The 10 Austinites of the Year: Ellen Jefferson

The 10 Austinites of the Year: Ellen Jefferson

Executive Director, Austin Pets Alive
She may not wear a cape or mask, but the number of animals she’s saved should earn her super hero status.

"All I ever wanted to do was be able to help animals and help save their lives," Ellen Jefferson says. And judging by her track record, it would be best not to get in the way of something this woman wants. Since arriving in Austin, she founded Emancipet which has safely spayed/neutered over 100,000 animals, she has remodeled Austin Pets Alive which has since found homes for over 9,000 animals and she helped develop the city’s “No Kill” implementation plan, all of which when combined has made Austin the national leader with the lowest percentage of savable pets euthanized in the country. And Jefferson’s not done yet, she’s set her sights on the rest of the country and she’s planning to do “more and more and more.”

Jefferson, who started her career as a veterinarian in Virginia, moved to Austin in the late ‘90s, basically on a whim, knowing almost no one here. This is our good luck, because with her drive and ingenuity, it is likely that any city she ended up in would be boasting the lowest pet euthanasia rate in the country.

Her first job in Austin was working nights at a local emergency clinic, which is where she eventually met her husband, an equine vet — they currently have two dogs, two cats, a pig, a bird and four horses, all rescues. To keep busy, she also started volunteering at Town Lake Animal Center, helping with medical procedures, which is what inspired her to start Emancipet in the first place. “While I was doing surgeries for them, they were bringing in puppies and mom dogs and cats and kittens and killing them right in front of me,” she says. “It would take me half an hour to do a surgery, but in half an hour 10 animals were killed. So I thought, even if I make every animal in this shelter healthy, they still have to kill them because they don’t have anywhere for them to go.” So she decided to change tactics.

In 1998, Jefferson founded Emancipet, a non-profit that provides low-cost spay/neuter services, in hopes of reducing the number of unwanted pets ending up in the shelter in the first place. She worked at if for nine years, and the organization grew from performing 5,000 spay/neuters in its first year to the incredible 100,000 they have performed today. But even after all of those spay/neuters, the euthanasia rate was not decreasing at Town Lake. So she changed tactics again.

Since taking on the role of Executive Director at Austin Pets Alive in 2008, Jefferson had completely transformed the organization into THE model for saving a community’s pets. In just three short years, Town Lake Animal Center’s euthanasia rate has decreased from 45 percent to less than 10 percent. Making it under that 10 percent mark, makes Austin officially a “No Kill” city, and redefines what “No Kill” can mean. They beat that mark by targeting specific populations that were being disproportionally euthanized: orphan kittens and Parvo puppies (Jefferson and her husband actually housed the Parvo puppies in their home the first year of the program). She estimates that Austin could get to as low as two percent if the city could create a program for one last population group: large dogs with behavior problems. But although the city got budget approval for a full-time behaviorist, they have yet to hire one.

Since Austin Pets Alive saved every animal that they set out to this year at TLAC, including the orphan kittens and Parvo puppies, they expanded and started taking animals from other communities, helping increase the live outcome rates of the shelters in Bastrop, San Marcos, Williamson County and San Antonio. And they launched American Pets Alive, a training tool for other cities. “The sad part about this is that even though we are saving such a huge number of animals in Austin, if you go 20 minutes outside of Austin, there are huge numbers dying for no good reason,” Jefferson says. “So I want to always keep our eye on working harder and harder and getting more animals saved everywhere.”

For the coming months, Jefferson’s top priority is helping San Antonio achieve their goal of No Kill, finding a permanent facility for Austin Pets Alive and eventually becoming an official sister arm for the city, serving as a humane society for the most at-risk animals. Getting to the lowest pet euthanasia rate in the country “is a big deal,” Jefferson says. “It’s something that no other city has accomplished, and it’s something to be really proud of. So I’m hopeful that Austin Pets Alive can find a facility and forever be part of what makes Austin the best city in the country.”