Hopes Fading for a No Kill S.F.

The Commission of Animal Care & Control has finished taking testimony from a wide range of organizations on whether to mandate a No Kill policy in San Francisco by enacting shelter oversight legislation that would require all San Francisco shelters, including the San Francisco Department of Animal Care & Control (ACC) and the San Francisco SPCA, to commit to saving San Francisco’s neediest animals. Testifying in favor of the proposal included the No Kill Advocacy Center, Best Friends Animal Society, Fix San Francisco, and a host of local rescue groups and animal lovers.

The effort is directed at saving the last of the savable animals still being killed in San Francisco’s animal control shelter—sick and injured but treatable animals, Pit Bulls, feral cats, older animals—and it is an achievement easily in reach given that San Francisco has the lowest per capita intake rate of any municipality in the nation.

What would it take for San Francisco to become No Kill?

Numerically speaking, it would mean bumping up the save rate a paltry 10%, or roughly 500 additional dogs and cats who are losing their lives at the hands of ACC staff each year. That would amount to just over one additional animal saved per day: either through adoption, or reclaim, or neuter/release of a feral cat. It would mean ACC stops relying on the San Francisco SPCA for whether most animals live or die and takes some responsibility themselves to adopt out more animals, proactively work to reclaim more lost dogs or cats to their families, or undertakes its own TNR program. It would mean that the San Francisco SPCA, which changed the rationale for building its multi-million dollar hospital more times that President George W. Bush did for invading Iraq, adhere to its latest rationale: that it will help save the lives of sick, injured, unweaned, or traumatized animals at ACC and save just over one more per day.

To do that would require leadership at either ACC or the SPCA committed to doing so and doing so today. But they haven’t done it. In fact, they have enlisted the help of the large, regressive national organizations who have historically opposed No Kill to help them resist it. Testifying in front of the Commission, both the ASPCA and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) testified against doing so, just as they historically opposed the efforts which brought the City’s lifesaving rate to where it is today. Former San Francisco SPCA President Ed Sayres, who now heads the ASPCA, sent representatives to testify against a mandate for a No Kill San Francisco. Despite personal knowledge of the City and an understanding that it is an achievement easily within reach, his representatives called it “radical” and told the Commission to take no action and thus maintain the status quo—a continuation of killing.

HSUS went so far as to suggest that saving these additional lives would lead to increased animal suffering—a hopelessly irreconcilable contradiction. Under HSUS’ muddled thinking, we shouldn’t have voting rights legislation because that will lead to disenfranchisement. We shouldn’t mandate civil rights laws because that will lead to discrimination. We shouldn’t pass environmental laws because that will lead to more pollution. It not only makes no sense a priori, it makes no sense in light of the tremendous success communities which have achieved No Kill experienced by committing to the endeavor whole-heartedly.

So if neither ACC nor the SPCA is willing to provide the leadership needed to cross the goal line, who will? For the last several months, animal lovers in San Francisco have pinned their homes on the Commission. In other words, a No Kill San Francisco would require leadership at the Commission. But they aren’t showing it, either. Instead, the Commission is considering a plan which falls short of a legal mandate and recommends the implementation of services already available in San Francisco.

The plan promotes as a “solution” to the killing programs and services which already exist, but do nothing to end the killing which has been the source of debate all along: the remaining 10% of savable animals who could be saved but are not. And so while most of the recommendations look good on paper and sound good on first read, a closer examination reveals how ineffective in reaching the goal the proposal actually is. For example, the plan calls for “low-cost or free” spay/neuter, a behavior helpline, and programs to increase adoptions. A former colleague of mine in San Francisco summarizes it best:

Except for one or two controversial ones, no one seriously objects to these particular programs. But the reason San Francisco is not No Kill has nothing to do with the numbers of animals being impounded into city shelters annually, or the need to increase adoptions. San Francisco has the lowest intake rate of any major municipality in the United States. SPCA leadership already claims it has to import thousands of animals from outside the City to meet adoption demand. Why are we talking about reducing intakes or increasing adoptions?

Other critics correctly note that increasing adoptions   will be great for the small dogs and kittens the SPCA is bringing into San Francisco to adopt from outside the City, but it will do nothing for the San Francisco animals still being killed neither ACC, nor the SPCA are willing to save. As a result, the plan appears to signal the Commission’s intent to avoid taking a strong stand on the issue, with Commissioners acting reticent about seeking shelter reform legislation over the objections of entrenched interests.

The problem is that the proffered programs don’t address why the animals are being killed: ACC continues to downplay its lifesaving obligations, hiding behind their “public safety” mandate which is not at issue, and the SPCA keeps importing animals while needy San Francisco ones continue to die. To overcome that, the Commission needs a law that forces both ACC and the SPCA to save San Francisco’s neediest animals.

Every social justice movement represents change, and the status quo always has its champions. In the end, progress depends on challenging the status quo, and that inevitably means challenging those who champion the status quo. This is unpleasant. This requires courage. It takes leadership. But success demands nothing less. And sadly, the Commission does not seem up to the task. Those who brought San Francisco rates of killing to where they are, are not those who run the SPCA today. They are those who had to stand up to the types of people running the agency today. But they had the strength to do in spite of their opposition. Yet the same forces at work then to undermine lifesaving in San Francisco are the same forces working to undermine it today.

Due to changes in leadership, the San Francisco SPCA is sadly on the other side of the issue this time around. When it was the leader of the No Kill movement, a market survey showed that 97% of San Franciscans said the SPCA was doing a good job. Yet even with that level of support from the public, the Commission bowed to pressure from the few entrenched interests that did not want progress to occur. If recent newspaper articles, as well as controversies and testimony before the Commission is any indication, the percentage of people who think the SPCA is doing a good job has slipped. But it shows that the people of San Francisco love animals and deserve a shelter system as progressive as they are, and a Commission that champions their desires. After all, as “the eyes and ears of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors with regard to animal issues within the City,” the Commission bears the tremendous responsibility of faithfully representing the great love of animals historically expressed by the people of San Francisco against the few, regressive voices intent on forestalling progress because of personal agendas. The City has the resources and ability to save the remaining 10%, which comprise the neediest of homeless animals. What it is lacking is shelter leadership with the will to do so. Which is why No Kill proponents correctly conclude that if the Commission doesn’t force San Francisco shelters to do so, these animals will continue to be killed—rather than be saved as they are in other, more progressive cities.

Ironically, San Francisco has never been shy about breaking new ground in other areas, and as a result, has achieved many firsts: in universal health care, in combating global warming, in gay rights. In 2000, San Francisco had the opportunity to become the first city in the nation to achieve No Kill. Then San Francisco SPCA President Ed Sayres chose not to, instead championing a multi-million dollar hospital that would cater to the City’s affluent pet owning population at the expense of using resources on saving the lives of homeless animals. Many of the departments and programs that catered to the latter were either curtailed or eliminated. Instead, that honor went to a community in Upstate New York.

Now, San Francisco has the opportunity to become the nation’s first major urban community to achieve No Kill, to lead the rest of the nation—as it has on so many other progressive issues—when it comes to saving the lives of dogs and cats. It is 90% of the way there. ACC has one of the most generous budgets of any facility in California. The SPCA is arguing that its state-of-the-art hospital is needed precisely because it will help the neediest of homeless animals. Then why isn’t it being done? And why do both of these agencies oppose a mandate to do so? Ironically, Sayres, who is now President of the ASPCA, is also asking the City not to mandate a No Kill San Francisco. Tragically, it seems the Commission is listening.

But the public record will note how San Francisco was at one time poised to achieve the honor of being the nation’s first major city to become No Kill, but that, tragically, petty personal loyalties got in the way. As a result, the honor of being the first major urban No Kill community will likely go to some other city.

San Francisco’s animals and San Francisco’s animal loving citizens deserve better.