Animal Advisory Board Debates Citywide Microchipping Mandate

Wednesday February 16th, 2022 by Kali Bramble

Members of the Austin Animal Advisory Board clashed last Monday with a proposal that would mandate the use of microchips for all pet owners in the city.

As a result of a study by volunteer researchers at UT Austin, the commission’s microchip task force encouraged recommendation of the terms of reference to city council. The ensuing debate suggested that the conversation is far from over.

“Our task force looked at a lot of data,” said Don Bland, director of animal services. “All of this indicates that the animals are coming home.”

Among the issues plaguing shelters as the city grows in population are a growing number of lost animals who fail to find their owners, adding further stress to shelters already struggling with overcrowding. In a shelter system with limited resources, staff members insist that the microchip is the only guaranteed solution.

The UT study analyzed shelter admission and return rate data to come to the unsurprising conclusion that microchipped pets are twice as likely to be returned to their owners. when they are lost. However, Commissioner Ryan Clinton argued that the results were not sufficient to extrapolate the need for a warrant.

“Only a few numbers do much of the work in the conclusions drawn here,” Clinton said, noting that Austinians showed no resistance to being microchipped when given the chance. “If the problem is that there’s so much demand out there that we don’t have the budget to provide, we’re not solving that problem by criminalizing pet ownership.”

For Bland, the results of the UT study were less relevant than data from other cities measuring the impact of microchipping mandates.

“Dallas implemented a mandate in 2017. Prior to that, they averaged 176 returns per month. In 2019, they averaged 938 returns per month, said Bland, who cited similar results in Port St. Lucie, Florida, and Reno, Nevada. “Throw away the UT data and we would still make that recommendation.”

Still, commissioners were skeptical of the effectiveness of a warrant. “If we’re going to make something a mandate, the devil is always going to be in the details,” Commission Chairman Craig Nazor said. “Ordinances, like our leash laws, don’t always work the way we want. The problem is usually the app.

It was the enforcement issue that Clinton found so troublesome. “When you criminalize something, the cost to the community is enormous, and time and time again we see that it takes a huge toll on people of color and the poor.” Clinton also recalled Austin’s efforts to institute mandatory pet registration in 2005, calling it a “colossal failure.”

Bland responded that other cities enforcing mandates take a “non-punitive” approach, with maximum fines for noncompliance in the range of $50 to $100. “The point is just to get the animal microchipped…in court for minor offences, if you comply within a certain time they will just throw it away.”

Others were still not convinced. “Have there been any discussions about providing more access?” asked Commissioner Palmer Neuhaus, who noted the popularity of the Austin Animal Center‘s existing free microchipping service. “If people are so receptive, why are we mandating it instead of making it more available?”

Photo by Joelmills, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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