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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

The Game Changer: How San Antonio Pets Alive! Turned the Tide in San Antonio’s Goal to Save Lives

With the terrific progress of No Kill in San Antonio, I thought my readers might be interested in a report from San Antonio Pets Alive about their part in helping the city get where it is today, and how other cities can use these same techniques. Thanks to Christine Bentsen for this article.

— Susan Houser


Guest post by Christine Bentsen

San Antonio, Texas, has made substantial progress toward its No Kill goal. But it has been a long road. In 2006, backlash against ingrained city practices and the self-reported save rate of just 11% prompted a publicly announced initiative to achieve No Kill status by 2012[1]. But even so, the city was unable to achieve above a 34% live release rate through 2011.[2] With failure looming, the City reached out to Austin Pets Alive! to dramatically change the trajectory and achieve their goal.

San Antonio Pets Alive! was born from this effort, and its inception marks the first implementation of the techniques, programs, and practices created by Austin Pets Alive! in another community. There were lessons learned — first and foremost —  that even with setbacks, APA! techniques work, they are transferable, and great things can be achieved in a short amount of time.

Now, San Antonio has a live release rate of 90%, and SAPA! programs are key to that success.

APA! Techniques Work, Even When Challenged in New Ways

Things at SAPA! have been challenging. Because SAPA! was the first iteration of Austin Pets Alive! techniques in a new city, many of the factors that keep APA! successful simply did not yet exist in San Antonio. These included high-level volunteer teams solely devoted to marketing and fundraising, community support around changing shelter practices (the organization was prohibited from sharing information about city shelter practices), grassroots fundraising (SAPA! was heavily reliant on grants), and long-term commitment from the city to support change in partnership, practices, and culture.

SAPA! was heavily focused on saving lives, and through this time of triage, they began to experience financial difficulties because their budget was based on Austin’s budget, which was heavily reliant on volunteers rather than paid staff. And despite the incredible transformation in San Antonio, SAPA! lost the support it did have from the city as city shelter leadership changes occurred, and ultimately the wonderful, centrally located city adoption center that SAPA! used as a primary lifesaving tool was handed over to another group. SAPA’s own leadership turnovers, organizational woes, and a substantial amount of bad press later, Maureen O’Nell joined SAPA! as Executive Director to help “right the ship.”

“When I came in, the city had given us 30 days to vacate their shelter, and our funded contract to save 5,400 ‘on the list’ animals went down to 3,100,” Maureen explained. “We had nowhere to go, nowhere to operate from. But we were going to figure it out. We had so many challenges, but the core people, we still had their support. The first thing we did was sit down with our employees and do a SWOT.” These documents, common in business scenarios, ask organizations to frankly detail their Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats.

“The outcome is that we firmly acknowledged that as an organization, we are scrappy, determined, and we save lives. Killing is not a solution, and it is our obligation to find ways to save lives. These guiding principles made everyone feel like it was OK not to have all the answers, and to know that we were going to figure it out.“

Where to Start: Be Creative, Build Relationships, and Persevere

Maureen’s first orders of business: find a working “adoption center,” rebuild community trust, and enhance the SAPA! brand.

Item #1 was helped by PetSmart Charities who offered one of their Everyday Adoption Centers – and SAPA! moved in.

SAPA! also found a grant for a mobile adoption center, inexpensively rebranding it with a fun, positive wrap designed to catch the eye and build positive associations with the group.

Billboards around town (also grant funded) helped rebrand and build positive awareness.

The organization then took a hard look at their population of animals, which like Austin’s population, is comprised of the pets that inevitably face euthanasia at the city shelter. They worked together to formulate creative solutions. These included:

  1. Increasing the transport program. SAPA! formed strong relationships with carefully screened adoption partners in communities that are not experiencing the same sorts of overpopulation issues. Through the transport program, easily adoptable animals, who are still on the euthanasia list at San Antonio Animal Care Services, are sent to these communities to find their forever homes. Currently, the transport program places about 100, mostly large adult dogs, which is quite unique for transport programs, per month.

  2. Increase foster homes. The growth of the transport program also created a novel way to recruit new fosters (now at 1700 from an already robust 600 in 2016). When animals are awaiting transfer, all kennels are full. If temporary placement could be found for them while they await their trip to a new community – all of those kennels could be open to in-community placement pets. SAPA! ran a “short-term foster” campaign, which generated substantial interest, and not only solved the short-term foster problem but had a substantial impact on overall foster numbers as well. Careful nurture of the foster program also allowed more placements of special needs animals such as moms with babies, ringworm cats, and bottle baby kittens. With growth and time, organizations like APA! are able to have many of these programs onsite but for SAPA! foster saves lives now.

  1. Find creative solutions to existing health profile issues. San Antonio often needs orthopedic veterinary expertise, most often due to car incidents. Through a professional connection, SAPA! is able to get increased access to these expensive, very necessary services.

Through these programs and innovative solutions, SAPA! has been able to increase the number of lives saved, year over year, every year since inception. The organization consistently exceeded the pull rate contract from the shelter. Maureen says, “They know that if they call us, we’ll be there.”

Using Data to Fine Tune

“Bottom line, the most important metric we track is lives saved,” says Maureen. Now that the organization can focus on more than day to day survival, they are implementing a comprehensive analytics program. This includes reporting on a number of key metrics on a monthly basis. These center around Volunteers, Fosters, Operations, and Development. New programs, innovations, and investments within existing programs are sure to come from these insights.

“We are a data rich community, and we know the things we need to report on, but sometimes that information isn’t easily accessible,” explains Maureen. For example, in the current system, tracking whether an animal has heartworms isn’t a sortable checkbox, but rather something that requires combing through the pet’s medical records. “We know heartworm is a significant barrier to adoption, so we track it, and we’re looking for a long-term solution to eliminate that barrier to adoption.”

Development has shifted from being primarily focused on grant support to a more best practice, sustainable ratio of grant and donation support. This has called for an increase in donor and community alignment, which pays off not only in individual support, but also in awareness and branding.

Relationships with veterinary clinics offer deeply discounted triage services and help support SAPA!’s only clinic. And, a new Barn Cat program will provide an alternative for poorly socialized cats.

“Start at the goal, and work from there,” says Maureen. SAPA!’s original goal was to stay afloat and continue saving lives. Now the goals are getting much more refined and targeted.

So Where Do You Start?

Maureen agrees that it can feel like a lot, but if they can come back from an extremely challenging situation, anyone can have a notable impact in their community. “Start tracking what you can, and make sure that the data tells a story that relates to your goal. Don’t change what you’re tracking, but add to it over time so you have a complete baseline and you add more to the story.” Not all data is equally useful. “For us, it’s not that useful to know if the dog is a pit bull, especially since dogs are so often misclassified. It’s a lot more useful to know things like if that dog has heartworms.” And don’t be hard on yourself. It takes time, and the road can be enormously difficult. Start small, and the lessons will come.

Maureen O’Nell recently spoke at the American Pets Alive! Conference. For more information, visit the American Pets Alive! website.


[1] The stated goal was 70% save rate.


[3] APA! immediately started pulling San Antonio animals to Austin in large numbers while SAPA! was being born.



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