Ryan Clinton wants to make animal shelters 'no kill' zones

Ryan Clinton helped make Austin, Texas, a 'no kill' zone for shelter animals. His next goal: The rest of the US.

Kris Axtman
Ryan Clinton, seen here with one of his rescued dogs, has responded to a rising need at Texas animal shelters in the wake of this year’s wildfires. His aim: Spread a ‘no kill’ policy to shelters everywhere by instituting services such as ‘pet fostering.’

Most people would agree that it's better for healthy dogs and cats in animal shelters to be adopted than to be killed if a home can't be found for them before the shelter's deadline. But in most cities in the United States, "adoptable" animals are being killed in shelters.

"That's about to change," says Ryan Clinton, a lawyer and activist who has been at the forefront of a national campaign to save every healthy animal that comes into a shelter. "I really think we are at the tipping point nationally and this is going to happen all over the country very quickly."

Mr. Clinton has played a large part in helping animals in his own community of Austin, Texas. In 2005 he formed FixAustin.org. The goal was to end the killing of lost and homeless pets at Austin's municipal animal shelters.

Partnering with other local animal activists, the group persuaded the Austin City Council to pass a resolution to save at least 90 percent of all impounded animals at the city's shelters.

That "no kill" policy, adopted in March 2010, makes Austin the largest city in the US to pass such a measure. The policy essentially prohibits municipal shelters from killing "healthy or treatable" animals while there are empty cages.

But there's still a problem, Clinton says. There are many different interpretations of what "healthy and treatable" means.

Austin Pets Alive! was formed to rescue from shelters any animal that is about to be killed for any reason. Inside the Pets Alive! center, amid the bustle and barking, are kittens too young to eat on their own and dogs considered too old to be adopted. Diseased dogs and dogs deemed dangerous to society are there, too.

The Pets Alive! staff works with them all – almost never giving up on an animal, Clinton says. Staff and volunteers sometimes stay up all night bottle-feeding babies or spend long hours rehabilitating aggressive animals.

"We just want to give every animal a chance," says Clinton, as he maneuvers through an area with donated pet supplies stacked to the ceiling. This summer was particularly busy, he says, because of the wildfires that raged in central Texas. Austin Pets Alive! rescued hundreds of animals at shelters affected by the fires – and then found homes for them.

It's not rocket science, Clinton says, but it does take work. The key is having adoption centers in a variety of places in communities and offering services such as "pet fostering" (volunteers who give short-term care to shelter animals in their homes), and then constantly getting the word out.

Today, animals that were being given up on are being adopted – no matter their age, breed, or the extra care they may need.

"Most shelters are in out-of-the-way places and do a poor job of communicating their needs. Then the shelters complain that it's the public's fault that they have to kill as many animals as they do," Clinton says. "There are no excuses here."

Recently Marianne and Nathaniel Iverson visited Austin Pets Alive! because they heard that it needed volunteers. They stood close to each other cuddling a kitten just old enough to be adopted.

"We came to walk dogs, but we are going home with another cat, aren't we?" says Mrs. Iverson, looking at her husband. Austin Pets Alive! regularly provides them with information and asks them to help in its grass-roots effort, they say.

Because so many communities are asking Austin Pets Alive! how to make a "no kill" policy work for them, the group recently formed American Pets Alive!, says Ellen Jefferson, executive director of Austin Pets Alive!

"Ryan really needs to be recognized as a leader in this grass-roots movement. He taught me that change was possible," says Dr. Jefferson, who says she used to think that spaying and neutering was the only way to keep shelter deaths down: The fewer the number of animals going in, the fewer put to death later.

But now, she says, she sees them as just one piece of a larger puzzle.

Last month American Pets Alive! hosted a "no kill" workshop in Austin that drew 85 people from cities such as Dallas, Phoenix, and Tallahassee, Fla.

 "Cities are going to get to 'no kill' sooner rather than later," Jefferson says. "The idea is becoming the expected norm. And Ryan should be given a lot of credit for making that happen."

Clinton has been recognized for his work both locally and nationally. When he is not working on shelter issues, he is practicing appellate law for a firm in Dallas.

Formerly a state assistant solicitor general, Clinton successfully defended Texas A&M University in litigation arising from the collapse of a Texas Aggie pep rally bonfire in 1999. He has been named one of Texas's best appellate attorneys under 40 years old seven times by Texas Monthly magazine. Last year, Clinton was a finalist for the Austin Under 40 young professional of the year award.

"Everyone needs an advocate," he says of his animal welfare work, in a modest and lawyerly way. "And this was a solvable problem."

•For more, visit: FixAustin.org and austinpetsalive.org

• For more stories about people making a difference, click here.

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