San Antonio City Council gave San Antonio Pets Alive a one-time $375,000 grant to continue operations on Thursday, but in order to receive the money the struggling nonprofit must jump through several hoops. On top of fundraising, it must solidify its administration and prove that it’s the best tenant for the City-owned adoption facility in Brackenridge Park.

Pets Alive must raise an additional $150,000 from other donors, $125,000 of which has already been promised by the Nancy Smith Hurd Foundation. Pets Alive Chief Operating Officer Tommy McNish said his team is close to securing the remaining $25,000.

“I feel confident that we’ll have that additional $25,000 raised within the next 30-45 days,” McNish said on Thursday after the vote.

McNish, who has held his position since December 2015, said that Pets Alive came to be in their precarious financial situation primarily because it has spent the last four years focusing on saving a large number of animals from the city’s euthanasia list, but has not created a sustainable infrastructure with which to consistently fulfill that mission.

“We had several folks in leadership (positions) over the last 18 months that – while they had several strengths – one of them was not necessarily fundraising,” McNish said. “With the volume of animals that we’re saving and the level of care that we provide these animals, it requires a constant influx of significant funding.”

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 on Wednesday. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Pets Alive is also looking to hire a head of fundraising and will work on improving customer service and communications with foster families that temporarily take the animals in.

Another condition of the City funding is that Pets Alive hire a new CEO within 60 days, starting Thursday. The organization has been without a chief executive since March, when Dru Placette was fired after only five months on the job. City staff has offered to assist with the vetting process as yet another funding condition is that Pets Alive’s board include a member of city staff – likely Xavier Urrutia, interim director of the City’s Animal Care Services (ACS) department.

McNish declined to explain why Placette was fired, only that there were some “personnel issues.”

Pets Alive may also have to vacate the Paul Jolly Adoption Center, its Brackenridge Park location, which it currently leases from the City for $1 per month. The city will release a request for proposals for operations of the center in the coming weeks and expects several other animal welfare organizations to apply.

“Having that center is central to our organization … we’re confident that we’re most qualified (to operate it),” McNish said. “Is there a chance that someone else could step up and take the center? Absolutely. But if the end result of that is the same number of animals are still being pulled off the euthanasia list every year, we’re okay with that.”

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.

Pets Alive started up in San Antonio because the City was looking to raise its live-release rate in 2012, after nearly a decade in which city initiatives failed to get the rate to the city’s 70% goal.

In its search for a program that would make San Antonio a “no-kill” city, which in most municipalities means the city euthanizes less than 10% of the animals it catches, the City looked to Austin, where Austin Pets Alive brought the live-release rate above 90%.

The local branch was quickly contracted to take in and find homes for thousands of animals that would have otherwise been euthanized by ACS. According to Pets Alive’s statistics, it rescued 3,697 dogs during its first year of operation.

“It was really like walking into a war zone,” said Dr. Ellen Jefferson last week during a phone interview with the Rivard Report. Jefferson, who founded and CEO of Austin Pets Alive, managed San Antonio Pets Alive during its first year and a half and is now serving as the local chapter’s interim executive director.

“The shelter opened at 11 a.m. and people would be lined up at the front door to drop off baskets of puppies, carriers full of kittens,” Jefferson said. “And since all of those animals typically went straight to the back to be euthanized, we were really put into kind of a triage mode of trying to get those animals out as fast as humanly possible. They didn’t even get a kennel, there was no time. We weren’t expecting to grow that fast.”

Would San Antonio be a no-kill city without Pets Alive?

“I think we can unequivocally say no,” said Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4), “because we were unable to reach (that goal) in 2012 until (Pets Alive) came in with a new mission that said we’re going to go after the hardest to adopt.”

Pets Alive accounts for 20% of the live release rate, according to City staff.

Dave and Chelsie Pace introduce a puppy to their son Jaxon, 2. Photo by Scott Ball.
Dave and Chelsie Pace introduce a puppy to their son Jaxon, 2. Photo by Scott Ball.

“We just never got the chance to grow organically,” McNish said. “We hit the ground running and it was immediately sort of just put things together on the fly and make it happen.

“While we’re in this position that we’re in, we’re still saving a lot of animals, we’re still making a lot of things happen right. … But financially, we do need this funding from the City to give us the runway to recruit the right kind of executive director for us, to get a strong development team in place, to train them, and (to fund) the five or six months that we need to get some of our fundraising initiatives off the ground so that we can be self-sustaining.”

Its contract with the City requires Pets Alive to pull about 4,000 dogs from ACS in exchange for its operation of the Paul Jolly center. It is unclear how that arrangement will change if Pets Alive is forced to leave the building. The City pays the nonprofit $50 for every dog it pulls.

Though other rescues, like the San Antonio Humane Society and Animal Defense League of Texas, also maintain contracts with the City to pull dogs at the $50 price tag, Pets Alive is unique in a few ways. First, other organizations can pull an animal from ACS at any time after the dog has been held for the mandatory three-day viewing period, which is meant to assure that no lost pets are adopted out. Pets Alive pulls animals only once they have been moved to the euthanasia list.

Secondly, Pets Alive pulls more animals from ACS, by far, than any other rescue organization in the city.

“(Pets Alive) is looking for the hardest animals to adopt,” Saldaña said, not the “cute and fluffy one … we have to have a large network of foster (pet caretakers) and volunteers who are willing to keep those animals long enough to find them homes.”

A dog that is awaiting adoption or fostering at San Antonio Pets Alive! Photo by Scott Ball.
A dog that is awaiting adoption or fostering at San Antonio Pets Alive! Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

McNish said that this strategy is at the core of SAPA’s mission.

“The only animals we take are the ones that have already been passed up by the public, passed up by fosters, passed up by the other rescue organizations,” McNish said. “So literally we are their last chance.”

McNish noted that most of the animals they take are animals that have some kind of problem that might make them, at least temporarily, unadoptable.

“We take the hardest, most expensive ones,” he said. “We treat them, find them foster homes for a while if necessary, find them forever homes when they’re back to full health. For some animals that takes a couple of weeks. For some animals that could take up to a year.”

Pets Alive takes in puppies and kittens that still need to be bottle-fed, as well as animals that are otherwise sick or injured. Some of these illnesses, like mange or ringworm, aren’t life-threatening, but require extra care on the part of fosters and extra funding. Other problems, like parvo in puppies, or panleukopenia in cats, are both highly contagious and fatal. Pets Alive takes in many of those animals, too.

That $50 figure may have to be revisited, Saldaña said, especially if Pets Alive is taking on the more expensive cases.

“Those are our special programs that are necessary to get to that 90% mark,” McNish said. “We physically take as many of those animals as we can.”

Jefferson agrees that Pets Alive’s mission is all about statistics.

“Our goal is to increase the save rate, which is a number,” she said. “And the only way that we can numerically increase the save rate is by only taking the animals that nobody else would take. Because if we take one that someone else might take, we’re wiping their effort out. So we don’t go in and pull the animals we want to pull, we pull the animals that need us.”

The large number of animals that it saves from euthanasia by ACS, and its dedication to taking in animals that might cost the organization a lot of money, appears to be both its blessing and its curse. While the organization has been integral to San Antonio’s progress toward no-kill status, activists – some of them former Pets Alive volunteers – have raised concerns that it has bitten off more than it can chew. Many worry that, the City’s haste to raise San Antonio’s live-release rate, the health and safety of the animals, as well as public safety concerns, have been left at the wayside.

wonton case file_ACS

“In theory, SAPA’s a great idea,” said Kelly Walls, a local activist who works with Homeward Bound Dog Rescue. “But they came on board and they really were not prepared to deal with the number of animals that their contract required for them to pull. They didn’t really have the infrastructure. And people thought because there was some success with the program in Austin with Austin Pets Alive that it would equally translate to success here in San Antonio, and that has not always been true. SAPA infrastructure has basically been crumbling since day one.”

Walls, along with other animal rescuers who have been paying attention to Pets Alive’s struggles, have expressed concern that its focus on getting San Antonio’s no-kill level up has caused them to move animals into foster homes despite real concerns about the animals’ behavior and health.

During the City Council meeting on Wednesday, ACS promised to look into the circumstances surrounding a dog named Wonton. The dog, according to documents supplied to the Rivard Report, was fostered out by Pets Alive to a family with a 3-year-old child in September of 2015.

In an apparently unprovoked attack, the dog bit the child on the back of a hand. Though the wound was not severe, the child required stitches and the foster family returned Wonton to Pets Alive with a request that he not be euthanized, though they noted that he did not seem to do well around kids.

In December, the dog was fostered out again, this time to a family with a 7-year-old child. In another seemingly unprovoked attack, Wonton bit the child on the back of the neck. When the animal was turned into ACS, Pets Alive declined to pull him again. It’s unclear what happened to Wonton, but Urrutia said on Thursday that ACS would investigate the case.

Criticisms about the nonprofit’s ability to manage its large number of animals are not new. In 2012, shortly after Pets Alive set up shop in San Antonio, an activist and volunteer took video from inside the kitten ward at its Marbach clinic. The video shows sick kittens, eyes crusted shut, nestled alongside apparently healthy littermates. Shortly after the video was released, a researcher with PETA filed a complaint with the city, alleging a high mortality rate among the kittens under SAPA’s care.

At the time, Pets Alive responded to the videos and allegations with an acknowledgement that they were having growing pains, but noted that it is not unusual for motherless kittens to die at relatively high rates, even with excellent care. One employee said the video was taken out of context during a late-night visit. Later, an unannounced visit by ACS inspectors concluded in a report that the animals in Pets Alive’s care were healthy.

Since then, former volunteers have continued to allege that Pets Alive sometimes provides incomplete medical care for sick and injured foster animals because of lack of funds, raising questions about how it prioritizes the animals that it takes in. If Pets Alive takes in only, or even primarily, the animals that need extra money and more resources, they might have a hard time effectively treating all of those animals and reaching sustainability.

Many rescue organizations attempt to balance their budgets by taking in fewer expensive cases, and filling the rest of their spots with more easily-adoptable animals that will bring in adoption fees without massive expenditures. But this is fundamentally at odds with Pets Alive’s mission to save the animals that other adopters and organizations have passed over.

Seamus Nelson, who works at the San Antonio Humane Society and is District 1’s representative on the ACS board, agrees with some animal rights advocates who think that Pets Alive needs to be more strategic in how they allocate their resources.

“I’m not suggesting that these pets needing medical attention don’t deserve a chance,” Nelson said. “They definitely need a chance. But when you’re talking about the sustainability of an organization, if that’s what’s dragging you down and that’s what you’re hemorrhaging resources into, how many pets are you not saving because of the number of resources you’ve put into this one? I think that’s an important thing to weigh out.”

As Pets Alive struggles to right its financial situation, questions will likely continue about what it can do to fulfill its mission in a city still striving to be no-kill. What is certain, City Council agreed on Thursday, is that a broader conversation about the sustainability of San Antonio’s no-kill status is needed.

“The main problem of course is human behavior,” Mayor Ivy Taylor said on Wednesday. “We are needing a larger discussion on what our goals are related to animals. … Public safety is our top priority.

“We just need to figure out what that balance is,” between getting dogs off the street and ensuring that they have a place to go.

Top image: Dave Pace holds his son Jaxon, 2, by the hand as they look at dogs up for adoption at San Antonio Pets Alive. Photo by Scott Ball. 

Managing Editor Iris Dimmick contributed to this story.

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Abbey Francis

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...