Pet projects - Page 3

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

"But the bottom line is that new leadership and the policy makers for the organization believe with everything in their being that this is an important next step for the San Francisco SPCA and [that] it is going to do more to help the animals. They have not kept me in the loop."

Nonetheless, when Sayres led the nonprofit, between 1999 and 2003, it spent at least $1.7 million just on architects and veterinary consultants moving the planned hospital forward. Meanwhile, programs like humane education and law and advocacy, the latter at one time a half-million-dollar program, saw deep cuts in their budgets or simply shriveled up and disappeared altogether, while public relations and promotional expenses retained brisk support to the tune of at least $1 million annually for several years before those expenditures were finally trimmed too.

Further, the shelter's 17-member board of directors granted Sayres a $400,000 home loan and gave him 30 years to pay it off, although he cleared the debt before leaving for a new job in June 2003 at the American SPCA, which is independent of the San Francisco SPCA.

As the summertime explosion of kittens loomed in the spring of 2003 and Sayres prepared to leave, he sent an e-mail to the SPCA's nearly 1,000 volunteers blaming the economy's ongoing downturn and a 10 percent drop in public donations for the shelter's money woes. The jobs of at least 15 employees were cut, and others were merged into one, including two major volunteer-coordinating positions.

In e-mails circuutf8g at the time, copies of which we've obtained, volunteers agonized over whether to inform the press of what was going on internally, nearing the point of insurrection over cuts in shelter services — including a one-of-a-kind dog behavior and training program. The truth, some feared, would turn donors away. Some argued that executive salaries should be trimmed to save money before ground-level staffers were dispatched with pink slips. Others were furious over the planned hospital's burgeoning costs.

"I certainly think a new center is exciting and overdue," a volunteer wrote to Sayres. "But it annoys me [to] no end to see billboards all over the city about the center and nothing about the situation we're in."

Sayres never responded to several detailed questions sent to him by e-mail and was unable to make time for a phone interview. But he admitted in a 2002 San Francisco Business Times story that he'd "tried to move forward with my vision too quickly."

"I should have taken more time to listen and absorb the culture," Sayres said in the story. "Now I'm more mindful of the contributions that people have made here over the decades."

New president McHugh-Smith insists the shelter can still balance the hospital plan's most recent incarnation and a continued focus on the agency's raison d'être: preventing cruelty to animals.

"One thing I'm really proud of is our hospital provides one and a half million dollars' worth of charity care to homeless animals and people who can't afford veterinary care for their pets," McHugh-Smith said. "What a critical service for this city. There are a lot of people here who can't afford the care their animals need. They shouldn't have to give up their pets for that."

Recent troubles aside, even the SPCA's fiercest critics contend that much of the nation still lives deep in the shadows of its extraordinary achievements.

The San Francisco SPCA was officially chartered in 1868 as the first humane society west of the Mississippi River.

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