While volunteering at the old Town Lake Animal Shelter, veterinarian Ellen Jefferson saw too many animals killed.
"It didn’t feel like I was making a big impact," Jefferson says. "But I felt like if I could stop the inflow, fewer would come into shelter, so more could go out alive."
In 1999, Jefferson founded Emancipet, a nonprofit group which spays or neuters animals.
By the time she left the group — which keeps growing without her — they were performing 16,000 surgeries a year, mostly from a roaming clinic. That superhuman feat, however, didn’t make the expected impact on the number of animals euthanized at the city’s shelter.
"Rabble-rousers were saying that we were still killing too many," she says. "And I ignored them. The more I listened to them, however, the more I realized we weren’t actually lowering the kill rate."
So in 2008, Jefferson — a calm and measured animal welfare activist — reactivated Austin Pets Alive, a group dedicated in 1997 to saving more shelter animals, 50 percent of which were being killed.
Austin Pets Alive, in concert with scores of smaller rescue groups, has, by targeting specific animal groups, put the Austin save rate above 90 percent, the only large city in the country to do so.
Jefferson, whose group now works from the old shelter as well as pop-up adoption centers, says she believes the save rate can be driven up to an almost inconceivable 98 percent.
"It’s exponentially harder to get those last animals cared for, housed safely and adopted," she admits. "It’s also exponentially more expensive."
Destined to help
Married to horse vet Damon O’Gan, Jefferson, 41, was born in Colorado Springs at the Air Force Academy. Her father, Wayne Jefferson, is a retired Air Force pilot and two-star general.
"He’s an impressive guy," Jefferson says with a wide grin. "I’m not as much like him as I’d like to be."
Her mother, Bonnie Wassell Jefferson, was an Austin schoolteacher before raising a family.
"She’s a real people person," says Jefferson, who tends toward shyness. "She’s gregarious and fun-loving."
Like many military children, Jefferson lived all over the place, but she graduated from high school in Alexandria, Va. She studied biology, ecology and other subjects at Trinity University in San Antonio before entering vet school at Virginia Tech University.
"I was planning to open a spay-neuter clinic," she says. "I wanted to help the disenfranchised animals of the world."
Instead, she first entered private practice in rural Rocky Mountain, Va.
"There were no bells or whistles," she recalls. "It made me utilize what’s in front of me rather than shifting things off to a specialist."
After moving to Austin in 1998, Jefferson practiced emergency medicine at a North Austin clinic.
"You can’t predict what will come through the door," she says. "There’s typically only one vet on the premises. You think fast and triage. It’s a great learning experience."
Building Emancipet from scratch taught her many things as well. But it didn’t achieve the original goal: Stop the killing.
"I really thought the only answer to shelter euthanasia was spay and neuter," she says. "But we needed to improve the processes at the shelter, not just in the community."
So Jefferson focused on bottlenecks. The city shelter employed only one part-time behavior evaluator. It couldn’t keep up with in-house spaying and neutering. And the adoption process could take as long as two hours on busy days.
So Austin Pets Alive, like other rescue groups, removed the animals before they were killed.
"So if one part of the process was backed up," Jefferson says, "another animal wouldn’t die because there wasn’t enough turnover or space."
The group and its army of volunteers used a dazzlingly simple method for rescuing the savable animals. They broke them down into categories.
Just a few years ago, any kitten under 6 weeks of age was killed on intake. So her group created a mass nursing ward with bottle feeding for orphans. That saved an estimated 1,200 kittens each year, instantly adopted when they reached 6 weeks.
Back in 2007, as many as 9,500 cats were killed because they came in all at once during breeding season, April to October. So Austin Pets Alive scooped them up and scattered them to foster networks and remote adoptions sites in pedestrian areas.
"We got them in front of people in as many places as possible," she says. "That way they were more likely to be adopted."
Cats with ringworm were killed because they are often contagious to people and other cats. So Jefferson’s group created a ward to treat them in three to six weeks.
More sadly, cats diagnosed with feline leukemia were expected to live only from six months to two years. So Austin Pets Alive found people willing to adopt for what was understood to be a shorter time than usual.
"Even though it’s painful to lose a pet, they want to give it a home," Jefferson says. "It’s like a hospice situation. Sometimes their own lives are in flux, so a short-time pet is not so bad. It saves a life and gives the owner companionship."
Parvo puppies got a parvo ward.
"It’s pretty labor intensive, but treatable," Jefferson says. "You end up with a highly desirable puppy."
The hardest animals to save were — and continue to be — big dogs with behavior problems.
"I’m not talking about truly dangerous dogs," she says. "Just dogs who are down on their luck."
Complicating matters, big dogs at shelters are seen in rows of cages or on restraints which amplify reactive behavior. So the group now uses pack play time and other methods to retrain the big dogs.
"The longer they stay, the more likely they are to go cage crazy," she says. "Play groups prevent that from happening."
Working with a $2 million annual budget, the group has saved more than 6,000 animals this year alone. The group employs 75 staff members, half of them part time, and has trained more than 8,000 volunteers over the past four years.
Jefferson, who always keeps numbers and charts handy, is no animal-welfare hardliner.
"I do believe in euthanasia for animals that are suffering and have no hope of getting better," she says. "It is the kindest thing to do. It is just that we use ‘euthanasia’ to mean something very different in the animal shelter world."
She thinks Austin is positioned uniquely to set a national example.
"Recognizing that all the systems are not perfect yet, Austin is at an amazing place," she says while tipping her hat to leaders in city government who have supported the evolution. "We, all the animal welfare groups, have accomplished so much. The rest of the country is completely blown away by what Austin has been able to do in such a short period of time."
She also praises county shelters in Williamson County, which have reached the 90 percent save rate as well.
Jefferson’s critics believe that Austin Pets Alive emphasizes the quantity of adoptions over the quality of them. They also decry the group’s training methods and its maintenance of the decaying Town Lake shelter.
"There’s so much people drama!" Jefferson say. "Animal welfare tends to be polarizing like most passionate causes. There are few (causes) in America that are centered around life and death, and the fact that no-kill is squarely centered on that topic is in and of itself dramatic."