Clear Eyes, Full Hearts and Wagging Tails

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It’s hard not to smile at the clientele waiting for a vet visit at Animal Trustees of Austin, some animating their anxiety with nervous howls and some offering friendly tail wags. Pet owners, animal foster parents and animal hospice workers come through the door in a steady and cheerful stream. All get a warm greeting and a rub behind the ears from Missy McCullough, the executive director of ATA.

McCullough is one of the original 10 women who started ATA in 1993 and aptly dubbed themselves “the founding mothers.” When the group started, the 10 women ran it as a rescue group simply because they saw a need in Austin. They fostered as many animals as they could in their homes and did adoptions at PetSmart stores. McCullough and her partner have 15 dogs, some adopted in those early days.

Now a full-fledged nonprofit and celebrating its 20th anniversary, ATA still responds to needs in the community, on a larger scale than those early days. In 1997 ATA opened its clinic off of Cameron Road in Northeast Austin to focus on spaying and neutering. From there it grew as its volunteers and employees saw unmet needs. Orthopedic surgery and veterinary care for the animal companions of the homeless are some of the niches that the organization has filled.

Today ATA acts as a community clinic for Austin’s animals. Emergency care, dental work, heartworm surgery and a wellness clinic ensure that pet owners who can’t afford a private vet can get their animals the medical care they need. ATA also strives to keep animals out of shelters by providing medical care for low- or no-cost to owners who might otherwise leave their ailing animals at a shelter.

It’s a piece of the animal welfare puzzle that’s desperately needed in Austin.

“When Austin changed to a no-kill city, we didn’t have a shelter that was prepared for it,” McCullough said. “The byproduct is that people bring their animals to shelters knowing they won’t be killed, and now we have a huge number of animals in the care of the city…Spaying and neutering is just one piece. Our service, of fixing broken animals, is just another piece. So that’s a big challenge, the number of animals who need homes.”

The nonprofit has made a niche for itself in a city well-saturated with animal welfare groups. In 2006 the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals gave resources in the form of money and manpower to ATA, Austin Pets Alive!, Austin Humane Society and the Austin Animal Center in return for the development of a collaborative model. The four organizations have continued working together since, and McCullough says it’s a model that works well.

Nonetheless, money is a perpetual challenge. Because ATA does provide subsidized care and medications, it needs to raise nearly $600,000 annually to cover its costs.

“There are four wonderful animal welfare organizations in town, and everyone is vying for the same funds,” McCullough said. “That’s a challenge for us, some people don’t really know the distinctions between the groups.”

ATA has purchased 2.5 acres of land behind Reagan High School, and is starting the process of raising the approximately $3 million it will need to build a new, larger clinic. McCullough is hoping to reach more Austinites about the work ATA does to help raise those funds.

“Our tagline is ‘we treat your animals like our own,’ and that’s the truth,” McCullough said. “There’s such devotion to animals here.”

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A native New Englander, Kate moved to Austin in 2002 to attend graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin, where she got her master’s degree in journalism. She spent several years as a reporter with the Austin Business Journal, where she covered health care, development and real estate. Kate now runs Thumbtack Communications, where she provides ghostwriting, copywriting, social media strategy and PR in addition to writing bylined articles. She lives in Central Austin with her husband, son, and two cranky cats. When she’s not writing, she’s playing guitar, gardening or hiking.