Pet Projects: Can the San Francisco SPCA overcome recent setbacks and regain its position as a leader in the national no-kill movement?
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"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? 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. "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. But more than a century later, in 1978, its leadership had grown tired of the organization's serving dual roles as a killer and a savior of animals.
Backing out of its long-standing shelter contract with the city meant losing more than a fifth of its annual budget, but then-president Avanzino felt the group's agenda no longer fit with the city's mechanized handling of hapless animals. Thousands were still being killed by the city each year.
"For 101 years, the reputation of the SFSPCA was, 'That's the place where animals are killed,'" Avanzino said in a 2000 interview he gave to Maddie's Fund. "That was not the purpose of our organization. You can't be the animals' best friends and be their principal killer."
The city was forced to create a separate municipal shelter, known today as the Department of Animal Care and Control, which cites abusers, seizes dangerous dogs, and maintains its own adoption program. The SPCA then proceeded to vastly expand its spaying and neutering services, particularly for juvenile animals, as well as its medical facilities and treatment for animal behavior previously regarded as severe enough to warrant a trip to the death chamber, in which dozens of animals were killed at once. A technician withdrew oxygen from a decompression room until they died.
The SPCA led the way in taking animals waiting for adoption out into the community, and while some early skeptics feared mobilized adoptions would inspire impulse buying and high turnovers, many groups nationwide started to follow Avanzino's lead after seeing how well it worked here.
On its sweeping Mission property at 16th and Alabama streets, where the SPCA has been located for almost a century, the shelter did away with cell-style kennels, which encourage erratic behavior and reduce the chances that an animal will find a home. In 2004, the most recent year for which figures are available, the city found homes for 4,500 dogs and cats, with the SPCA handling three-fourths of those adoptions.
And guaranteeing homes for cats and dogs defined as adoptable, let alone those who are arguably treatable with the right commitment of energy and resources, was almost unheard of in the mid-'90s, when San Francisco made its promise. Under San Francisco's agreement with the SPCA, animals considered adoptable include cats and dogs eight weeks and older, those without "temperamental defects," and those not suffering from life-threatening diseases or injuries.
However, while a 100 percent adoption rate is probably not possible, Winograd and others worry that the bedrock of the nation's no-kill movement has failed to reach its full potential since Avanzino left, and they say the San Francisco SPCA could at least aspire to a save rate of more than 70 to 80 percent.
"I think the agency went through some times they weren't used to, not having a long-term leader that really understood the history of the organization and the goals of the organization," Carl Friedman, director of Animal Care and Control, said of the SPCA. "But that happens everywhere. I think it took a little bit of a toll on the organization."
Friedman worked at the SPCA for several of its most memorable years before moving to the city's municipal shelter in 1988, after the SPCA relinquished its role as the proverbial dogcatcher. He says that most euthanized animals in San Francisco are cats and dogs struck by automobiles or those suffering from parvovirus and distemper, both preventable with early vaccinations.
It's worth noting that the agreement between Friedman's office and the SPCA forbids each of them from speaking critically of the other, and many of the people we talked to balked at speaking on the record.
"People are afraid of getting sued, and they're afraid of what will happen," Winograd said. "There are people in San Francisco who need these agencies. They're not willing to be forthright, because they're afraid. I'm a lawyer, so anybody who wants to sue me, good luck. But the truth is the truth."
The shelter's problems that started under Sayres continued under his handpicked successor, Daniel Crain. And they reached a zenith in August 2004 when one of the SPCA's leading veterinarians, Jeffrey Proulx, committed suicide in horrific fashion, delivering a psychic blow to longtime SPCA volunteers and staffers.
The morning Proulx was discovered, a Marin County coroner found an empty box of Nembutal injectable solution on the kitchen counter of his San Rafael home. Nembutal is a barbiturate used in physician-assisted suicides, but it's also used to euthanize animals, and a bottle of it was missing from the shelter's medicine cabinet the day Proulx died.
Proulx was the hospital's chief of staff and was overseeing the expansion project. The task was apparently wearing him down, and on the day of his death, he threatened to resign.
Groundbreaking was supposed to occur in 2004. Then 2005. Then 2006. In the meantime, a private animal hospital providing 24-hour emergency care San Francisco Veterinary Specialists moved into the neighborhood, just blocks away, casting doubt on whether the facility's service load could justify the project.
After Proulx's death, the SPCA announced that it had chosen another architectural firm to take charge of the hospital: Rauhaus Freedenfeld and Associates. By then the organization had spent nearly $4 million on veterinary consultants and architects, according to tax records, and even today hardly a single wall has been erected.
A previous architecture firm, ARQ Architects, which designed the shelter's adoption center, has earned more than $2 million from the SPCA since 2000, but there's no telling what happened to any of the designs the firm crafted. Nonetheless, according to the shelter's newest tax records, provided at the Guardian's request, Rauhaus was paid more than $500,000 last year, and another $330,000 went to a project manager, CMA. A new veterinary consultant was paid $90,000 last year as well, after a previous consultant, Massachusetts-based VHC, was paid at least $925,000 over a three-year period.
After Proulx died, Crain lasted just two more years as president. He left last August, and attempts to reach him at various phone numbers, a fax number, and a last-known San Francisco address in Bernal Heights were unsuccessful.
Crain joined the shelter in 1999 as a human resources director but quickly despite little evidence of nonprofit management experience and only a brief stint running human resources became the SPCA's vice president under Sayres, earning well into six figures. In 2003, after Sayres's departure, he became the SPCA's top administrator following a board vote, which brought his compensation to more than $200,000 a year.
Ken White, director of the Peninsula Humane Society, said he never forged the bond with Crain that he did with the leadership of Marin County's municipal shelter and its major East Bay animal welfare counterpart. White worked for nearly a decade at the SPCA, until 1989, when San Francisco created the separate animal-control entity that exists today.
Although reluctant to speak critically about the SPCA, White explained that the Peninsula shelter treats about 1,000 injured wildlife animals from San Francisco annually under a very modest contract with the city that's nowhere near enough to cover his costs. 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. Previously at odds with the SPCA's for-profit scheme, the private vets will now donate certain specialty services that the SPCA isn't able to cover under its current plans. Dr. Alan Stewart, a founder of SFVS, told us they've already helped several animals.
Construction on the Roberts Center is slated to begin in October. McHugh-Smith promises the new plan will enable San Francisco to expand its definition of a treatable homeless animal by expanding the range of treatment the city can administer. Now the $32 million will go toward simply renovating a massive warehouse on the shelter's campus and giving its current facility another 40,000 square feet of space. The feral cat project, which today operates out of a former lobby, will get its own designated area, and McHugh-Smith says the shelter will also act as a university hospital where veterinary students can learn to treat the approximately 25,000 animals that pass through annually.
McHugh-Smith, the shelter's first female president, has worked in animal welfare for more than two decades. She spent 12 years as CEO of the humane society in Boulder, Colo., and built that city's live-release rate up to 86 percent.
Because of the Bay Area's supercharged political tendencies, she faces constant and varying obstacles. Wildlife supporters loathe the SPCA's long history of backing feral cat populations and off-leash dogs on federal parkland such as the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Even the phrase "animal welfare" is politically loaded it's often used specifically to separate pet lovers and the wealthy benefactors of big nonprofit shelters from "animal rights" factions perceived as too radical. Plus, there's the fact that higher save rates translate into greater challenges in dealing with the final 20 or 30 percent of animals, which can require treatment before being adoptable.
"The higher you get, the more difficult it gets, and the more resources you need," McHugh-Smith said of the city's save rate. "Hence, the hospital is going to be a really critical part of that."
Avanzino says San Francisco could still do a much better job presenting records to the public of which animals are killed and why. Are hyperthyroid or feral cats untreatable? Are otherwise healthy pit bulls made "unhealthy" merely by irresponsible owners? For years, transparency in terms of what constitutes a treatable or healthy animal has been a major tenet Avanzino has advocated.
"If we're really going to empower the public to be part of the solution and see that the job gets done, we've got to give them the data," he told us. "Are the dogs and cats that we call family members getting justice from us? If not, then we have failed them, and in San Francisco that should never happen. It's the city of St. Francis." *