Houston’s Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care often has been described by critics as the place animals went to die. As recently as 2005, BARC put down four of every five animals it took in.
So it marked an important milestone this year when 80 percent of animals that entered the shelter left alive, a BARC record that officials say illustrates the agency’s turnaround after years of mismanagement and inhumane practices.
The agency had been highly criticized for conditions at its shelter, including instances in which puppies were washed down uncovered floor drains and cases in which animals had been put down prematurely.
A major reorganization, increased funding and new partnerships with adoption and foster groups have spurred what BARC officials refer to as “the transformation.”
A key piece of that is BARC’s partnership with the nonprofit Rescued Pets Movement, which has saved more than 6,700 Houston dogs and cats since September 2013. City Council on Wednesday voted to add about $67,000 to an existing contract with the group to transport animals to no-kill groups in Colorado, where there’s a higher demand for pet adoptions than there is supply.
Rescued Pets Movement co-founder Laura Carlock said she was wary of working with BARC at first. Even entering the premises was something she worried went against her belief in treating animals humanely.
“A lot of people said before ‘I would never set foot in BARC.’ But now we actually have hope and we see progress there,” Carlock said. “We love our partnership with BARC; we trust them.”
Not long ago, hitting an 80 percent live-release rate was a “pipe dream,” said Ashtyn Rivet, BARC’s marketing and outreach lead. BARC takes in a staggering 25,000 animals a year.
Last year, the agency recorded an average 64 percent live-release rate. During the first three months of 2015, that figure climbed to 80 percent for the first time.
Because the shelter has seen a rush of kittens and puppies this month, the live release rate likely will dip to 75 percent for April, Rivet said. That’s still almost 10 percentage points higher than the same time last year.
“It’s just huge for us,” Rivet said. “It’s taken so much work. We’ve built partnerships. We have had people – hundreds and hundreds of people – coming out of the woodwork to help us, getting on board with our mission to save the lives of our homeless animals.”
The group also made use of an additional $2.6 million City Council approved last year to boost enforcement of the city’s animal regulations, citing owners of loud or aggressive pets, for instance, and to decrease the number of animals euthanized – BARC’s two primary tasks.
The agency and its partners have expanded low-cost spay and neuter services along with free fixing in targeted neighborhoods to tame the city’s stray animal population.
“BARC’s been on an upward trajectory for years,” Mayor Annise Parker said during a council briefing earlier this year. “But it was a giant step forward last year as part of the budget when we gave them the resources to really be able to do the job that we were tasking them with.”
Rescued Pets Movement’s role in the shift cannot be overstated, Rivet said. The group takes on 60 percent of the animals BARC asks its 150 partners to help place, even those that are underweight or sick.
When Rescued Pets Movement first partnered with the city, it would use one van to transport about 25 animals every two weeks to Colorado. Now, the group has five vans that transport 150 animals every week, primarily dogs.
Though the transport for each animal costs about $160, the nonprofit group caps BARC’s cost at $75 and covers the rest through private donations.
Just last week, Rescued Pets Movement opened its first brick-and-mortar headquarters in Houston Heights to coordinate its foster program and animal transport.
On the heels of RPM’s project, BARC will open its own adoption center in early June adjacent to the shelter at 3200 Carr in north Houston. For the first time, the agency’s regulatory role will be physically separated from its adoption efforts.
“We’re hoping that makes a really big difference in terms of customer service experience,” Rivet said. “Pet adoption is a big responsibility, and we do the best that we can to ensure that each of our animals gets the best and safest home.”