In Her They Trust

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Missy McCullough is telling the type of heartfelt, serendipitous story that makes one’s hair stand on end.

Not long ago, McCullough had taken her dog to the veterinarian when a woman came in to the clinic’s waiting room, sobbing, and said, “I need you to put my cat to sleep.” McCullough asked if her cat is old. As it turned out the cat’s only problem was that it had a broken leg. The distraught woman said, “You don’t understand, I don’t have any money.”

As the executive director of Animal Trustees of Austin – a nonprofit organization that provides affordable veterinary care to the animals of low-income, working-class and homeless Austinites – it’s the kind of troublesome thing McCullough hears a lot.

After explaining what she does for a living and the purpose of her group, McCullough told the woman that if the vet could save the cat’s leg ATA would pay for the treatment through its emergency care fund.

A dry erase board in ATA’s waiting area shows the group has safely spayed and neutered 79,729 dogs and cats since March 1997. Animal Trustees of Austin was founded by ten women – McCullough is one of the “founding mothers” – in 1993, with its original mission to keep animals out of city shelters. Although the focus was on special needs animals and animals that would have otherwise been euthanized, the organization expanded in 1997 and opened the Spay/Neuter Clinic. The Wellness Clinic, which also provides affordable care for low-income pet owners, accepts walk-ins.

Having moved through positions from board president to paid staffer over the years, McCullough became executive director in 2001. Back in 1993, the group only had three employees: a veterinarian and two technicians. Slowly but surely, as it filled a major need in the community, ATA grew. The nonprofit now employs 23 full-time paid staffers and has a $2.2 million budget.

ATA is providing a necessary service at a critical time. Take for example treatment for heartworms – parasites passed through mosquitoes that commonly afflict dogs’ cardiovascular systems. Treatment for the disease is highly effective but ranges from $600 to $1,400 at a traditional veterinarian’s office. ATA charges $100 to $300 per treatment. Last year, over 20,000 animals passed through the doors of ATA’s two clinics – a gigantic number when you consider that they’ve grown out of their 3,200-square-foot space.

On a tour through the facility, McCullough is in her element. Eyes full of enthusiasm, she knows every detail of what’s happening in the organization’s maze-like building. She also introduces me to Keni Gallucci, the administrator of ATA and her partner of 8 years.

“Keni and I live on 10 acres of land in Red Rock with some dogs that we take care of,” McCullough says. “We actually work for this organization 24/7 – and we love it.”

ATA benefits from an annual grant from the Junior League of Austin, an organization that promotes volunteerism among women. That grant pays their volunteer coordinator’s salary. Over 80 percent of their total budget comes from fees that clients pay for services, with the remainder coming from fundraisers, direct mailings and in-kind donations. Volunteers, who do everything from answering the phones and making appointments to recovery work and washing towels, saved the organization $100,000 in salary last year. “We use volunteers like paid staff,” McCullough says.

Since the economy went south last year, the organization has seen its client base expand to include many middle-income animal lovers, people who are now unable to afford certain treatments due to their financial situation.

ATA has marked a new professional chapter for McCullough. She worked as a special education teacher for 18 years in a private residential treatment center, focusing in particular on autistic and emotionally disturbed children. After studying fine arts as an undergrad, she earned her master’s in education. “I loved that work, but was burned out at a certain point,” she says.

It was when she started volunteering at the Town Lake Animal Shelter that she met like-minded women, and together they decided to form a group to save animals from being euthanized.

One part of ATA’s outreach that McCullough is particularly proud of is their work with Austin’s homeless community. Animal Trustees of Austin provides the homeless with free dog or cat food, collars and leashes and veterinary care – basically whatever they need. There are very few programs or groups that help the homeless with their pets.

“It took us a really long time to earn their trust,” McCullough says. “Homeless people take really good care of their pets, because it’s their life line, in some cases their only companion.”

ATA is in the midst of a capital campaign that will hopefully help it expand. The group is negotiating to take an East Austin property that was part of the Wimberley family ranch on Cameron Road and E. St. Johns Avenue, where they’d like to build a new 12,000-square-foot facility. If the deal goes through – the land is currently in a rezoning process and the city’s planning commission was set to take up the matter in late June – ATA would be able to start offering full-service veterinary medicine. Presently, ATA doesn’t have the facilities to treat animals that are sick with ailments like upper-respiratory infections or have other minor injuries; there’s nowhere for the animals to stay overnight. “If we get this new facility, we won’t have to send anybody else- where,” McCullough says. “We’ll have clients who’re qualified for these services – they’ll have to have a family income at a certain level.”

Petcasso, one of the group’s largest annual fund-raising events, features 10 animals, frequently with celebrity owners, doing a variety of paintings. Hanging in the lobby of the Spay/Neuter Clinic is a very colorful painting done by Sheryl Crow’s horse. This year, the event raised $180,000. McCullough’s primary responsibility is to bring in donors and give them tours of the space and further the group’s mission.

“We knew we wanted to save animals,” McCullough says. “This organization has been very blessed – when we’ve needed something, it has come to us.”

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