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

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These scenes from the San Antonio Pets Alive! Kitten Ward in late May, 2012, depict an animal rescue organization overwhelmed by the more than 100 cats in their care, according to the volunteer who recorded the videos.

All of these kittens were pulled from ACS. Funded by a $300,000 grant awarded last February by Ogden, Utah-based animal welfare nonprofit Best Friends Animal Society and PetSmart Charities, the agency pays SAPA $50 for each animal it receives. By acting as the shelter of last resort — taking in cats and dogs on the City shelter's euthanasia list —SAPA is part of San Antonio's broader campaign to treat its animal population more humanely.

In a July 24 complaint filed with the City, Elizabeth Overcash, a researcher at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, alleged that the mortality rate of kittens at SAPA was "extremely high." Amid a raft of other concerns over the facility, Overcash also cited instances of underfed kittens dying slowly from a lack of veterinary care.

Shari Pearson, an animal rights activist and PETA member, recorded these and other instances of what she characterized as neglect while volunteering with SAPA "You have to have proper care," Pearson said. "They aren't providing it." The videos made by Pearson aired as part of a story July 25 on San Antonio TV station KSAT 12.

Holly Livermore, operations manager for SAPA, dismisses the notion that they might be overwhelmed. She helped launch the group in January as a spin-off of Austin Pets Alive! "I feel that we are having growing pains that any other new group would have," Livermore said. "But we can't just give up." That many of the animals they receive from ACS are ill or injured — and that some will die — is not contested by SAPA. In a prepared statement forwarded to the Current, SAPA director Dr. Ellen Jefferson relates, "The story [on KSAT 12] focuses on the very young kittens that we have saved from certain death.  Because they are often sick when we save them, there is a certain percent that do not survive but it is not for a lack of trying.  Even in nature with a mother, only 80 percent of kittens survive.  Kittens with no mother, sickly, and probably neglected before even making it into the shelter, have an even lower survival rate." And Lynn Walker, SAPA marketing officer, questions the obligations the ex-SAPA volunteer had to the immediate welfare of the animals in apparent distress while documenting their condition. "That video was taken in the middle of the night. They didn't follow any of our protocols on what you are supposed to do if you find a sick animal. They didn't ask for any help. They didn't notify anyone," she said.

The May video of sick young kittens presents an undeniably disturbing scene. But a report made available to the Current of a recent unannounced visit by ACS inspectors to the Kitten Ward on July 19 paints a different picture, certifying that, "The cats in the facility were clean, healthy, and alert. ... The staff was knowledgeable and well informed about the cats and kittens in their care." Signed by Aimee DeContreras, Animal Care Service field operations supervisor, the report concludes, "We left the SAPA location and did not see any concerns at this time." Emphasizing SAPA's history of positive reviews by ASC, Walker (herself a SAPA volunteer currently fostering four dogs) relates that over 4,000 cats and dogs have been saved in the past six months through their Warbach Road Kitten Ward and the intake and dog facility at ACS Building #1. Many have been abuse cases. "A lot of false information gets out there," Walker told the Current. "It's frustrating, but instead of staying on the negative, we try to keep pushing forward. So we just tell people, come down and see for yourself."

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