Best Friends Blog

The Austin model: A no-kill grassroots success story

Editor’s note: In a multipart series over the next several weeks, we’ll be providing an analysis of successful No More Homeless Pets campaigns — how they work, why they work and what distinguishes them from each other to achieve no-kill in their communities.

Dr. Ellen Jefferson (pictured)  and Ryan Clinton came at the same problem from very different angles but with the shared goal of ending the killing of Austin’s shelter animals, a city of just over 790,000 people. Ryan is a hard-charging attorney, with a no-holds-barred approach and Nathan Winograd’s playbook in hand. Ryan started Fix Austin, a public and political advocacy group with the aim of forcing changes in policy and practices at Austin’s Town Lake Animal Center (TLAC) by pressuring the city council and exposing the dramatic shortcoming of TLAC and its then director. Ellen, by comparison, is a soft-spoken, self-effacing dynamo who resurrected a once-promising organization and turned it into a lifesaving machine.

When Ellen stepped into the role of volunteer executive director for Austin Pets Alive! (APA!) in March of 2008, the organization had seen better days. The energy and enthusiasm of the group that started APA! in 1997 had waned as their early success at helping to boost the live-release rate of Austin’s municipal shelter from a deplorable 15 to 20 percent to a hopeful 50 percent by 2002 turned into a discouraging status quo that was still in place when she took the helm. For a glimpse into the spirit that drove the early success of Austin Pets Alive!, have a look at Best Friends’ staff writer Elizabeth Doyle’s recollection of her work with APA! in those start-up days.

Ellen was not a newbie to Austin. She had arrived there in 1998 as a newly minted veterinarian out of Virginia Tech. Naturally, she volunteered her time and services to the local animal welfare community, including TLAC, and in 1999 began her own program called Emancipet  a free and low-cost mobile spay/neuter operation, which she grew into a local powerhouse that provided over 100,000 surgeries to the community by 2009. Her own early work with Emancipet contributed to the improved save rate at Town Lake Animal Center, Austin’s city shelter, in the late 1990s and early 2000s. By the time she left for APA!, Emancipet had grown substantially, and the operation included a fixed clinic as well as MASH-type pop-up clinics around the city and a strong management team.

Emancipet was in good hands, but shelter adoptions were in limbo, and APA! needed an infusion of leadership and a can-do makeover. Ellen observed that the number of animals that made it out of TLAC alive was independent of how many animals entered the shelter. TLAC had settled into a routine that was not responsive to the numbers or needs of animals entering the shelter, and she correctly identified the rather large hole in the system that animals were falling through and was determined to fill that gap.

Thanks to a good relationship with the shelter based on her prior volunteer work and the success of Emancipet, Ellen was able to negotiate a role for APA! in the shelter. She began to implement the plans for reducing shelter intake and increasing positive outcomes that Austin Pets Alive! had developed several years earlier as recommended programs for TLAC that were never taken up. Rather than wait for the city and the shelter to come around, Ellen began reinvigorating APA! with a new agenda to build a series of volunteer programs around existing shelter operations that were aimed at saving lives.

Meanwhile, Fix Austin, under Ryan’s leadership, was turning up the heat on TLAC and the city. They ran full-page ads in Austin papers and lobbied the city council to pass a no-kill resolution. Ryan (pictured) became the spokesperson for the local movement while Ellen continued to build innovative programs that became a safety net for Austin’s homeless pets. Their work was not coordinated, but it was complementary with Ellen’s energy and ideas demonstrating the viability of the goal that Ryan was publicly campaigning for.

The array of programs and services that APA! has developed through its extensive volunteer base that engages 400 to 500 volunteers per week is exemplary, but the effectiveness and results of Ellen’s leadership are even more impressive:

  • Through their Positive Alternatives to Shelter Surrender program (PASS), an estimated 20 to 25 percent of people who might otherwise have turned their pets into the shelter are redirected to other solutions, including direct adoptions via Craigslist.
  • All bottle babies who enter TLAC are taken to APA!’s facility, where they are tended to round the clock by a rotating staff of volunteers.
  • APA!’s Parvo Puppy program takes all dogs who enter TLAC with parvo and treats them through the ministrations of a trained volunteer team. Parvo puppies are cleared for adoption in an average of seven days. Annually, 200 to 400 dogs are treated.
  • Seven mobile dog adoption vans operate seven days a week, and offsite cat adoptions are arranged through PetSmart and PETCO stores, where cage and cage-free cat environments are set up for kitty residents awaiting adoption. A new storefront adoption location extends the reach of APA! to the Tarrytown neighborhood of Austin. A vintage Airstream houses cats for adoption along South Congress walking district.
  • APA! has a foster network that expands to 400 to 500 homes at peak summer season.

I could go on, but you get the picture. In 2007, APA! was a non-factor. In the first few months after they began keeping records under Ellen’s watch, they did 457 adoptions between June and the end of the TLAC calendar year on September 30, 2008. In 2010, APA! did 3,299 adoptions. This year, APA! is on track to do 5,000 adoptions.

In March of 2010, thanks largely to the campaigning of Fix Austin and success of APA!, the Austin City Council passed a no-kill plan. Many of the programs and policies called for in that plan have not yet been funded, but an important one that has been implemented is an empty cage provision that places a moratorium on killing any shelter animal if a cage is available. APA! volunteers work the shelters every day to, among other things, help ensure that the empty cage provision is being implemented. In May of 2010, the then shelter director was reassigned to other duties with the city and a search for a new shelter director began. In early 2011, Abigail Smith, a no-kill advocate and former director of Tompkins County SPCA, was hired, and a new chapter was opened for Austin’s homeless pets. TLAC is now APA!’s most important partner in working to bring about a day of No More Homeless Pets in Austin, which is now knocking on the door of a consistent monthly 90 percent live release rate.

For more details on Austin Pets Alive!’s programs and progress, please visit

For more information on Town Lake Animal Center, including reports on outcomes, please visit

Francis Battista
Co-Founder, Best Friends Animal Society

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  • Lorinicknack

    Great job. This needs to take effect everywhere 🙂

  • Nancy

    I adopted a sweet old dog through Safe Haven Animal Rescue. This organization also fosters animals out of Town Lake. Check them out on line at . Nancy

  • Anonymous

    Ellen and Ryan do awesome work here in Austin. They’ve not only saved huge numbers of animals, but they’ve helped raise local awareness of adoption as a preferred option in a big way. I adopted my 3rd dog, Tip, from Austin Pets Alive. She had been on the verge of being euthanized at TLAC when Ellen and her team rescued her.

    I love APA 🙂

  • Nancy

    I need help in finding a sanctuary for dogs that have bitten.  Our 5 year old mixed breed has bitten twice.  Both times a small child.  We are being pressured by family to have her put down. She is being held at the vets for 10 days.  Can someone help us?  email address is

    • Scubamel

      Why are you allowing small children to be around a dog that has bitten a small child before?

  • Lavina Barcus

    I have a dog and I love all animals.  I just wanted to tell you that I just finished reading “Best Friends” and once I started it I couldn’t stop.  One of these days I am coming to visit.  I loved the story…how you all started and worked so hard and how everything turned out.  Love You All just for being who you are…..

  • As I live in Austin, I would add a few other factors that I think have contributed to our success here:  (1)  Competition.  Once Austin Pets Alive got rolling, that forced the other rescue groups in town, especially the large ones, to up their game.  As a result, the animals of Austin benefited from some incredibly creative programs.  The competition too, I think brought excitement to animal rescue, which led to donations, volunteers, and all the rest.  (2)  Technology.  Facebook, video technology, yahoo groups, Youtube – all of these have combined to help spread the word about the available pets and put them in a favorable light. (3)  Quiet Leaders.  Emancipet was a leader in the low-cost/free spay and neuter arena, but Animal Trustees of Austin has been doing yoeman’s work in that area for years too.  ATA now focuses exclusively on providing low-cost (or free) spay/neuter plus wellness care.  That’s another key to helping people adopt pets and/or keep the pets they have. 

  • Emilygreenberg

    Mr. Battista:
    Why are you saying that Austin was a “No More Homeless Pets” campaign? (Editor’s Note). Best Friends had nothing whatsoever to do with the success in Austin, and it is not fair for you to imply that you did. Are you intentionally trying to mislead people?

    • Francis

      Hi Emily,
      We use the term no more homeless pets interchangeably with the term no-kill. In previous blogs that focused on work in other cities and states led by people such as Peter Marsh in New Hampshire and Rich Avanzino in San Francisco, we use the terms interchangeably as well. There is no implication that Best Friends was the agent of change in Austin, San Francisco or Houston. It is simply a descriptor for a movement goal. We look forward to the day when there will be no more homeless pets. That will only be achieved by the contributions of all sorts of individuals and organizations.

      • Francis

        …Sorry. That should read New Hampshire rather than Houston.

      • Pat Bryan

        I wish more people understood that “No More Homeless Pets” means that pets will not have to be killed for lack of homes.  I have argued with one person who says that Best Friends “abandoned the no-kill movement.”  He even put you into a category with PETA, which I consider to be a terrorist organization in many aspects. 

        • Francis

          Thanks Pat.
          Indeed, Best Friends has used the phrase “No More Homeless Pets” interchangeably with the term “no-kill” since the fall of 1996. We have used it as a rallying cry, a campaign name and to describe the goal that we are all striving toward.   

    • Dch454

      Read the paragraph again!! No implication whatsoever was made by Mr. Battista that Best Friends had anything whatsoever to do with Austin becoming a No More Homeless Pets campaign of Best Friends. Kindly read something THOROUGHLY before you jump up into somebody’s face, most especially anyone from Best Friends !!!!

  • Amy

    For any potential doggie adopters reading this article…  That sweet, smiling, floppy tongued staffie girl pictured above is named Winnie and is one of the most wonderful animals you could ever hope to meet!  If you love over-sized lap dogs, Winnie’s your girl!