Feb 6, 2024 - News

Why San Antonio is integrating social work into animal care

Illustration of a heart made out of dog treats.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Richard Menchaca's pets are part of his family. He lives alone with dogs Tweety Bird, Trixie and Princess and a cat named Little Lion in his apartment on the West Side.

  • But it's been harder to care for his pets since his wife passed away. Menchaca has limited mobility and uses a wheelchair, and lives on his Social Security income.

What's happening: Once a month, Menchaca gets a visit from Paul Trujillo, a case coordinator with the Community Animal Support and Assistance team, or CASA, at the city's Animal Care Services. Trujillo recently stopped by to drop off some free cat food and to chat.

  • CASA approaches animal care in San Antonio from a social work perspective.

Why it matters: In a city with a high poverty rate, not everyone has the money or physical ability to keep up with pet care — even when they want to.

  • CASA aims to help, rather than punish, pet owners who have good intentions but don't know the details of — or struggle to meet — the city's animal welfare regulations.

Plus, CASA is an attempt at keeping more pets in their homes and out of the city shelter as the city's euthanasia rate has increased.

Details: CASA launched in July 2022 and is made up of four case coordinators and one case manager. They can provide supplies like appropriate outdoor tethers and get animals microchipped.

  • CASA also supports people who are fleeing domestic violence situations and people who are experiencing homelessness with pet care.
  • If a pet needs veterinary care, they can refer an owner to nearby clinics and low-cost resources.
  • They will refer people to Meals on Wheels or other community resources if they notice a client needs assistance beyond animal care.

What they're saying: "I think CASA is going to be at the forefront of changing pet care in San Antonio," ACS spokesperson Lisa Norwood tells Axios.

By the numbers: CASA received $688,813 in funding in the city's current fiscal year budget, up from the $320,514 in fiscal year 2022 when it launched, per Norwood.

How it works: ACS staff will reroute a neglect call to the CASA team if it seems that the pet owner just needs more resources or education.

  • Each CASA member is a certified animal care officer. That means they can still issue a citation to someone if they aren't cooperating or if it's believed to be an instance of willful neglect.
  • The team sometimes works with specific clients regularly and at other times members canvass neighborhoods to look for problems they can address.

The big picture: Not everyone welcomes the CASA team with open arms.

  • Team members have a long way to go to overcome a trust barrier with a community that sometimes assumes ACS officers will cite them or take their pets away.

Zoom out: San Antonio is not the first city to try a people-first approach to animal care. Denver hired a social worker for its department, as have other shelters in Colorado.

  • But San Antonio appears to be unique in creating a whole team, Norwood says.

State of play: The CASA team works with owners who request to surrender their pets to ACS for non-medical reasons, offering them resources instead.

Reality check: Euthanasia at the city-run ACS was still skyrocketing as the CASA team got to work, reaching its highest level in more than a decade last year.

The bottom line: CASA's success hinges on the rapport team members build with clients in addition to free supplies or services.

  • "When we hear those stories, we're able to meet people where they're at," Kate Powell, who manages the CASA team, tells Axios.
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