Pet projects

Pet Projects: Can the San Francisco SPCA overcome recent setbacks and regain its position as a leader in the national no-kill movement?

"If you have men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who deal likewise with their fellow men."

St. Francis of Assisi

His name is Sylvester. He's quite handsome and charismatic, for a cat.

Sylvester is believed to be about eight years old, and the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has been his home since last July. He's a simple domestic shorthair, with a jet-black coat aside from some snow-white blotches on his chest and left arm.

Also doing time at the SPCA is a slightly bashful orange tabby named Jitters, who has awaited a home since April. A long-haired tortie named Minna, with somber green eyes and a splash of umber on her nose, has been at the SPCA for a year and a half.

In many cities Sylvester, Jitters, and Minna would be on death row. In San Francisco they're guaranteed a chance to live until they find a family, as long as they're deemed adoptable by the SPCA and don't develop a life-threatening disease or unmanageable behavior traits. They are the legacy of pioneering former president Richard Avanzino, regarded by most as the originator of the national "no-kill" movement.

Avanzino spent 20 years making the San Francisco SPCA a national leader in saving animals, including forging a pact with the city in 1994 to work toward guaranteeing every adoptable cat and dog a home, a remarkable promise during a time when few places across the nation were willing to make saving the lives of companion animals a priority. Most shelters euthanized tens of thousands of kittens, puppies, dogs, and cats every year to save space and money. Quite a few still do.

But after Avanzino left in 1998 to spread his no-kill philosophy nationally through the Alameda-based nonprofit Maddie's Fund, the local SPCA has steadily retreated from the cutting edge. Rather than continuing to push toward the goal of saving all the animals, the two presidents who succeeded Avanzino have focused the organization on a private hospital project that has turned into an expensive boondoggle that's sapped the organization's energy and resources and angered the local veterinary community.

"San Francisco likes to say it's the safest city in the United States to be a dog or cat," said Nathan Winograd, a widely recognized proponent of the no-kill philosophy and former director of operations for the SPCA, who left the organization in late 2000. "That is no longer true. There are other cities that are doing much more in terms of lifesaving. That's one of the reasons I chose to leave San Francisco."

The SPCA's eighth president, Jan McHugh-Smith, finally arrived in April after the shelter had spent nine months with an interim head, and the question now is whether she can turn this troubled yet still revered organization around.

Only in recent years have cities nationwide begun enacting policies intended to stop — or at least dramatically slow — the senseless slaughter of animals that are the defenseless victims of the public's love of adorable newborns and specialized breeds. That trend started in San Francisco.

Avanzino calls welfare groups like the SPCA "safety valves" that relieve pressure on animal control officers and traditional municipal shelters. In an editorial last year for Maddie's Fund he wrote that saving healthy and treatable shelter pets is the "minimum no-kill standard" and that communities today should strive to go beyond no-kill.

"Tompkins County, New York is a case in point," he wrote. "The Tompkins County SPCA maintains a 92 percent live-release rate. It saves all of the county's healthy and treatable shelter pets and feral cats. Should this be our life-saving goal?

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