They weren’t supposed to make it. As a kitten, Telene contracted a deadly virus that wreaks havoc on young immune systems. One look at Capone and shelter officials quickly labeled the 80-pound American pit bull terrier unsafe, placing him on the list for euthanasia. But Telene and Capone made the perfect candidates for Austin Pets Alive. The organization has chipped away at the city’s euthanasia rate — from 45 percent in 2008 to 5 percent in 2012 — by finding homes for animals deemed unadoptable. Since 2008, Austin Pets Alive has taken in 18,901 cats and dogs; 17,141 of those pets found homes, including Telene and Capone. Here are their rescue tales.

Telene: The tiniest bottle baby

Telene and her litter mates arrived at an Austin animal shelter during peak kitten season. Very few shelters around the country have resources to care for an onslaught of unweaned kittens. But the city shelter’s partnership with Austin Pets Alive meant that Telene would get a fighting chance. After spending a few weeks in the organization’s bottle baby program, three of her litter mates were strong enough to enter foster homes.

rescued kitten and owner“One tortoise shell — and the runt of the litter — really captured my heart,” Austin Pets Alive volunteer Diane Stapley said of Telene. (That's Stapley and Telene at right.) “I fed her before leaving, holding her close to my heart and whispering, ‘You have to get stronger, you have to get stronger.’”

But each of the seven kittens had contracted a deadly and preventable virus called panleukopenia. Only Telene survived, and she needed a foster home that could handle her transition from the bottle to gruel. Stapley opened her home to the tiny kitten, tackling syringe-feeding duties, followed by a detailed disinfecting procedure to help prevent her two cats and dogs from contracting the virus.

Stapley’s husband had warned her about resisting the urge to bring home all the homeless animals she encountered at Austin Pets Alive. Both agreed that Telene’s time with the Stapleys was to be temporary. But things took an unexpected turn. One day, Stapley arrived home to find her husband asleep on the couch with Telene curled up on his chest.

“That told me that something had gone terribly wrong,” she said. “We decided to be foster failures.” Eight-month-old Telene now frolics happily with two cats, two dogs and two pet parents at her forever home.

Capone: Looks can be deceiving

Kathryn Burnstein wanted her three sons to experience the joy of caring for a young dog of their own. Her house also became pretty lonely when the boys visited their father, so she welcomed the company of a furry new addition. Since one of Burnstein’s sons has severe ADHD, finding a dog with the right temperament was essential. Her boys wanted a Labrador, but touring an Austin animal shelter opened their eyes to other possibilities.

“That’s when they understood why I didn’t want to buy them a Lab,” Burnstein said. “Having them go see how many dogs were there, at least for my [youngest] boy, had a lot of impact on him. He still talks about it and how many dogs can be adopted.”

The visit also helped Burnstein and her boys narrow their focus. Breed became far less important than a dog’s ability to blend in with their busy household. They also had a 15-year-old Shih Tzu mix named Lilly to consider. Any new addition would have to give Lilly space as she lived out her senior years. After reading various online profiles, Burnstein and her kids fell for a large white pit bull named Capone on the Austin Pets Alive website. Burnstein had seen plenty of bad press about pit bulls. But she was willing to give Capone a chance, if he could handle her family dynamics. Austin Pets Alive placed her in contact with Capone’s foster mom and the two began a lengthy phone and email exchange.

pit bull Capone and boy“Her patience and knowledge of his personality — and her willingness to make sure he was a good fit for my family — is what made this a success,” Burnstein said. “She had a great deal of affection for Capone and wanted to make sure he was a good fit.”

Capone’s foster mom had an extensive background with pit bulls and offered detailed advice on caring for the breed. Burnstein also knew that Austin Pets Alive would take Capone back if things didn’t work out. The next factor up for consideration: How would grumpy, geriatric Lilly respond to the addition of a much younger, 80-pound pooch? To find out, Austin Pets Alive conducted a meet-and-greet session for the two dogs.

The fact that Capone had even made it this far was a major milestone. Across the country, two types of animals run the greatest risk of being euthanized at animal shelters: orphaned kittens and dogs with behavioral issues. Labeled dog-aggressive and unsafe around people, Austin animal control officers had placed Capone in the latter category. He was scheduled for euthanasia when Austin Pets Alive decided to give him a second chance. The organization assesses each dog’s temperament during playgroup sessions, then creates a rehabilitation plan to address any behavioral issues. (Take a look at playgroup training sessions.)

“It’s less stressful than being in a shelter,” said Mike Kaviani, dog behavior program manager with Austin Pets Alive. “We see behavior that we cannot possibly see on a leash. It helps market them to adopters and weed out things that are not good.”

Capone’s original assessment led Kaviani and Aaron Caldwell, his program assistant, to be more cautious about allowing the large dog to attend large playgroup sessions. Any worries faded quickly. Capone had a blast with other dogs, earning a reputation as one of their most sociable.

“We had no concerns about Capone’s reaction,” said Kaviani of that initial meet-and-greet with the Burnsteins’ dog. “[Lilly] could only do so much to a dog eight times the size of her. We knew [Capone] was sound. We had the little dog in the yard first to investigate, get smells out of the way. Then we let Capone into the yard with leashes. That was it. [Lilly] growled for a second and Capone walked away and played with the kids. We were all really proud of him.”

Kaviani also watched carefully to see how Capone played with the boys. Once everyone was comfortable, it was clear that Capone had found his forever home with three active boys, an elderly sister and a doting mom. He helps Burnstein tuck her youngest son into bed each night before curling up in her room for the evening. While Burnstein’s boys are not allowed to walk their 80-pound pooch — and tug-of-war is off-limits — they wear out four or five tennis balls a week playing fetch with Capone. The family also visits a local dog park, where Capone attracts plenty of attention.

“He has that look that makes him intimidating,” she said. “When he approaches, I tell people, ‘Don’t worry, he is the friendliest dog in the world.'”

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Click for photo credits

Photo credits:

Diane Stapley and Telene. Photo: Diane Stapley

Capone and 6-year-old Yusef Burnstein. Photo: Kathryn Burnstein

How did a 'dangerous' pit bull and a sickly kitten escape shelter's death row?
Even though they represent the most likely animals to be euthanized at shelters, Capone and Telene made it off the kill list, thanks to Austin Pets Alive.