Will San Francisco Rise Again?

March 12, 2009 by  

The following were my comments at a March 12, 2009 meeting of the San Francisco Animal Welfare Commission, as part of its “exploration of a policy that would ensure that no adoptable animal (including those that need medical and behavioral intervention but would be adoptable after that) is [killed] in San Francisco shelters.”

Both the ASPCA and HSUS also testified (the latter in a letter from Wayne Pacelle) arguing against taking any action to achieve No Kill. The ASPCA argued for gradualism, a slow move toward increasing save rates and urged the Commission to take no action to demand No Kill, ignoring that San Francisco has had a 14-year head start but has fallen behind and abandoned the No Kill goal. It called a policy favoring No Kill “radical” which should not be pursued. Not surprisingly, the ASPCA’s Director, Ed Sayres, is responsible for sabotaging No Kill in San Francisco when he was President of the San Francisco SPCA.

Pacelle’s decision to oppose a Commission mandated No Kill goal for San Francisco is also not surprising. Recently, Pacelle defended the slaughter of some 60 puppies in Wilkes County, NC; called for the extermination of 145 Pit Bulls, with most being gassed to death, in the same facility; defended a Louisiana shelter’s decision to kill every living creature in its facility–including cats–because some dogs came down with a mild corona virus; and (through his Vice President of Companion Animals) told an Iowa town that  passed a round-up-and-kill plan for cats that HSUS had no problem with killing stray cats.

Pacelle, who believes we should legislate everything about our relationship with dogs and cats even when such legislation causes animals to be needlessly killed such as pet limit laws, feeding bans and cat leash laws, came out against shelter reform legislation in San Francisco precisely because it was focused on requiring shelters to save animals. Continuing a cowardly pattern of putting his cronies in shelters ahead of the animals, he refused to stand up for the latter by stating that legislation to save the lives of animals was not the answer. Ironically, HSUS historically attacked the No Kill effort in San Francisco and blasted the San Francisco SPCA when it was on the vanguard of the No Kill movement. Now that new leadership has abandoned the No Kill goal, Pacelle came to the defense of the SPCA, saying that it should not be asked to do more.

Dear Madam Chair and Members of the Commission,

Thank you for the opportunity to address the Commission today. I was asked to speak on the following topics:

1.    What is the history of No Kill in San Francisco?
2.    What is happening nationally in other communities?
3.    Is the term “No Kill” misleading?
4.    Is there pet overpopulation in San Francisco?
5.    Can San Francisco reclaim its national stature? And if so, how?

The History of No Kill in San Francisco.
Please note: A detailed history of the No Kill revolution in San Francisco can be found in chapter two of my book, Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation & The No Kill Revolution in America.

Throughout the 1980s, the San Francisco SPCA (SPCA) ran animal control under contract with the City, and it was impounding tens of thousands of animals annually, putting most of them to death. The City, however, was consistently underpaying/refusing to pay what it costs to administer the animal control program and in 1989, the SPCA relinquished the contract, requiring the City to build and run its own department—San Francisco Animal Care & Control (ACC). Freed of its subsidy of animal control, the San Francisco SPCA began significantly ramping up its lifesaving efforts through adoption, spay/neuter and other lifesaving programs including many first in the nation programs: offsite adoptions, foster care, behavior advice, Trap-Neuter-Release for feral cats, socialization and training, behavior and medical rehabilitation, pediatric neutering, no-cost neutering, and a whole series of programs and services I collectively call the “No Kill Equation.”

And the results were dramatic. Intakes in San Francisco, including the city shelter, were cut in half, to about 13,000 per year. Deaths of healthy animals fell to a trickle. And San Francisco was ready to take next bold leap: A lifesaving guarantee for all healthy dogs and cats in San Francisco, no matter which San Francisco shelter they entered, no matter how many there were, or how long it took to find them a home. Under the terms for such an agreement, the SPCA would guarantee to take every healthy dog and cat the city shelter could not place and would find them all homes. The SPCA would also take thousands of sick and injured animals as well, working to eliminate their deaths entirely also. The SPCA would take on all the costs and responsibility. In return, city shelter staff would not kill these animals, and the animals would be saved. It should have been easy to come to this agreement. But ACC turned out to be a roadblock.

The leadership of ACC claimed an adoption guarantee would lead to increased pet abandonment because the “threat of a death sentence was what kept pets in their homes” and that “people would think pet overpopulation was solved and would no longer spay or neuter their animals.” In other words, ACC leadership argued that they should continue to kill animals so people will be scared to surrender them to the shelter and continue to spay/neuter—a patently unethical position.

Undeterred, the San Francisco SPCA appeared before the San Francisco Animal Welfare Commission (AWC) proposing an “Adoption Act,“ a law that would make it illegal for ACC to kill an animal if the SPCA was willing to save him/her. Ironically, every Bay Area shelter director opposed it, fearful that if it was successful it would bring public scrutiny to their own failures to save lives. Unwilling to choose sides, the Chair of the AWC told the leadership at both ACC and the SPCA to come to a voluntary agreement. After several delays and the SPCA’s threat of a public initiative, ACC backed down and signed an agreement that has come to be known as the Adoption Pact.

The Adoption Pact required the San Francisco SPCA to accept all animals ACC classified as healthy and it could not or would not place, and thousands of treatable animals with a goal of zeroing their deaths as well. In its first year, the number of animals in San Francisco shelters killed as healthy (“Available” under ACC terminology) dropped to zero. The number of  animals killed as treatable (“Sick 1,” “Injured 1,” and “Behavior 1”) dropped by 50%., In short, San Francisco became the first city in the U.S. saving all healthy dogs and cats, and the first to dramatically cut the deaths of sick and injured animals. It became the safest community in the United States for homeless animals, proving the viability of the No Kill philosophy and creating a model of sheltering that makes it possible. But it stopped short of the goal of saving all savable animals, including sick and injured treatable ones, and healthy and treatable feral cats; and then abandoned it entirely. (A No Kill community is one in which all savable dogs and cats are saved. This occurs when a shelter saves roughly 90% of all impounded animals. For a definition of savable animals, please see the Matrix.)

What is happening nationally in other communities?
When Richard Avanzino’s retired as the President of the San Francisco SPCA, our hopes for a truly No Kill San Francisco appeared to be lost. New SPCA leadership began to move away from the nuts and bolts programs which brought No Kill within reach and finally abandoned the goal altogether. And while save rates have continued to slowly climb (as they have all other country) the goal of a No Kill San Francisco has remained out of reach. In 2000, I left the San Francisco SPCA after it became clear that leadership was not committed to doing so, and took the San Francisco model to a rural community in Upstate New York, achieving unprecedented results.

Tompkins County became the nation’s first No Kill community, saving 93% of all animals using the San Francisco model of the No Kill Equation. Since that time, other communities have achieved similar success, surpassing San Francisco’s rate of lifesaving. The No Kill revolution may have been started by the private San Francisco SPCA in the mid-1990s, but it is now being driven by progressive animal control agencies around the country: Tompkins County, Charlottesville, Virginia, and Reno, Nevada are but a few. Recently, Porter County Animal Control in Indiana reduced killing rates by 94%, Montgomery County Animal Control in Texas went from an 80% rate of killing to an 18% rate of killing, Caddo Parish Animal Control in Louisiana has seen adoption/redemption rates increase 245%, and others are striving equally hard toward No Kill.

Some of these communities are in the North, some in the South. Some are urban, some rural. Some are public shelters, some are private. Some are in what we call “blue” or left-leaning states, and some are in very conservative parts of the country—at least one is in the reddest part of the reddest state. And every single one of these communities (and others in Utah, Colorado, North Carolina, and elsewhere) are using the model created in San Francisco. A model which this city should be proud of, should embrace, and should lead. It should be a source of community pride. It was the first, it was the best, and it should still be number one, but it is not.

Admittedly, I am used to working in communities that start out saving 40% or 50% or in one case, only 12% of the animals, so it is a little off putting addressing a community saving roughly 80% of dogs and cats, and in the low 70th percentile of all animals. But comparing oneself to other communities who are doing poorly (the national average is 59%) can lull you into a false sense of comfort. San Francisco should not be comparing itself to poorly performing communities. It should strive to be the best. San Francisco is a leader in human rights, in civil rights including marriage equality, in universal health care, in environmentalism, and it should also lead the way in animal welfare.

In addition, there are still lives being needlessly lost in San Francisco because the City stopped short of the goal line—settling for “good enough.” As an animal advocate, I must put the animal’s first and feel duty-bound to speak up wherever lives are being needlessly lost as they are in San Francisco. Good enough is not good enough; not in San Francisco, and frankly not anywhere else when lives are in the balance.

Moreover, compared to the best performing communities in the nation, San Francisco is second rate. This is not acceptable for the birthplace of the modern No Kill movement. This is not acceptable for one of the most progressive, educated, enlightened, and generous cities in the country. This is not acceptable for a community which had a 10-plus year head start on the communities it has fallen behind. Despite the San Francisco SPCA’s claim that this is the “safest community” in the U.S., it is not. It used to be, but it hasn’t been for at least seven years. San Francisco can be, and should be, and I sincerely hope it chooses to be.

Is the term “No Kill” misleading?
This argument is a distraction. The term “No Kill” is not going away and focusing on the term is nothing more than elevating form over substance. Moreover, those communities which are sincerely striving to achieve No Kill or which have in fact achieved it do not see the term as controversial. In fact, they embrace it regardless of whether they are private shelters or public animal control ones. Indeed, they wear is a badge of honor. In these communities, the term is not controversial. The only shelters and communities advancing the “No Kill is misleading” argument are those whose shelter directors are failing to achieve it, because the demands of accountability it makes on shelter leadership is threatening to them. It represents a goal and an achievement that shines the light of public scrutiny on how they are performing. And in order to shield themselves from accountability, they obfuscate what should be straightforward and hope to keep the debate focused on meaningless semantics rather than on what their shelter should be doing—but is failing to—in order to save more lives.

The real focus should be on whether shelters are doing enough to save all the lives at risk, not what the effort to do so should be called. It is an attempt by those hostile to the life-affirming philosophy that No Kill represents to take the focus off their own failures or refusal to meet their primary mandate to save lives. The debate is also not principled as it ignores the misleading terms of which many shelters are particularly fond of such as “putting them to sleep,” “euthanasia,” and that “open admission” shelters are necessarily better.

Webster’s dictionary, for example, defines “euthanasia” as “the act or practice of killing or permitting the death of hopelessly sick or injured individuals in a relatively painless way for reasons of mercy.” To constitute the dictionary definition, four elements must be met: 1. the animal must be hopelessly ill or injured; 2.the calculus must be based on an individual animal’s prognosis for rehabilitation; 3. the killing has to be painless; and, 4. it must be motivated by mercy. Killing savable animals is not “euthanasia.” As I argued in my book, euphemisms like “euthanasia” or “putting them to sleep” make the task of killing easier and obscure the gravity of what is actually occurring to avoid accountability for it.

This is also true of the idea that open admission shelters are somehow more ethical. The implication is that No Kill shelters can’t be open admission (a falsehood given No Kill animal control shelters in Charlottesville, Tompkins, Reno, Porter County and elsewhere) and that No Kill shelters which are not open admission are derelict because they refuse to kill animals. Finally, this misleading idea ignores that most open admission shelters kill largely out of convenience because they refuse to put in place the programs and services which save lives—because they refuse to implement the San Francisco model of sheltering—essentially becoming little more than open doors to the unnecessary killing of animals.

But these misleading terms serve a purpose for shelters, whereas the term No Kill does not. This is also true of two misleading statements perpetuated by the San Francisco SPCA. On its new website, it states that “San Francisco [is] the nation’s safest city for homeless cats and dogs.” This is not true: Reno, NV takes in 16,000 animals per year, nearly double that of San Francisco and is saving a higher percentage of animals; Tompkins County has been saving over 90% for the last seven years, and there are others.

The San Francisco SPCA also claims that, “The San Francisco SPCA has moved beyond our vision of saving healthy dogs and cats to also include rehabilitating thousands of sick and injured animals—and going beyond the borders of San Francisco to help animals that may face euthanasia because of pet overpopulation.” Let’s put aside the misleading term “euthanasia“ and, as demonstrated below, the false statement these animals face death because of “overpopulation,“ rather than because those shelters are derelict in their duty to innovate and modernize by comprehensively putting in place the programs and services which save lives. The implication here is that the work of saving lives in San Francisco is done, that all the animals who can be saved are being saved. It also falsely implies the SPCA is moving into a new area.

In fact, the 1994 Adoption Pact specifically focused on both healthy and sick and injured but treatable animals, the San Francisco SPCA under Richard Avanzino built entire departments focused on rehabilitation of sick and injured animals, deaths of sick and injured treatable animals (what San Francisco ACC called “Sick 1″ and “Injured 1“ animals) fell by 50% in Year 1, and the majority of animals saved by the SPCA from ACC since the mid-1990s have been sick and injured. That was always the vision. Finally, saying they are going “beyond San Francisco” is a way to spin the abandonment of the No Kill goal in San Francisco, to pretend that all the savable animals in San Francisco are being saved and that therefore, now is the time to help others.

And although I would advise against spending time discussing semantics or about what terminology is or is not misleading, if the AWC chooses to do so, then in fairness, it should discuss them all, not just the ones that don’t serve the agenda of needless killing.

But back to the question: Is No Kill misleading? I would argue that it fits closer to the dictionary definition of “euthanasia” than the term used now by killing shelters (with the exception of aggressive dogs). I would also argue that since it the term the movement is using and as hard as the architects of the status quo try, it is gaining, not diminishing in popularity, it makes no sense to abandon it. Moreover, according to the San Francisco Chronicle pet writer on the petconnection.com blog, the term No Kill is powerful:

“That power is exactly why no-kill opponents are doing their level best to destroy the no-kill brand. They know it is probably the most positively-associated of all phrases for the general animal-loving public. Surrendering it would a huge mistake, and it would be to grant a victory to the enemies of no-kill that they have not honestly won. And worse, it would be an insult to the compassion of people like my friend, and the animals those people want to see not-killed. Think long and hard before you surrender that power.”

I hope the AWC does. I would hope the AWC avoids this distraction, and would rather see it spending its time requiring the shelters of San Francisco to make it their goal and to work rigorously to achieve it.

Is there pet overpopulation in San Francisco?
This is also a distraction, a way to deflect attention away from the real issues. The more apt question is “do San Francisco shelters have to kill savable animals?” and the answer is definitively, no. In fact, the San Francisco SPCA is importing animals from outside its jurisdiction. By doing so, it is essentially saying that the problem in San Francisco is solved and that it has no choice but to get these animals elsewhere because there aren’t any savable animals left in City shelters. I disagree with the assessment, but nonetheless even the SPCA agrees that there is no overpopulation in San Francisco or it wouldn’t be seeking animals from outside the jurisdiction.

The SPCA’s justification aside, is San Francisco killing savable animals? The answer has to be yes. First of all, ACC gives the SPCA a “pass” on animals, allowing them to change their categorization from adoptable to unadoptable for a few animals each month. This has nothing to do with whether the animals are actually savable. Furthermore, ACC is still killing healthy feral cats, some categories of animals have high death rates (e.g., 56% of all Pit Bulls), and it is only saving roughly 80% of dogs and cats (and less than that including other animals). (ACC says it is saving 84% of all dogs and cats, but they specifically exclude animals whose owners request that they be killed, animals who die in their kennels, and missing animals who should not be swept under the rug.)

Roughly speaking, a shelter achieves No Kill when it is saving about 90% of all animals. This comes from an analysis of dog bite rates (showing the incidence of aggression in dogs), and an analysis of sheltering intakes, as well as save rates at the best performing shelters in the country. For example, Reno saved 92% of dogs in 2007, but still admitted savable dogs were being killed (they believed they were 1-2% away from No Kill for dogs). By way of another example, Charlottesville saved 87% of cats and dogs in 2006 and admitted savable animals were still being killed (they did not claim No Kill for dogs until they hit a 92% save rate).

But let’s look at the numbers. San Francisco ACC impounds roughly 6,000 dogs and cats annually. That’s 7.5 dogs and cats for every 1,000 human residents. If you include all species of animals, it is still only an 8.5 per capita intake rate (although the save rate drops to the low to mid 70th percentile). Meanwhile, the national average is 15 dogs and cats for every 1,000 human residents. So San Francisco takes in half the national average.

By contrast, Tompkins County takes in 26 per 1,000 and is saving over 90% and has been for seven years. Charlottesville also takes in 26 per 1,000 and is saving a greater percentage of animals than San Francisco. Washoe County, Nevada takes in 39/1,000—that’s five times the rate of San Francisco. It also takes in almost three times the total number: 16,000 per year. Yet they are saving 90% of dogs and 83% of cats and expect 90% save rates for both this year despite an 11% unemployment and a foreclosure crisis. So regardless of what is happening outside San Francisco, San Francisco is at the bottom rate of intakes nationally. And therefore there can be only one conclusion: There is no overpopulation in San Francisco. It could take in five times the rate of animals it does now and should still be able to save a higher percentage of animals than it is.

Nationally, the numbers tell the same story. Roughly four million dogs and cats are killed annually. Every year, over two times the number of people are looking to bring a new dog into their home than the total number of dogs entering shelters, and more people are looking to bring a new cat into their home than the total number of cats entering shelters. On top of that, not all dogs and cats entering shelters need adoption: Some will be stray animals who will be reclaimed by their owners; some of the cats will be feral and do not need adoption, but need sterilization and release; and a small percentage of the dogs and cats will be hopelessly ill, injured or in the case of dogs, vicious with a poor prognosis for rehabilitation, and will be killed.

By contrast, there are 165 million animals in over 110 million households. The inventory of pet owning households is increasing both as to number of pets in a single household and number of households with pets. But there are four million killed, of which 3.6 million are “savable,” some of whom are feral cats who do not need a home. It is a very achievable goal. In the end, we need to increase market share only by about 3% nationally to eliminate all population killing in the U.S. These aren’t just my conclusions; they are also the conclusion of the Humane Society of the United States:

• “By increasing the percentage of people who obtain their pets through adoption—by just a few percentage points—we can solve the problem of euthanasia of healthy and treatable dogs and cats.”
• “The needless loss of life in animal shelters is deplored by the American public. People deeply love their dogs and cats and feel that killing pets who are homeless through no fault of their own is a problem we must work harder to prevent. They want animals to have a second chance at life, not death by injection.”

Even HSUS, one of the chief architects of the current paradigm of killing, can no longer argue with the facts.

Can San Francisco reclaim its national stature? And if so, how?
The answer of course, is a resounding yes. The AWC should look into several issues if it wants to really understand the increasing irrelevance of San Francisco in the larger No Kill movement and if it wants to get a handle on the lost potential for achieving No Kill in this City.

First, the AWC should investigate the issue of the San Francisco SPCA impounding of animals from out of county while animals die in San Francisco shelters. It should also investigate why ACC has such a low number of adoptions. ACC should not rely on the SPCA and rescue groups solely to keep lifesaving rates where they are. Rescue transfers should be “additive” or supplemental to an animal control shelter’s own comprehensive adoption effort. It is too easy to blame the SPCA, but ACC has abdicated its responsibility for too long using rescue groups and the SPCA as a crutch by threatening to kill animals they don’t rescue. And by choosing to build a police agency, rather than becoming a true adoption agency.

When it suits them, they’ll tell you they are focused on public safety not lifesaving. When it suits them, they’ll brag about their level of lifesaving. They play it both ways depending on which way the wind is blowing. The AWC needs to tell them that both efforts need to be addressed and that high rates of adoption are not incompatible with public safety, as other communities have proven.

The AWC must also not accept budget cuts as a reason to expect less lifesaving in San Francisco by keeping in mind that other communities which are more successful than San Francisco get far less per capita for animal control than ACC even with any budget cuts. Moreover, ACC is also leaving money on the table. Maddie’s Fund offered ACC $20,000 to publish their numbers in a very specific format when the recently retired director was in charge, but he refused. Maddie’s Fund also offered the new director $40,000 to do so, but she also has not done so. Finally, if they publish those statistics, they offered an additional minimum of $700,000 and up to $2,000,000 (depending on various factors) to be shared among ACC, the SPCA, and even the rescue groups as a lifesaving award. So far, ACC has not agreed to do so and it has been “under consideration” for over a year. That money can be used to bump up the save rate to No Kill levels. ACC is taking that money away from rescue groups, away from the SPCA, away from the animals that depend on them. And it is intolerable, as they complain how budget cuts will impact their lifesaving efforts. You should force them to do so.

Second, the AWC should not accept the fiction that as a private shelter, the San Francisco SPCA is out of reach of its jurisdiction. That is patently false. The animals are held in trust for the people of San Francisco. The SPCA holds the power of life and death. The City has a right to regulate private animal shelters the same way San Francisco regulates private hospitals and private businesses.

Third, San Francisco proved the viability of the No Kill model. At one time, it showed other communities how to achieve it and many communities have, surpassing San Francisco in that goal. The AWC should not offer excuses for the SPCA’s and ACC’s failures. It should stop debating semantics about overpopulation and the term “No Kill.” It should focus on forcing shelters in this City to do all they can to save lives.

These shelters are being paid for by the citizens of San Francisco, through their tax and philanthropic dollars. These shelters do not belong to their directors, to the staff, or to the Board members. They belong to the people. And they should fully reflect the humane values this City is known for, for which the City of St. Francis is named—the patron saint of the animals. The people have a right to reclaim these institutions for the animals who depend on them. As the AWC represents the people, it would be speaking for them by embracing and demanding a No Kill San Francisco.

Finally, in Redemption, I wrote that,

No Kill is only succeeding in some communities because of the commitment by individual shelter leaders, who are few and far between. Traditional sheltering, by contrast, is institutionalized. In a shelter reliant on killing, directors can come and go and the shelter keeps killing, local government keeps ignoring that failure, and the public keeps believing “there is no other way.” By contrast, the success of an organization’s No Kill policies depends on the commitment and vision of its leader. When that leader leaves the organization, the vision can quickly be doomed. It is why an SPCA can be progressive one day, and moving in the opposite direction the next.

That is why the AWC should focus on institutionalizing No Kill through shelter reform legislation (like the enclosed model law, The Companion Animal Protection Act). Legislation is needed to force ACC to put “saving lives” on an equal footing with “public health/safety,” and to force them to focus more on adoptions. The law would force both shelters to be rigorous in implementing all the programs that make No Kill possible and to eliminating killing for all but hopelessly ill or injured animals. It would open up their operations to the full light of public scrutiny, and give citizens an integral voice in how these shelters operate.

By adopting this approach, you will force shelter leadership to embrace No Kill and to run their shelters in a progressive, life-affirming way, removing the discretion which has for too long allowed shelter leaders to ignore what is in the best interests of the animals and kill them needlessly, even in spite of tremendous public opposition and hunger for change.

This law would be the first of its kind in the nation. It would reignite the pride we all felt when San Francisco was the crown jewel of the No Kill movement. It would be ground-breaking, consistent with the City’s progressive history. And it would once again make San Francisco a beacon of light for the nation.

I believe the members of the AWC owe it to the animals of San Francisco, to the animal lovers of San Francisco, and to yourselves to do so. You’ve been given a great trust on this Committee. I urge you to leave a mark that will help pave the way for our nation’s inevitable No Kill future. The City once led the No Kill movement, and it is up to you whether it will do so again.

Thank you.

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