Austin’s Unique Animal Love Story

The world capital of live music pours its heart and soul into charting a new course for how we save pets in America.

By | Posted: September 16, 2014, 4 p.m. PST

For 2014 DOG FANCY, the world’s most widely read dog magazine, declared Austin the most pet friendly place in America. Knowing its proud reputation for being a bit odd – a favorite saying emblazoned on Tshirts is KEEP AUSTIN WEIRD -- when I traveled to this Texas capital to award it DOG FANCY’s top honor of being named DogTown USA 2014, I expected to find a place that was different.

What I found is most certainly an animal-loving city, but so much more.

I got my first taste of the odd vibe staying at the pet-friendly Austin Motel, where the sign out front proclaims it is family-owned since 1938 and "so far out it is in.’’ Walking into the lobby, instead of canine security my wife and I are greeted by friendly Rocky, the "guard cat.’’ Cats and dogs intermingle quite well in this funky town, I come to discover.

Early on a Saturday morning we head across the street to the iconic Jo’s Hot Coffee and Good Food, only to find rescue dog Rosebud standing on her hind legs in line at the pickup window, waiting for her morning biscuit. Rosebud, a morning regular at Jo’s for years, stays busy serving as assistant office manager at Divine Canines, the therapy-dog organization where Rosebud’s owner, Max Woodfin, is executive director.


Austin Dog

Rescue dog Rosebud, the assistant office manager at Divine Canines, picks up her morning biscuit at Jo’s coffee shop, as owner Max Woodfin grabs a cup of coffee.


In just 10 years Divine Canines has grown to more than 100 therapy dog-handler teams. "We visit more than 40 facilities around Austin and central Texas,’’ Woodfin says, where the dogs provide unconditional love to children struggling with literacy, hospital patients, elderly people with Alzheimer’s, and military veterans coping with PTSD and war injuries, among others.

You probably don’t know Woodfin, but you know his words. For seven years he was the speechwriter for one of America’s greatest voices, the late Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. Divine Canines’ mission statement exemplifies an inclusive, can-do spirit I encountered again and again in the Texas hill country:

  • We believe in the value and potential of those who society may devalue.
  • We work to change perceptions of what is possible.
  • We believe in a world where every dog and every human is treated with dignity and compassion.  

That powerful sentiment, compassion, is at the heart of a transformation that has taken place here.

Prior to 2008 Austin was euthanizing 50 percent, or 14,000 of the animals entering the city’s shelter. Today Austin saves more than 90 percent of those animals, becoming America’s largest no-kill city. What changed? The people of this city embraced a determination to do a better job of saving animals, bound together today in the cooperative efforts of 132 local rescue and adoption groups.

At the heart of this effort is Austin Pets Alive! and founder Ellen Jefferson, who creates innovative, life-saving programs, including the nation’s largest pet fostering program.



Austin DogTown 

Ellen Jefferson and her team of staff and volunteers accept DOG FANCY’s $5,000 donation, awarded as part of Austin earning the DogTown USA award as the most dog friendly city in the land in 2014.

At times APA!’s foster network provides temporary housing and a homelike atmosphere to 1,000 animals. "Foster homes not only expand our ability to rescue, but they also provide socialization and exercise,’’ Jefferson says. Both of those things make any dog more adoptable.

As I toured the APA! campus near downtown, Jefferson pointed out innovation after innovation, which included out-of-the-box thinking about how to treat and handle animals with a variety of illnesses, including the scourge of Parvo, a highly contagious and deadly disease.

"The traditional approach is six weeks of quarantine, but it is built on research done back in the 80s,’’ Jefferson says. "We have learned that we can treat a puppy with parvo for three days and it is clear of the disease in a week.’’ The Parvo Puppy ICU safely isolates and treats 500 puppies a year until they are healed and adoption ready. She hopes to gain a research grant to document the findings for others to use as a model.

At many shelters orphan kittens routinely are euthanized simply because the staff can’t handle the labor-intensive rescue required. But Jefferson took the wildlife model of mass rescue and made it practical by enlisting a large corps of volunteers, including students who commute by bike from the nearby University of Texas. The corps of volunteers work through the night, bottlefeeding kittens every few hours. Dedication doesn’t seem sufficient to describe volunteers and staff who take ownership of 3 a.m. feedings.


Austin DogTown

Staff and volunteers at Austin Pets Alive! employ wildlife rescue techniques introduced by Ellen Jefferson to save all the kittens, feeding and caring for the tiny little ones around the clock. 


The buildings, taken over from the old city shelter, are a bit tired and shopworn, but bright paint and handmade touches create a cheery, caring tone. Also personal is the way the staff keep volunteers energized and positive. Dipping animals suffering from ringworm into a treatment solution is no fun, but the staff and volunteers have turned this into a "spa day party’’ to be celebrated, complete with special snacks and custom-made T-shirts.

As we move around the campus, seeing other cutting-edge programs such as behaviorists mentoring trainees in dealing with potentially problem dogs, at each point it is not Jefferson describing what happens and how it is done, but the staff and volunteers she has enlisted to lead the charge.


Austin DogTown

Champ the pitbull advertises his availability at Strut Your Mutt. APA! specializes in adopting out large dogs, especially pits and pit mixes. 


It may seem subtle, but it is hugely important. Jefferson not only saves animals, but she empowers her staff and volunteers, and mentors them to become the next generation of leaders in rescue. Under Jefferson’s leadership, APA! in practice has become a university for learning how to accomplish what seems impossible, becoming a rescue model for communities nationwide.

"Save them all’’ is the cornerstone mission that drives outreach across the country by Best Friends Animal Society, so it was fitting that I present a plaque and check to the city and its dog lovers at Strut Your Mutt, Austin’s version of the fundraising dog walk organized by Best Friends and held around the nation.

Even more fitting, in Austin the leading fundraising organization for this dog walk for the third straight year was . . . Shadow Cats, a cat rescue group. "We love dogs too,’’ says one of the Shadow Cats volunteers, decked in fun feline attire and purring as she pets rescue dogs. "It’s all about rescuing animals, whether they are cats or dogs.’’


Austin DogTown

At Strut Your Mutt, the purring volunteers of Shadow Cats celebrate a third year of winning the title of top fundraising group at the annual dog walk. Only in Austin. 


Across town Chris Noble gives me a tour of the modern Austin Animal Center, the city’s bright, airy and modern official shelter and headquarters for animal control, where he is deputy chief animal services officer. Noble points out a star on one kennel, labeled staff favorite. "We let the staff rate the animals and highlight some for special attention, which helps adopters from overlooking some real gems.’’ Soon the center will begin construction of two new dog kennels, expanding capacity thanks to $5 million in funding approved by taxpayers.


Austin DogTown

Adopters fill out applications at the bright and cheery Austin Animal Center. Inset: The center’s director, Abigail Smith, accepts the DOG FANCY DogTown USA 2014 plaque on behalf of the city.


Make no mistake, Austin has its animal abusers and hoarders and all the ugly issues common in so many big cities. But the difference is that here those who care about animals have joined arms to reach out to those unfortunate pets who have been placed in peril, often through no fault of their own.

Back at Jo’s coffee shop, which sponsors the annual Easter Pet Parade, with proceeds going to APA!, a patch of graffiti on one large exterior wall has gone viral. Each day dozens if not hundreds of people come to take their picture in front of the spray painted, handwritten message, which originally was just a token of affection from one person to another.

But these few words have also come to symbolize inclusion, acceptance and caring. For those making a life-saving difference in Austin, it also describes how I came to feel about this sometimes zany city and its devoted animal guardians. The message simply reads:

I love you so much.

Read More Editor Off-Leash with DOG FANCY Editor Ernie Slone>>

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Kathleen - 292618   Diamond City, AB

9/25/2014 6:15:55 PM

What a lovely story! : ) I like that they are mentoring the next generation in how to work together to improve things for others... be they dog, cat or other, even two footed creatures! : ) Love of a dog or cat can change lives... we see this with homeless people who treat their pets better than others have treated them! : )

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Eileen - 249708   Port Perry, ON

9/17/2014 5:04:40 AM

Wow this is one fantastic town and they are doing some amazing work. We can all learn from Austin.

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