The Waco Animal Shelter passed a major milestone this week at the same time it welcomed its first city-appointed director.

Delfi Messinger started that job Monday, the day before the Waco City Council was to declare “no-kill status” for the public shelter, which is nearly finished with a $3.5 million rebuild.

By national shelter standards, the term “no-kill” signals the shelter’s success in keeping its average live-exit rate during the last year above 90 percent. As of the end of September, the shelter on Circle Road maintained a 12-month average of 91 percent, up from 35 percent before the city took over management of the shelter in late 2012 and began investing heavily in it.

“It’s an enormous accomplishment,” said Messinger, a veteran of zoos and shelters in Africa and the U.S. “For other communities I’ve seen, it’s taken 10 or 15 years to get there. For Waco, the right people and the right ideas came together and clicked.”

Deputy City Manager Wiley Stem, who has overseen the shelter turnaround, said reaching official no-kill status is a reason for community pride. The council will issue a proclamation for the milestone at its 6 p.m. Tuesday meeting.

“If someone had told me a year ago we had a shot at becoming no-kill this year, I never would have believed them,” Stem said.

He credited the success to animal welfare groups, including the Waco Animal Birth Control Clinic and the Humane Society of Central Texas, which runs the shelter’s adoption center.

“This is as much a Humane Society accomplishment as it is ours,” he said.

The Humane Society helped maintain a live-exit rate above 90 percent for nine of the past 12 months, despite a complete reconstruction project that forced dogs to be housed under a tent on the back parking lot.

“I can’t say enough about what the city shelter staff has put up with and what the Humane Society has done in moving animals out,” he said. “We’ve gone through a year of hell to get where we are, and now it’s going to be worth every bit of it.”

> INTERVIEW: Changing minds, taking partners to save dogs and cats in the Waco area: Q&A with Malcolm Duncan Jr., Wiley Stem III and Dr. Sara Pizano

Ann Shaffer, outgoing president of the Humane Society board, called the last year’s live-exit rate “nothing short of miraculous,” especially considering the construction project.

“Can you imagine building a house while you’re living in it?” she said.

“It took everybody coming together to acknowledge that we have one goal, and that’s to save animals,” she said.

The city has also improved animal health with the addition of a full-time shelter vet, who will soon begin doing in-house surgery, including spay-neuter procedures for all adopted animals. Animal Birth Control executive director Carrie Kuehl said that will free her clinic to do more procedures for pet owners during the week.

City and Humane Society officials credit the clinic for helping reduce the stray population and bring down the shelter’s intake from nearly 6,000 in the last fiscal year to just over 5,000 this year.

Stem said that with the all the improvements, the city needed a full-time director to oversee both the shelter and animal control services, and to coordinate with the Humane Society.

“There are a lot of opportunities there,” he said. “She has good leadership qualities that will make a big difference.”

Messinger said she is looking forward to working with the community to move the animal shelter forward, and she is excited about the new facility.

“It looks all clean and fresh,” she said. “There are things put in place to reduce stress on animals and make it a very engaging space for people to go and find that perfect animal.”

Messinger, who is in her early 60s, comes to the job with a unique résumé.

Her experience includes a decade of experience as an official at zoos in Garden City, Kansas, and Jacksonville, Florida; as well as a job from 2011 to 2013 as division manager of Escambia County animal services in Pensacola, Florida. She has lived in Austin the past few years.

But she may be best known for her adventures in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, where she saved endangered animals during a bloody civil war.

A former Peace Corps volunteer, Messinger was working as an animal conservationist and taking care of orphaned bonobo apes in 1991, when mass rioting and pillaging forced most foreigners to leave.

Messinger stayed put with her animals at a French biomedical compound in the capital city of Kinshasa, taking in pets from other expatriates.

“All the expats in the capital city were ordered to leave, but because I had animals I couldn’t move,” she said. “I lived through some dangerous times.”

According to an Associated Press story from the time, Messinger dressed her staff in hospital gowns and painted “SIDA” — the French acronym for AIDS — on the wall in animal blood.

That ruse, combined with her reputation for keeping deadly vipers, kept rioters and ransacking soldiers at bay until French troops arrived. She wrote about her experience in a 1998 book called “Grains of Golden Sand.”

Messinger said her experience in Africa taught her how to thrive under pressure.

“Everything in life prepares you,” she said.

> MORE: Keeping Zaire laboratory alive

Kuehl, the Animal Birth Control Clinic official, was among a team that interviewed Messinger for the job. She said the new director stood out for her thoughtfulness and understanding of animals.

“I saw that she was very empathetic with animals,” she said. “She really sought to understand what they were going through in order to better help them.”

Don Bland, executive director of the Humane Society, said he is looking forward to working with Messinger.

“I know this position is one the city has needed for a while,” he said. “The timing is really good for her.”

Also this week, the Humane Society named a new associate director, April Plemons, to help Bland at the adoption center. Plemons has been executive director of a shelter in Bryan-College Station.

Bland said he hopes crossing the no-kill designation threshold will help the privately funded Humane Society raise more money toward its mission.

The society is planning to hold its annual Wine and Food Festival fundraiser Oct. 29. For more information, visit wacowinefestival.com.

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