The SPCA focuses primarily on cats and dogs, and the Peninsula shelter has more space.
People like Winograd, who now directs a nonprofit in San Clemente called the No Kill Advocacy Center, say the shelter's campaign to build a modern but almost prohibitively expensive hospital diverted funds away from "God's work": caring for animals so they may be adopted out.
"I didn't feel the city needed another specialty hospital," Winograd said, "and my fear was that the energy and dollars and all the effort that would be put into the hospital would pull the agency away from its core mission of patching together the sick and injured dogs and cats."
"They still think that's the next big thing," said Karin Jaffie, a former public relations coordinator and longtime volunteer. "For the cost of the hospital, you could have trained a lot of people's dogs or spay-neutered the city's pit bull population for free."
An early plan for the hospital included 24-hour emergency care and critical services like oncology, cardiology, and neurology services that shelter execs argued pet owners would never pursue otherwise to help save their animals.
Yet the plan had a significant catch: it called for aligning the hospital's nonprofit component with a for-profit network of veterinary specialists who would lease space inside the facility and help cover its overhead by paying some of the utility bills. Private specialty veterinary care was among the fastest-growing segments of the industry at the time, and the SPCA's eager citywide promotional campaign for the hospital raised the ire of private vets working in the Bay Area, including their industry group, the California Veterinary Medical Association.
McHugh-Smith admitted that "after much evaluation" the complex for-profit plan was scratched completely, and the shelter had to more or less start over after spending millions. "It wasn't going to help our mission, so that project was put to rest," she told us.
Not everyone was quick to offer a negative opinion of the shelter's past leadership. Kelley Filson, a former humane-education director, said that all nonprofits experience periodic lulls in funding and that her program was never short of the resources it genuinely needed to help Bay Area youth understand why it's necessary to treat animals humanely. Like in K-9 behavior training, she says, SPCA supporters should focus on the shelter's historic milestones.
"It was not a direct-care program," Filson said of humane education, which endured budget cuts in recent years. "When there are 10 puppies that need medicine and treatment, that's a very immediate need, so I think that people [misunderstand] when an organization has to look at the immediate needs of suffering animals versus education goals. Until you're in the position of running that organization, you don't often understand the decisions that are being made."
Skepticism aside, the shelter's existing 70-year-old animal care hospital, where it treats injured and abandoned animals, could certainly benefit from a makeover. It still provides a range of services for a relatively minimal fee, including limited emergency care for the pets of some low-income San Franciscans. In 1978 the shelter's spay-neuter clinic was the first in the nation to provide the service at a reduced cost, and it continues to alter feral cats brought in by a citywide network of caretakers for free.
"The demands on that hospital have grown large over the years," McHugh-Smith said. "Our surgical [unit] is on the second floor, and we have to carry the animals upstairs.... It's just not very efficient or effective any longer."
The emergency and specialty hospital San Francisco Veterinary Specialists now does what the SPCA originally hoped to.
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