbursement rate, that task could certainly be easier.

“Look, a sick or old animal costs us way more than $50 between the time we get it and the time we find it a home,” McNish said. “So from a business model perspective it really doesn’t make a lot of financial sense. Definitely, we count on additional funding from grants or from donors to cover additional costs. Somebody’s got to do it, if somebody’s not taking care of those animals, then San Antonio will never be a 90% save-rate city.”

Because the tiered structure would apply to all of ACS’ rescue partners such as the Animal Defense League (ADL) and the San Antonio Humane Society, it might take the pressure off Pets Alive to be the primary funnel for difficult-to-place animals.

“It’ll definitely improve the overall rescue incentive rate,” McNish said. “Because if ADL, Humane Society, and other organizations now have a financial incentive to pull some of those animals, it does take a lot of the burden off of one organization doing it. So it will be good all around. It’s a win-win.”

Whether the City can find room in its budget to tier its reimbursements is still unclear. Fiscal year 2017 budget discussions will continue in City Hall right up until the budget is voted on Thursday, Sept. 15. In the meantime, Pets Alive has other challenges ahead.

Another stipulation of the City’s emergency funding was that Pets Alive re-apply for stewardship of its primary facility, the Paul Jolly Adoption Center near Brackenridge Park. Currently, the nonprofit leases the center from the City for $1. In exchange for that lease agreement, Pets Alive pulls 3,000 animals off death row. Those 3,000 are in addition to the 3,800 it is contracted to pull at the $50-per-animal rate. In 2013, Pets Alive was the only organization in a position to operate the facility. But now there are other bidders.

The SAPA (San Antonio Pets Alive!) Paul Jolly Adoption Center on Tuleta Drive. Photo by Scott Ball.
The San Antonio Pets Alive Paul Jolly Adoption Center on Tuleta Drive in Brackenridge Park. Photo by Scott Ball.

“There is a chance, a pretty good chance, that the City decides another organization would be a safer play, especially after we had to go and ask for emergency funding from the City,” McNish said. “So of course from a sustainability standpoint that puts us at a disadvantage, even though now we are definitely on better footing.”

If Pets Alive cannot prove its worth to the City and loses the contract, McNish thinks it will have a significant impact on its ability to maintain its high pull and adoption numbers.

“Knowing that we have the Paul Jolly Center as a central adoption center allows us to confidently pull animals that we know need additional medical help. Because we know that once we get them healthy, we have a place to take them to get visibility and adoptions processed,” McNish said. “So not having the Paul Jolly Center is going to change everything about how we do what we do.”

Top image: Dogs bark for attention as Pets Alive employees walk by their temporary shelters. Photo by Scott Ball. 

Related Stories:

Council Gives $375,000 to Animal Rescue, Saves the Rest for a Rainy Day

San Antonio Pets Alive’s Difficult Path Forward

Key to a No-Kill San Antonio: Affordable, Accessible Clinics

Animal Care Services Report Record No-Kill Numbers

Abbey Rae Francis is a San Antonio native and freelance journalist. After attending college up North, she decided she missed Tex-Mex too much and came back to the Lone Star State. She is that person you...