Faith Wright, the operations manager at APA!, says her husband had to wear snakebite proof boots when she first took Candy in as a foster, hours before the dog's euthanasia deadline. But over time, the bites turned into kisses.

Cat Cheney/NationSwell

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Why Austin, Texas, Is One of the Best Places in America to Be a Stray

Austin Pets Alive! has radically reduced the number of cats and dogs put to sleep each year. Inside the no-kill movement — and why it matters to you.

Faith Wright begins each day by scanning a list from the Austin Animal Center in Central Texas. The list indicates how many dogs and cats the shelter plans to put down because of space constraints. She then figures out how many kennels she has available to house them, and how quickly she’ll have to move before their hour of euthanasia arrives. It is quite literally a matter of life and death.

Wright, who is the operations manager of the advocacy group Austin Pets Alive! (APA!), and her team split up, rushing to pick up animals before their time runs out. By 10 a.m. on a sunny Monday in May, her team had taken in four puppies, two orphaned and unweaned kittens that were rushed to the “baby bottle nursery,” and four adult dogs that had been found roaming the streets abandoned and afraid.

It was a pretty typical morning for the APA!, whose work in the state capital puts it at the forefront of the national “no-kill” movement. The grassroots effort to place all adoptable dogs and cats into a loving home began in the 1980s in San Francisco, and no-kill shelters have since spread to about 500 cities and towns across the country.

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“What makes Austin stick out is its size,” Nathan Winograd, director of the No Kill Advocacy Center in Oakland, Calif., says. Austin holds the title of largest no-kill city in the country. “This is a community that takes in in the neighborhood of 23,000 animals a year…and yet it has managed to maintain a save rate [over] 90 percent for several years.”

But there are still thousands of adoptable animals being put down in Austin each year. “I’m looking at the 10 percent that aren’t making it out and that’s where my sense of urgency comes from,” says Wright.

APA! saves animals that most shelters in the United States would abandon as lost causes. For instance, each year the organization treats nearly 250 cats infected with ringworm. The disease is curable, but it’s also highly contagious, so at other shelters, these animals are typically put down. “It’s so dumb because they just need time,” says a teary-eyed Brittany Dell’Aglio-Mitchell, the ringworm ward manager at APA!

She explains how the cats in her care can, with a little boost, go on to enjoy healthy and happy lives. “Like so many animals, they just need time, and they need somebody to have their back,” she says.

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Dell’Aglio-Mitchell leads a team of volunteers who regularly scrub every enclosure in the ringworm ward at the Town Lake Animal Center — APA!’s headquarters — and bathe the cats in sulfur dip, a common treatment for ringworm. It’s not a job for the faint-of-heart. “I smell like rotten eggs,” she says, shrugging. “My car smells like rotten eggs.”

The tradeoff for the stench: the impressive drop in Austin’s kill rate, which was hovering at 85 percent 15 years ago. The success — among the most drastic turnarounds in the country — means less time and expense for local animal control officials. It also means a moral triumph for pet advocates, who see the mass slaughter of animals as senseless. They note that an estimated three to four million cats and dogs are euthanized each year in the U.S. “The overpopulation crisis and the millions of animals that are euthanized every year is a manmade problem, and the only solution comes from us, the people,” says Jason Walthall, co-president of the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “If we all band together and put a little effort into this, the problem can be solved, and the United States can become a no-kill nation in a very short period of time.”

Ellen Jefferson, executive director of APA! and the person most responsible for its success, has that goal in mind. Jefferson, a veterinarian, moved to Texas from Virginia in 2001 and started volunteering at Town Lake. But she soured on the place when she realized that nearly every pet she worked with failed to leave the shelter alive. At the time, APA! had managed to bring the city’s kill rate down to about 50 percent, but its progress had stalled.

Jefferson started her own group in Austin, called Emancipet, to provide spaying and neutering services to pet owners at low cost. Then in 2008, she approached APA! and urged them to hit the gas. “When we started, we had no resources, no money, no building, no staff,” she recalls. But the no-kill message began to resonate, and APA! began to grow.

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“Nobody wanted these animals to die,” but unless people are provided with ways to help, there is no way to save lives on such a large scale, says Jefferson. “All you have to do is create opportunities and then people come forward like crazy.”

Today, APA! stays open 24 hours a day, and volunteers remain crucial to its operation. They comfort the cats in the feline leukemia ward, where remote-controlled toys, operated by cat lovers who log on to an online portal, bob back and forth. They tend to kittens in the baby bottle nursery (they name the kittens alphabetically, and last year they went through the alphabet 27 times). They take dogs on field trips and work on building-improvement projects from painting to plumbing. Some do their most valuable work at home, producing videos of foster pets and updating online marketing materials to raise community awareness of the animals in need of homes.

The problem with being a no-kill shelter is that the facilities fill up fast. At times, Town Lake has had more animals coming in than going out through adoptions, leading to overcrowding. APA! has eased the problem by opening new adoption centers and asking staff and volunteers to foster pets. The group has been criticized for emphasizing quantity over quality in its adoptions just to make room for more animals, but APA! says it has a return policy that allows people to bring back their adopted pet for any reason. In 2013, its return rate was 6 percent, which the organization notes is well below the national average.

Jefferson and her colleagues are now focusing on expansion. They helped to establish San Antonio Pets Alive! in 2012, and within a year, the save rate in that city 80 miles southwest of Austin grew from 30 percent to 80 percent. They’ve also launched American Pets Alive!, holding annual conferences to encourage groups outside of Central Texas to reduce their kill rates.

Haley Pollock, who became a regular APA! volunteer a year ago and works primarily with rescue dogs, thinks pet owners are the real winners in the no-kill movement. “These guys have helped me as much as I’ve helped them,” Pollock says, petting her latest foster pet up for adoption, an 8-year-old Australian shepherd mix named Cowboy. “That’s the amazing thing about rescue dogs. You go in thinking you are saving their lives, but really, they give back as much as you give.

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Catherine Cheney is the special projects editor at NationSwell. She previously worked for POLITICO and as a reporter and editor for international publications.