Austin learns a lot from Larry Wright, Evan Smith and Amy Mills

The Library was the place to be. Not the Central Public Library. But the blue-and-red rectangular meeting room at Hotel Van Zandt.

It was the location for a Toast of the Town salon to support the Neal Kocurek Scholarship Fund for health sciences careers, operated by the St. David’s Foundation. Thirty of so lucky souls were treated to an enlightening public talk between journalist and author Lawrence “Larry” Wright and journalist and Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith.

Evan Smith and Larry Wright at Hotel Van Zandt for Toast of the Town. Contributed by Matthew Fuller/St. David’s Foundation

The two had met soon after Smith moved to town in the 1992 to join the staff of Texas Monthly. He was assigned to edit Wright’s piece on the chemical castration of sexual offenders. Wright was for it.

Smith went on to lead Texas Monthly and now the Texas Tribune, while also interviewing top minds on “Texas Monthly Talks” and then “Overheard with Evan Smith” on public television.

My nominee for best reporter in Texas, Wright has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since he left Texas Monthly in the early 1990s. His books include the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11” as well as “The Terror Years: From Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State,” “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prism of Belief” and “Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David.”

If those accomplishments were not enough, he writes plays and screenplays, appears on stage, and basks in the glow of the lauded TV adaptation of “The Looming Tower” now streaming on the Hulu channel.

RELATED: Toast of the Town one of the classiest acts around.

Can you see why I dropped everything for this benefit dinner? Smith devoted his early questions to terrorism and world affairs. Wright believes, for instance, we are ignoring the proliferation of Al-Qaeda and Islamic State beyond their Middle Eastern origins while we are distracted by other crises. He continues to state that the intervention into Iraq was the single worst foreign policy decision in American history.

Smith then moved on to main subject for the evening, Wright’s recent book, “God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State,” parts of which appeared in The New Yorker. On that field in inquiry, both sharp minds need no urging.

Wright’s editor at The New Yorker had asked him to explain Texas, a big task. He did not rely on the standard reports about the recent changes in the state; he spent a year observing the Texas Legislature. After all, Texas could tell us more about the future of the country, especially if its voters participated in elevated numbers.

He came away from his research with with a volume full of conclusions and an urge to run for governor. Wright thinks that the primary jobs of state government are education and infrastructure. Those needs tended to be ignored while state leaders spent an inordinate amount of time and energy on bathroom rules and sanctuary cities. He lays heavy blame on traditional business advocate Gov. Greg Abbott, who sided late in the session with radio personality Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick against outgoing Speaker of the House Joe Straus, who held together state government against all odds.

Wright has much more to say about state and national politics and culture, but as they say, buy and read the book.

Emancipet Luncheon

One speaker in town who could give Smith or Wright a run for their money is Amy Mills, CEO of Emancipet, an Austin nonprofit that provides free or low-cost spay, neutering and veterinary care at seven clinics in four cities.

Melissa Levine and Mary Herr Tally at Emancipet Luncheon at Hyatt Regency Austin. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

The early part of its annual luncheon, which has moved gracefully from the Four Seasons Hotel Austin to the larger banquet hall at the Hyatt Regency Austin, was spent on the tasty vegan fare, video stories of clients and statistics shared by eager board members.

The room grew hushed when Mills rose to the stage. After all, she can so cogently and quickly explain a rapidly expanding and sustainable nonprofit, she would likely trounce every other participant at Philanthropitch.

RELATED: What caused all the excitement at nonprofit pitch fest.

That fast-action pitch session from nonprofit leaders was an early-week Austin highlight. (I can’t tell you how many ambitious Austin nonprofits are exporting their great ideas around the world. Just a few decades ago, they didn’t look beyond the Austin city limits.)

Some statistics appeared in the printed program. In 2017, the group provided

• 71,539 preventative care visits

• 33,300 free or low cost spay/neuter surgeries

• 622 heartworm treatments

• 177 special surgery procedures

• $883,930 in free services to Houston-area families affected by Hurricane Harvey.

Mills expanded on the last number. With animal welfare partners, they focused, not on lost pets, but on vet care for families hit hard by the storm. They announced that their clinical services would remain absolutely free for 90 days. As workers arrived the first morning, more than 100 people were in line. Some had never visited a vet before. They saw a total of 6,641 animals.

RELATED: Amy Mills takes Emancipet mission national.

Also in 2017, Emancipet opened its largest clinic ever in Northeast Austin and its first in Philadelphia. It responded to rising vet care costs by seeing 93,576 pets. Just as importantly, they trained 28 vets to take their business model to other markets. They can’t do it all themselves.

Mills saved the most dramatic news for last. Hurricane Maria scattered pets all over Puerto Rico, who then rapidly multiplied. Emacipet with 23 other groups is headed there to spay/neuter 20,000 of them. They will then leave their surgical tools and other equipment there for vets they will train to keep up the work.

Hard to beat Mills. Hard to beat Emancipet.

Austin parties we love: Early 2018

After a holiday break, the Austin social scene warms up rapidly. Peek at some parties we eagerly anticipate.

Jan. 27: Opening night of Austin Opera’s “Ariadne auf Naxos.” Long Center.

Jan. 27: Dell Children’s Gala. Austin Convention Center.

Jan. 27: Human Rights Campaign Austin Gala. JW Marriott.

Jan. 31: Promise to Children Award Luncheon for Camp Fire Central Texas. St. David’s Episcopal Church.

Feb. 2: Angelina Eberly Luncheon for Austin History Center Association. Driskill Hotel.

Feb. 3: Rodeo Austin Gala with Jack Ingram, Bruce Robison and Charlie Robison. Palmer Events Center.

Feb. 3: Casablanca for CASA of Travis County. JW Marriott.

Feb. 3: Corazón Awards for Con Mi Madre. After-party with Bidi Bidi Band. Brazos Hall.

Feb. 3: Puppy Bowl for Austin Humane Society. 124 W. Anderson Lane.

Feb. 3: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner for Project Transitions. The Thinkery and other venues.

Feb. 10: Winemaker Valentine Luncheon. Fall Creek Vineyards.

Feb. 10: Carnaval Brasileiro. Palmer Events Center.

Feb. 11: The Nobelity Project’s Feed the Peace Awards. Four Seasons Hotel.

Feb. 11: Women’s Symphony League presents Red Haute Valentine Party. Omni Barton Creek Resort.

Feb. 12: Austin Blues Revue and mixer. Antone’s Nightclub.

Feb. 15: Rockin’ Round Up for Any Baby Can. ACL Live.


Salute the stunning new Dell Seton Medical Center

The Austin parties are picking up again. We attended three fine ones recently.

Dell Seton Medical Center Big Reveal

Have I mistakenly entered a luxury hotel? That’s the first impression one receives in the ground-level guest areas of the new Dell Seton Medical Center at the University of Texas.

Opening of Dell Seton Medical Center at the University of Texas. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

For the Big Reveal at the $300 million teaching, charity and research hospital, which goes fully operational in May, numerous top citizens sipped bubbly, nibbled on delectables, then set those aside to tour the seven-floor state-of-the-science facility that will take the place of University Medical Center Brackenridge.

Pete and Tomi Winstead at the opening of Dell Seton Medical Center University of Texas. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

Fortuitously, among our first contacts in the comfy cafe was Pete Winstead, the Austin power broker who led the charge to raise $50 million for the hospital, along with his charming wife Tomi Winstead. By the way, as State Sen. Kirk Watsonauthor of the 10-point regional health plan that includes this new medical center, pointed out: No taxpayer money was spent on facility. Jesus Garza, retiring CEO of Seton Healthcare Family, and Christann Vasquez, president and CEO of the medical center, were also on hand to salute the sleek new building, filled with natural light and brightened with fine art.

Cafe at this charity hotel feels like Four Seasons Hotel. Opening of Dell Seton Medical Center University of Texas. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

This whole series of medical structures along Waller Creek are so much more pleasing than the old Brack complex and the blocky government buildings that bank up against them. But it’s how the hospital works that keeps one transfixed with such wonders as a hybrid cath lab and OR and a design that will facilitate care of the worst-off patients that impresses the most.

Hybrid cath lab and OR. Opening of Dell Seton Medical Center University of Texas. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

Too much spent on the hotel look? Vasquez explains that they chose less expensive materials for the backside and inside of the place, but they wanted people to feel relaxed and at home during traumatic times. And after all, Dallas spent $1 billion on its charity hospital redo and San Antonio $500 million. So Austin’s $300 million looks like a bargain.

Tailwaggers for Austin Pets Alive

As promised, the Tailwaggers “non-gala” or “neo-gala” for Austin Pets Alive at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum was gloriously liberating. A perfect April evening. Unhurried strolls through the lovely gardens to find stations with drinks, animal welfare info or pledge options.

Mike and Catherine Kaviani at Tailwaggers for Austin Pets Alive. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

Almost every top social in town — thanks to chair Mary Herr Tally and her team — was present, along with young couples who we’d never met before. Plus some pets.

David Kurio’s floral genius at work during Tailwaggers for Austin Pets Alive. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

The program was short. The Big Band music was romantic. An errant buffet line put the only crimp in the evening, although once self-served, the fresh, healthy food was excellent. I’m not even going to try to list the social movers and shakers who attended, because the list would go on into next week.

We’ve got another signature Austin event on our hands.

Ribbon Cutting for Briscoe Center

“We are not a museum,” said longtime director Don Carleton about his research archives, the Briscoe Center for American History. Well, just a little bit. Along with a first-rate reading room and new gathering spaces, the renovated ground floor of the center — located across the plaza from the LBJ Presidential Library — is quite a bit of exhibition space. As Carleton says: “Now we can share some of our treasures.”

Patia Sandifer and Stephen Bedsole at the grand reopening of the Briscoe Center. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

And we are grateful for it. We’ve been digging around the Briscoe since it was named the Barker Texas History Center in the 1980s. It’s a superb collection overseen by top-notch professionals. And it always bugged me that its historical shows were staged in the hallway to the restroom. (I have the same problem with the admittedly lovelier hallway at the Austin History Center.)

At the recent ribbon cutting for the refabricated center, Carleton welcomed UT bigwigs such as President Gregory Fenves and Provost Maurie McInnis, who said that archival material: “Makes the past real in a way that just reading about history does not.” He also thanked major donors, such as the family of late Gov. Dolph Briscoe and expert on early UT history, Clyde Rabb Littlefield. Also present were Dan and Jean RatherKathy CronkiteBen Sargent and former U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson.

We’ll deliver at fuller report on what’s inside the new Briscoe very soon.

2012: Ellen Jefferson advocating for animals

We repost this 2012 profile of Ellen Jefferson just in time for the Austin Pets Alive benefit, Tailwaggers, on April 7.

RELATED: Joining the revolt against the traditional Austin gala at Tailwaggers.

tln apa! ellen 03
Ellen Jefferson in 2012 was with Pidgey at her home in Austin. Thao Nguyen/For American-Statesman

While volunteering at the old Town Lake Animal Shelter, veterinarian Ellen Jefferson saw too many animals killed.

“It didn’t feel like I was making a big impact, ” Jefferson says. “But I felt like if I could stop the inflow, fewer would come into shelter, so more could go out alive.”

In 1999, Jefferson founded Emancipet, a nonprofit group which spays or neuters animals.

RELATED: Amy Mills takes Emancipet’s animal mission national.

By the time she left the group – which keeps growing without her – they were performing 16,000 surgeries a year, mostly from a roaming clinic. That superhuman feat, however, didn’t make the expected impact on the number of animals euthanized at the city’s shelter.

“Rabble-rousers were saying that we were still killing too many, ” she says. “And I ignored them. The more I listened to them, however, the more I realized we weren’t actually lowering the kill rate.”

So in 2008, Jefferson – a calm and measured animal welfare activist – reactivated Austin Pets Alive, a group dedicated in 1997 to saving more shelter animals, 50 percent of which were being killed.

Austin Pets Alive, in concert with scores of smaller rescue groups, has, by targeting specific animal groups, put the Austin save rate above 90 percent, the only large city in the country to do so.

Jefferson, whose group now works from the old shelter as well as pop-up adoption centers, says she believes the save rate can be driven up to an almost inconceivable 98 percent.

“It’s exponentially harder to get those last animals cared for, housed safely and adopted, ” she admits. “It’s also exponentially more expensive.”

Destined to help

Married to horse vet Damon O’Gan, Jefferson, 41, was born in Colorado Springs at the Air Force Academy. Her father, Wayne Jefferson, is a retired Air Force pilot and two-star general.

“He’s an impressive guy, ” Jefferson says with a wide grin. “I’m not as much like him as I’d like to be.”

Her mother, Bonnie Wassell Jefferson, was an Austin schoolteacher before raising a family.

“She’s a real people person, ” says Jefferson, who tends toward shyness. “She’s gregarious and fun-loving.”

Like many military children, Jefferson lived all over the place, but she graduated from high school in Alexandria, Va. She studied biology, ecology and other subjects at Trinity University in San Antonio before entering vet school at Virginia Tech University.

“I was planning to open a spay-neuter clinic, ” she says. “I wanted to help the disenfranchised animals of the world.”

Instead, she first entered private practice in rural Rocky Mountain, Va.

“There were no bells or whistles, ” she recalls. “It made me utilize what’s in front of me rather than shifting things off to a specialist.”

After moving to Austin in 1998, Jefferson practiced emergency medicine at a North Austin clinic.

“You can’t predict what will come through the door, ” she says. “There’s typically only one vet on the premises. You think fast and triage. It’s a great learning experience.”

Building Emancipet from scratch taught her many things as well. But it didn’t achieve the original goal: Stop the killing.

“I really thought the only answer to shelter euthanasia was spay and neuter, ” she says. “But we needed to improve the processes at the shelter, not just in the community.”

So Jefferson focused on bottlenecks. The city shelter employed only one part-time behavior evaluator. It couldn’t keep up with in-house spaying and neutering. And the adoption process could take as long as two hours on busy days.

So Austin Pets Alive, like other rescue groups, removed the animals before they were killed.

“So if one part of the process was backed up, ” Jefferson says, “another animal wouldn’t die because there wasn’t enough turnover or space.”

The group and its army of volunteers used a dazzlingly simple method for rescuing the savable animals. They broke them down into categories.

Just a few years ago, any kitten under 6 weeks of age was killed on intake. So her group created a mass nursing ward with bottle feeding for orphans. That saved an estimated 1,200 kittens each year, instantly adopted when they reached 6 weeks.

Back in 2007, as many as 9,500 cats were killed because they came in all at once during breeding season, April to October. So Austin Pets Alive scooped them up and scattered them to foster networks and remote adoptions sites in pedestrian areas.

“We got them in front of people in as many places as possible, ” she says. “That way they were more likely to be adopted.”

Cats with ringworm were killed because they are often contagious to people and other cats. So Jefferson‘s group created a ward to treat them in three to six weeks.

More sadly, cats diagnosed with feline leukemia were expected to live only from six months to two years. So Austin Pets Alive found people willing to adopt for what was understood to be a shorter time than usual.

“Even though it’s painful to lose a pet, they want to give it a home, ” Jefferson says. “It’s like a hospice situation. Sometimes their own lives are in flux, so a short-time pet is not so bad. It saves a life and gives the owner companionship.”

Parvo puppies got a parvo ward.

“It’s pretty labor intensive, but treatable, ” Jefferson says. “You end up with a highly desirable puppy.”

The hardest animals to save were – and continue to be – big dogs with behavior problems.

“I’m not talking about truly dangerous dogs, ” she says. “Just dogs who are down on their luck.”

Complicating matters, big dogs at shelters are seen in rows of cages or on restraints which amplify reactive behavior. So the group now uses pack play time and other methods to retrain the big dogs.

“The longer they stay, the more likely they are to go cage crazy, ” she says. “Play groups prevent that from happening.”

Working with a $2 million annual budget, the group has saved more than 6,000 animals this year alone. The group employs 75 staff members, half of them part-time, and has trained more than 8,000 volunteers over the past four years.

Jefferson, who always keeps numbers and charts handy, is no animal-welfare hardliner.

“I do believe in euthanasia for animals that are suffering and have no hope of getting better, ” she says. “It is the kindest thing to do. It is just that we use ‘euthanasia’ to mean something very different in the animal shelter world.”

She thinks Austin is positioned uniquely to set a national example.

“Recognizing that all the systems are not perfect yet, Austin is at an amazing place, ” she says while tipping her hat to leaders in city government who have supported the evolution. “We, all the animal welfare groups, have accomplished so much. The rest of the country is completely blown away by what Austin has been able to do in such a short period of time.”

She also praises county shelters in Williamson County, which have reached the 90 percent save rate as well.

Jefferson‘s critics believe that Austin Pets Alive emphasizes the quantity of adoptions over the quality of them. They also decry the group’s training methods and its maintenance of the decaying Town Lake shelter.

“There’s so much people drama!” Jefferson says. “Animal welfare tends to be polarizing like most passionate causes. There are few (causes) in America that are centered around life and death, and the fact that no-kill is squarely centered on that topic is in and of itself dramatic.”