Last weekend, after the city of Austin recommended social distancing, but before the shelter-in-place order was announced, Connor Leech brought home a new dog.
The 24-year-old IBM content strategist lives in the Cherrywood neighborhood with two roommates. Prior to the pandemic, he planned to adopt a dog. But after realizing he would be working from home for at least several weeks he decided to call Austin Pets Alive.
"If there was a right time, it would be now," Leech said.
In early March, Austin's shelters began preparing for the coronavirus to arrive in Austin—and the likelihood that volunteers and staff would be affected. APA, the Austin Animal Center and the Austin Humane Society began calling for foster placements on their social media pages in an effort to free up space at their facilities.
With fewer animals on site, staff could continue to accept critical cases—such as sick or injured animals—and absorb the work usually done by volunteers, most of whom are not considered essential workers. Having fewer animals also means that the shelters can operate with a leaner staff.
"We needed to get as many animals out in case we had staff that became ill and we didn't have enough staff [to care] for animals," AAC Director Don Bland said.
AAC's goal was to move half of its inventory into foster homes. As of this morning, there were 129 animals on site, with around 494 in foster homes.
For the time being AAC is not worried about running out of animal food or supplies and will be able to continue to observe the city's no-kill policy, which requires 95% of animals that enter the shelter not be euthanized.
"This is going to be something that we'll be able to maintain easily now that we've sent so many animals to foster," Bland said.
Although animal shelters are familiar with emergency situations—those in Austin took in thousands of animals during Hurricane Harvey—this pandemic is different.
"This will be a more sustained response," said Dr. Katie Luke, a veterinarian and chief operations officer of the Austin Humane Society. "We don't really know what the endpoint will be."
To this end, AAC is no longer accepting strays or surrendered animals and is instead only responding to top priority calls, such as those involving a bite or an animal that is sick or injured. The shelter recommends that people who find dogs outside try to return them to their owners, who likely live nearby. APA is hosting virtual meet-and-greets on Zoom and Google Hangouts to avoid unnecessary contact between staff and prospective foster owners. And AHS has inventoried its medical supplies to see what masks, gloves and gowns it may be able to donate to area hospitals and clinics treating those with coronavirus.
The latter is also preparing for the likelihood that some animals exposed to the coronavirus will need care. Although there is no evidence that dogs and cats can contract the disease, they may carry it in their ears and mouth. Shelters may need to keep animals isolated or take in the pets of people with the disease who cannot care for them while ill, Dr. Luke said.
Another concern for shelters is fundraising.
Citing a drop in donations and cancelled events, Austin Pets Alive created a Facebook fundraiser on March 21 with a goal of $25,000. As of this morning, it has raised $16,724.
The nonprofit usually runs two thrift stores that generate revenue for the shelter; both are closed because of the pandemic.
"We know that as people fall on hard times, animals will fall on hard times, too," APA's Executive Director Dr. Ellen Jefferson said in a Facebook video posted to the shelter's page on March 26.
In the private sector, animal-related businesses are also experiencing financial hardship—but a boom in adoptions could mean more customers once this pandemic is contained.
Tim Smith—owner of Southpaws Playschool, a dog day care in South Austin—said he is seeing 80% less business than usual, even as he has increased operating hours to 24 hours a day to accommodate the schedules of essential workers.
Some customers, however, continue to bring in their pets because they need more exercise after being cooped up at home all day or they want to support a local business. Smith is also hopeful that, once people return to work, they may bring their new pets to Southpaws.
"Anything that gets pets out of the shelter—whether they get into foster care on a temporary basis or take the next step and actually get adopted—that's a good thing," he said.
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By Jonathan Lee
The Planning Commission was split Tuesday on whether to help save an eclectic lakefront estate from demolition by zoning it historic amid concerns over tax breaks and the likelihood that a previous owner participated in segregation as a business owner.
The property in question, known as the Delisle House, is located at 2002 Scenic Drive in Tarrytown. The main house, with Spanish and Modern influences, was built in 1923 by Raymond Delisle, an optician. A Gothic Revival accessory apartment was built in 1946. The current owner applied to demolish the structures in order to build a new home.'
Historic preservationists, for their part, overwhelmingly support historic zoning, which would preserve the buildings in perpetuity. The Historic Landmark Commission unanimously voted to initiate historic zoning in July, citing architectural significance, landscape features and association to historic figures. City staffers recommend historic zoning, calling both structures one-of-a-kind examples of vernacular architecture.
Tarrytown neighbors have also banded together to stop the demolition. Many have written letters, and a few spoke at the meeting. “How could anyone buy this property with the intent of destroying it?” Ila Falvey said. “I think it’s an architectural treasure.”
Michael Whellan, an attorney representing the property owner, said that the claims made by preservationists are shaky. The buildings are run down, he said, and have had substantial renovations. A structural engineer hired by the owner said any attempt at preservation would involve tearing down and rebuilding – an undertaking Whellan said would likely cost millions.
Whellan also argued that any historical significance derived from the property’s association with Delisle and longtime owner C.H. Slator is dubious. “These men are not noted for any civic, philanthropic or historic impact,” he said.
What’s more, according to Whellan, Slator likely participated in segregation as the owner of the Tavern on North Lamar Boulevard between 1953 and 1960.
A city staffer, however, said she found no evidence to support the claim. “We would never landmark a property where a segregationist lived, or there was a racist person,” Kimberly Collins with the Historic Preservation Office said.
Commissioner Awais Azhar couldn’t support historic zoning in part due to lingering uncertainty about Slator. “Focusing on that factor is not here to disparage an individual or family. It is not about playing the race card. This is an important assertion for us to consider as Planning commissioners,” Azhar said.
Commissioner Carmen Llanes Pulido said that allegations of racism should come as no surprise. “We’re talking about white male property owners in the 1950s, in Austin, on the west side – and of course they were racist,” she said. But she argued that allowing the house to be demolished based on these grounds does nothing to help people of color who have been harmed by racism and segregation.
The question of tax breaks was also controversial. Michael Gaudini, representing the property owner, said that the tax breaks associated with historic zoning would exacerbate inequality by shifting property tax burdens to less affluent communities. City staffers estimate that the property, appraised at $3.5 million, would get either a $8,500 or $16,107 property tax break annually, depending on whether a homestead exemption is applied.
Commissioner Grayson Cox preferred the commission focus not on tax breaks but on whether the structures merit preservation. “To me, nothing in the historic preservation criteria lists, is this person deserving of a tax break or not?”
Azhar, on the other hand, said he plans to propose a code amendment getting rid of city property tax breaks for historic properties.
The commission fell one vote short of recommending historic zoning, with six commissioners in support and three opposed. Azhar and commissioners Claire Hempel and Greg Anderson voted against.
The odds of City Council zoning over an owner’s wishes are slim. Nine out of 11 members must vote in favor, and there have only been a handful of such cases over the past several decades.
What's new in Austin food & drink this week:
- Nau's Enfield Drug closing after losing their lease. Did McGuire Moorman Lambert buy the building, with its vintage soda fountain?
- Nixta Taqueria Chef Edgar Rico named to Time Magazine's Time 100 Next influencer list, after winning a James Beard Award earlier this year.
- Question: From what BBQ joint did pescatarian Harry Styles order food this week?
- Austin Motel is opening the pool and pool bar Wednesday nights in October for Freaky Floats.
- Vincent's on the Lake closing due to "economic conditions and low water levels [at Lake Travis]."
- Cenote has closed its Windsor Park location. The East Cesar Chavez location remains open.
- The Steeping Room on N. Lamar has closed.
- Local startup It's Skinnyscored new financing for its gluten-free pasta business.
- P. Terry's opened a new location in Kyle, at 18940 IH-35.