The Cat’s Meow

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Kevin Farr is working to keep this local animal nonprofit in the spotlight

Seven-year-old Ava had named her Pomeranian Coco. A gift from her grandmother, the furry puffball of a dog quickly became a big part of the little girl’s life. But soon Coco was diagnosed with luxating patella, a condition in dogs in which the knee joint dislocates, causing lameness. Coco had it in all four legs and the complicated surgery to repair the knees would cost more than the family from Leander could afford. The only other answer was unthinkable: euthanize the dog.

But Ava’s mother Candice found out about Animal Trustees of Austin (ATA) and went looking for a miracle. At the animal welfare nonprofit, local veterinary orthopedic surgeon Dr. Kirk Lewis examined Coco and determined the dog was a good candidate for the surgery. Through ATA’s Emergency Care Fund, Coco got the surgery she needed just before the holidays. With her dog recovering, the little girl asked that her family give money to ATA instead of buying her anything for Christmas. She, after all, had her dog back.

“We really felt that we made a difference there,” said Kevin Farr, communications manager with ATA.

It’s stories like Coco ’s that make Farr proud to work with the nonprofit where he’s expanding outreach efforts–making known what this small but growing group of dedicated individuals are doing for the people and animals of the capital city.

Launched as a rescue and shelter organization in 1993, Animal Trustees is altogether a much different entity today. The nonprofit began doing low-cost spays and neuters in 1997 and started offering wellness services in 2002. The group now runs two clinics adjacent to one another on Cameron Road in east Austin. Spays and neuters as well as orthopedic and other complex procedures are performed at the surgery and special services clinic while checkups and vaccinations happen at the wellness clinic next door. Over the years, Animal Trustees has served more than 221,000 animals through its various programs, nearly 33,600 last year alone. The organization has grown from just three paid staffers in the beginning to 26 today and has an annual budget of roughly $2.5 million, up from $750,000 in 2002.

For his part, Farr is handling everything from public relations and media outreach to email marketing and social networking. He’s implemented a new internal communications strategy to help organize the staff and volunteers at ATA and is helping ensure executive director Missy McCullough is able to meet with the right people in the community to accomplish the mission of improving animal welfare in central Texas.

“Right now, we’re growing fast and we’re all wearing multiple hats,” he said. “Sure it’s challenging, but it’s a good challenge.”

Though he never envisioned a career with an animal organization, animals have been a part of Farr’s life from the start. He grew up on his parents’ quarter horse farm in Boyd, Texas, about 30 miles northwest of Fort Worth. His idyllic rural childhood had him surrounded by horses, dogs and cats. He loved music and was active in a number of organizations in school, even serving as drum major in the high school band and class president. But being gay, Farr realized his days in Boyd were numbered. “I was eager to get out of there quick as I could and get down to Austin so I could come out of the closet,” he said.

In Austin he studied theater at UT and later St. Edwards University. There he performed in a series of local productions, including several at Zach theatre, before moving to New York City in 1998 with a goal of breaking onto Broadway. He held a day job with JP Morgan while he produced piano bar cabaret shows around town and took parts in theater productions. After seven years in New York, Farr returned to Austin in 2006 to take a marketing position with Zach. “I felt that I had done what I needed to do in New York,” he said. “I knew I loved Austin and my family was super happy to get me back down to Texas.”

For Farr, having worked with the folks at Zach his first time in Austin, the return to the theatre and its close-knit family vibe was like another sort of homecoming. His major goal there was to help get the word out about shows and promote the theater’s efforts. He did just that for several years, eventually striking out on his own doing freelance design and marketing work for arts groups around town.

Meanwhile, at ATA, McCullough, one of the group’s original founders, had been running the entire show–from development to marketing to managing the two clinics. But significant growth and plans for a new facility meant McCullough needed help. In 2009, with the mission expanding, the organization began looking for someone to handle public relations and marketing full time. The nonprofit tapped Farr, who recently completed his first year with the group. “I love this organization–I love what we’re able to do for the animals but also the people who have these pets,” he said.

But Animal Trustees’ work has gotten a bit harder in recent years. The nonprofit has significantly outgrown its existing facility and wants to build a new 10,000-square-foot complex on land it’s earmarked near the current site. The move, which officials hope will happen within two years, would allow ATA to serve more animals and expand the veterinary services offered to qualifying low-income pet owners. But that will take considerable funding at a time when donations, which account for more than a quarter of the nonprofit’s income, are down because of the recession. That drop in contributions has also taken a toll on Animal Trustees’ Emergency care Fund–the vehicle that helped pay for Coco ’s sur- gery. And that’s meant some extremely difficult decisions for the organization, where people come as a last resort when they can’t afford expensive treatments elsewhere for their ailing pets. With the fund depleted, the group is being forced to turn away some owners, and that often means the dog or cat won’t make it. “It’s heartbreaking,” Farr said. And that’s why getting the word out about what the organization is doing is so crucial.

Far from giving up, Animal Trustees is getting creative. With its new development director, Gabrielle Amster, in place, the nonprofit is looking to push beyond the private donations that have helped sustain it up to this point, for grant opportunities and even corporate sponsorships. The majority of the group’s income comes from service fees at the two clinics.

And it will be Farr’s task to make sure people are aware of what ATA is doing along the way. It’s a mission he’s taking on with aplomb. “I’ve always been a helper of people,” said Farr, who will soon celebrate his second wedding anniversary with husband Patrick Boyd. “I like to serve and take care of folks. Here I’m helping people with their animals, and helping my coworkers do what they do. We’re a great, collaborative team, and we’re doing it all for the animals.”

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