Pet projects - Page 2

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

I think it should."

Tompkins County, it turns out, is exactly where Winograd went after leaving the San Francisco SPCA in frustration. "When I left, we just had to save 500 or 600 more treatable dogs and cats every year, and we would have been just about there," Winograd said. "We were a whisper away."

Edwin Sayres, who succeeded Avanzino as president, told the shelter's board of directors that the SPCA could remain in the vanguard of reducing pet overpopulation and saving abandoned animals while at the same time building a prestigious, state-of-the-art veterinary hospital that would rival one of the few other comparable facilities anywhere in the United States, Angell Memorial Hospital in Boston.

The Massachusetts SPCA, however, spends millions of dollars more each year simply running its three Angell facilities than the San Francisco SPCA's entire budget. Originally expected to cost just $15 million, the price tag of the latter's Leanne B. Roberts Animal Care Center has now shot to $32 million. The SPCA will finally break ground on the new facility in October.

Critics feared the hospital idea was a potential disaster, and they complained that the nonprofit had become top-heavy under Sayres. They pointed to the shelter's money trail, detailed in its required annual tax-exempt disclosure forms, to emphasize where they believed the shelter's priorities now rested.

While earning $200,000 a year in salary and benefits, Sayres created new executive positions that cost the shelter hundreds of thousands of dollars more in compensation than was spent during Avanzino's tenure. That might not have seemed like such a big deal in 1997, when the nonprofit was taking in several million dollars more in donations from the public than it was spending to cover operational expenses.

But by the end of the 2002 fiscal year, when donations to the SPCA and many nonprofits were lagging, the shelter had fallen $2 million short of covering its $14 million in expenses, which had climbed by the millions annually.

At the same time, the city failed to reach its goal of releasing alive 75 percent of the animals it impounded; 2,075 animals were killed that year for a variety of reasons, according to city records. The SPCA also missed its target that year for the number of animals it would take in from the city's municipal shelter and make available for new homes through its unique adoption center.

Meanwhile, several cities across the country were embracing the no-kill cause, inspired at least initially by San Francisco's example. They did so with considerable help from Winograd, who worked briefly as a Marin County prosecutor before traversing the nation to help shelters come as reasonably close to no-kill as they could.

Tompkins County; Charlottesville, Va.; and Reno are all boasting live-release rates of around 90 percent after promising to find homes for adoptable and treatable animals, the latter a key category that includes animals with behavior problems, serious illnesses, and injuries that require extra care.

In other words, as San Francisco struggled to maintain its sense of direction, other communities began to implement and even redefine the meaning of no-kill. San Francisco has averaged a 70 to 80 percent save rate annually for several years — and the difference between this and what Winograd and others have hoped for the city of St. Francis means hundreds of animals being killed each year.

While avoiding any searing critique of the shelter, Avanzino told the Guardian that he perhaps would not have promoted the hospital scheme. However, he said, plenty of his own bold ideas at the SPCA once made him a target of criticism, like the shelter's posh $7 million adoption center, composed of 86 kitty condos and doggy apartments.

"I know it sounds like I'm ducking the issue, and I am," Avanzino told us.

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