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Critics of Animal Care Services say our drive to humane care misses the big picture

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In 2006, the City Council took on Mayor Phil Hardberger's challenge to become the country's largest "no-kill" community. At the time, ACS was gassing 50,000 animals a year and the population of stray dogs and cats was burgeoning. The live release rate — the percentage of animals picked up by San Antonio Animal Control Services and returned to their homes or adopted out — was in the single digits. To become no kill, the City pledged to raise the live-release rate from a dismal less-than-10 percent to 70 percent by the beginning of 2012. It was an ambitious goal that hasn't proven kind to all animals alike.

A new ACS headquarters replaced the 60-year-old dog pound in Brackenridge Park. Lethal injection replaced the gas chambers. To reflect changing priorities, the agency changed its name from Animal Control to Animal Care Services, shifting its core mandate from simply removing strays from the streets to promoting adoption and spay-and-neuter policies.

A coalition of civic organizations coalesced around the no-kill goal. The Humane Society and the Animal Defense League climbed on board, and the San Antonio Area Foundation provided significant financial support. The five-year deadline came and went. And though we remain a far cry from attaining no-kill, there has been progress.

Leadership at ACS also changed. In September 2011, former director Gary Hendel was demoted. Assistant City Manager Erik Walsh cited the changing nature of ACS in a letter to Hendel. "Areas of deficiencies have been discussed with you in the past," Walsh wrote. "I believe these deficiencies have and will prevent the Department from moving to the next level." Joe Angelo, a consultant from the City's Office of Innovation and Reform, was tapped to head the agency as interim director that same month. Meanwhile, the City drafted a new plan for reaching no-kill status. Angelo, replete with a degree from Harvard's Kennedy School, was tasked with implementing that plan. "I think that we have begun to see a shift," said the ever-optimistic Angelo. "A shift that every single successful no-kill city has seen when they transition from being a high-kill shelter to a no-kill shelter." Under his tenure, live-release rates rose rapidly: from 31-percent in 2011 to 58-percent by the second quarter of 2012. Gavin Nichols, who oversees the Animal No Kill Initiative at the San Antonio Area Foundation, termed the leap "excellent" while calling the ultimate no-kill shortcoming "old news." But some animal rights advocates warn that the rapid progress has come at a cost.

We're assembling a photo project dedicated to San Antonio's stray cats and dogs. Send your stray pics to pics@sacurrent.com.

The video shows a two-inch strand of mucus hanging from the nose of a painfully thin kitten whose eyes are matted shut. Exposed to their ill sibling's disease, healthy cats frolic nearby in the same cage. In another video, used needles are crammed into an empty water bottle at a veterinarian's ad hoc workstation. Clean gloves sit in a contaminated tray. Elsewhere, a handwritten sign reading "medicine" is taped to a folding table covered in veterinary supplies. Clean syringes and medications sit next to dirty feeding spoons. Used needles are shoved into an empty sanitary wipes container.

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