The Mighty San Francisco SPCA Has Fallen

From “Scathing New Editorial Breathes New Life to S.F. No Kill Reform Effort.” Reprinted with permission from the

An exposé calls the San Francisco SPCA a “shell of its former self” and blames the agency for killing in city shelters; Animal commission takes up the call for shelter reform legislation.

A scathing cover story in Northside San Francisco magazine ( chronicles the decline in the San Francisco SPCA’s commitment to the No Kill initiative. According to the exposé, “How the San Francisco SPCA let us down,” the SPCA has begun killing savable dogs and cats after 20 years of not doing so, has abandoned the goal of a No Kill San Francisco, turns away dogs with treatable illnesses despite marketing the $30 million state-of-the-art veterinary clinic as a way to save more homeless dogs and cats in San Francisco, saves less dogs than local grassroots rescue groups despite taking in over $20 million last year, and because of this, “animals are dying” needlessly in San Francisco’s city shelter. And it alleges that only 14 percent of dogs being rescued by the San Francisco SPCA actually come from the city shelter; that it is importing hundreds of dogs a year from outside of San Francisco, even as local dogs are being killed.

According to Northside San Francisco,

While the SF/SPCA took 122 dogs from ACC in 2007-08, independent rescues took far more. Grateful Dogs Rescue, which gets 80 percent of its dogs from ACC, took 141 in 2007, and 146 in just the first three quarters of 2008. Rocket Dog Rescue, which : deals with the toughest cases (pit bulls, medical issues), took 111. Other groups also stepped in – Muttville takes older dogs, Wonderdog takes a lot of small dogs. The 122 taken by the SF/SPCA represents just 14 percent of the total dogs they took in 2008.

In a shocking revelation, the article alleges that the San Francisco SPCA took in over $20 million dollars in contributions in 2008, has nearly $70 million dollars in assets, and now has the second largest veterinary hospital in North America—the size of two football fields—but it is turning away dogs for trivial reasons, such as dry eyes and flea allergies. Without rescue group intervention, these dogs are killed at the city pound. Northside San Francisco’s investigation is a look at the decision by SPCA leadership to deliberately, though tragically, move away from the nuts and bolts programs responsible not only for the meteoric rise in lifesaving in San Francisco, but from the No Kill movement it spawned.

The story breathes new life into the efforts of animal activists working to pass shelter reform legislation. Following the release of the story, the Commission of Animal Control & Welfare in San Francisco (Commission), which has spent the last several months hearing from disgruntled activists and animal lovers about the deterioration of the safety net for shelter animals in the city but which appeared intent on sidestepping the issue, reversed course and began consideration of shelter reform legislation that would require all San Francisco shelters, including the SPCA, to commit themselves to saving the City’s homeless animals.

A One-Dimensional Treatment*

To truly understand the situation—and choice—San Francisco faces today, however, it is not enough to show how the San Francisco SPCA has tragically and deliberately moved away from the nuts and bolts program which once brought San Francisco’s death rate to national all-time lows (and also spawned the No Kill revolution). The SPCA isn’t the only agency which appears to have betrayed the trust the animals (and the people who love them) put in them. In reality, the city shelter deserves the brunt of the blame for the killing still occurring in San Francisco. Unfortunately, Northside San Francisco makes some fundamentally flawed assumptions regarding the roles and responsibilities of the city’s Department of Animal Care & Control (ACC), based on a misreading of history, and by ignoring its long, sordid history in blocking the San Francisco SPCA’s call for greater lifesaving.

The article, for example, repeatedly suggests that animals are being killed at ACC because of the SPCA’s refusal to take them into their own adoption program:

  • “ACC was overflowing and the SF/SPCA declined to take them”;
  • “ACC doesn’t have the money or the staff to work with dogs”;
  • “[T]he main reason is that the SF/SPCA takes so few”;
  • “ACC does not adopt out kittens under eight weeks of age (and the SF/SPCA won’t take them)”; and,
  • The SPCA’s refusal to take animals “made ACC pull the trigger.”

In reality, the city shelter has a budget roughly equivalent to $3.75 per capita, just shy of the mean of shelters nationwide. At the same time, however, it takes in a fraction of the national average of dogs and cats and the lowest of any major city in the United States. The San Francisco SPCA further subsidizes city taxpayers when it takes in some of these animals, thus transferring the cost of care from public to private philanthropy.

In addition, several years ago, Maddie’s Fund, the national foundation now headed by former San Francisco SPCA President Richard Avanzino, approached ACC leadership and offered a grant that was worth up to $2 million to ACC, the SPCA, and local rescue groups.

While ACC claims it is resource deprived and the article parrots the claim that “ACC doesn’t have the money,” Maddie’s Fund offered ACC $20,000 to publish their numbers in a very specific format when Friedman was in charge, but he refused. Maddie’s Fund also offered the interim director $40,000 to do so, but she also has historically not done so. Finally, 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. It has been “under consideration” for over a year, although Maddie’s Fund indicated that it has been jumpstarted following a public admonition of ACC about this at a Commission meeting a few months ago. Not only has inaction by ACC taken money away from rescue groups and away from the SPCA, it has taken it away from the animals at ACC that depend on it. Consequently, ACC can and should do more to save the animals themselves, but it appears content holding the animals hostage by threatening to kill them if the SPCA did not take them.

There is nothing stopping the pound from saving the animals themselves. There are animal control shelters in the United States taking in up to five times the rate of dogs and cats than San Francisco that are spending less per capita, even while saving in excess of 90 percent of the animals. It is not a situation where “ACC doesn’t have the money or the staff,” but where ACC would rather spend money on other priorities, rather than expanding lifesaving opportunities.

It is admittedly tragic and unnecessary that the SPCA won’t take underaged kittens into a foster care program, but it is equally tragic and unnecessary that ACC simply kills them rather than create a foster care program itself. Simply stating that “ACC does not adopt out kittens under eight weeks of age” leaves a gap in the public’s understanding of why these kittens are being killed. They are being killed because the San Francisco SPCA won’t accept them into their foster care program and they are being killed because ACC leadership finds killing them easier than doing what is necessary to stop it: creating a foster care program themselves as animal control shelters in other, more progressive cities have done. The reason ACC is “overflowing” is because the San Francisco SPCA “takes so few,” and because ACC has spent years expanding a quasi-police force of animal control officers, rather than expanding adoption and owner-reclaim programs. Other animal control shelters save them, why doesn’t San Francisco’s city shelter?

For example, when the California Legislature expanded the duties of caring for animals in shelters under the 1998 Animal Shelter Law, ACC leadership used that as an excuse to ask the Board of Supervisors for a budget increase. They did not, however, use the allocated funding for the law’s intended effect: to increase adoptions and the level of care animals received in the shelter. They used it to hire more field officers.

When challenged on decisions such as these, then-director Carl Friedman would often respond that ACC’s mandate was public safety, not lifesaving. However, Friedman would also highlight the lifesaving when it suited him, even though the animals would have been slaughtered under his watch but for the San Francisco SPCA. In other words, he wanted it both ways: focusing on lifesaving when convenient (and it could earn accolades), and downplaying that role when it wasn’t (when others expect more from him). Moreover, public safety and lifesaving are not mutually exclusive over 90 percent of the time, as truly progressive animal control shelters have proven.

Carl Friedman’s Anti-No Kill Legacy

Friedman, however, was long a stalwart defender of the status quo and an opponent of the San Francisco SPCA’s reform efforts under Richard Avanzino. Back in 1993, Avanzino approached Friedman to sign a memorandum of understanding to help achieve a No Kill San Francisco. 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.

Friedman 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 Commission 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 sided with Friedman in opposition, 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 Commission 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.

But Friedman did not embrace it in the full spirit of partnership. In fact, as director of ACC, Friedman continuously denigrated and downplayed the potential for lifesaving of Avanzino’s No Kill initiative. What made Friedman’s misleading attacks especially disturbing is that they were disseminated in newsletters paid for by taxpayers. By way of contrast, imagine hypothetically a Department of Social Services director attacking a private soup kitchen or homeless shelter for not having enough beds or serving enough meals, meaning the department itself has to feed or house the remainder. Every homeless person the private soup kitchen feeds or houses is one less homeless person for which city taxpayers are required to provide care. Our hypothetical director would be grateful and thankful for the private support. As a private agency, the soup kitchen or homeless shelter does what it can. The mandate to care for homeless people, by contrast, belongs with the city department. In San Francisco, however, Friedman, the director of a government agency mandated to take in San Francisco’s homeless animals, used taxpayer dollars to downplay and arguably denigrate the efforts of the private non-profit San Francisco SPCA.

As Avanzino explained,

Many times I’ve heard the statement made that No Kill shelters can exist only because someone else down the street is doing the killing. The implication is that No Kill shelters are derelict because they refuse to kill animals.

Ironically, Friedman seemed to be blaming the San Francisco SPCA for not killing, a claim a rescuer repeated in the Northside San Francisco article when she stated that: “For years the SF/SPCA held the gun to the animal’s head and made ACC pull the trigger. They were the wonderful no-kill place, and ACC was the villain.” It is not the job of a private humane society to kill animals on behalf of government. But it does not also follow that ACC had to kill these animals. If the perception was and is that they are “the villain” because they choose to kill animals they do not have to, it is a stigma they invite for themselves.

In a misreading of history, for example, the article states that,

Avanzino asked ACC’s then-director, Carl Friedman, to exempt [Pit Bulls] from the [Adoption] pact. Because so many pit bulls were being euthanized, Friedman took the matter into his own hands, and in 2006 created a mandatory spay/neuter ordinance for all pit bulls in San Francisco.

In actuality, Friedman and his team systematically put to death every unreclaimed Pit Bull-type dog as a matter of department policy. It was Avanzino that lobbied Friedman to undo the policy of automatic destruction. Friedman resisted, but Avanzino persisted. And, as he had when he forced Friedman to sign the Adoption Pact, he forced ACC to back down on the Pit Bull ban. Avanzino then launched an adoption and public relations effort to rebrand these dogs “St. Francis Terriers.”

Unfortunately, ACC did not implement the change in good faith and began to define as “adoptable” (ACC preferred the term “available”) dogs who were, in fact, aggressive. In one case, a dog described in ACC notes as “scary” with a “strong prey drive” was classified as adoptable, but ACC refused to put the dog up for adoption itself, threatening to kill the dog if the SPCA did not save him. After several dogs were adopted and returned for aggression, Avanzino sought to reevaluate the approach. Together, the two leaders could have worked out a lifesaving solution. But ACC did not negotiate in good faith. ACC managers considered the SPCA an adversary and believed they finally had Avanzino over the proverbial barrel. Tragically, personal agendas appeared to take precedence over the best interests of the animals being killed by ACC.

The Northside San Francisco article does chastise ACC for following poor protocols in temperament testing dogs and for inaccurate notes on the dogs, using examples of dogs who were classified as aggressive or unadoptable and turned out to be loving dogs with a little affection and socialization when rescue groups saved them. But this amounts to a mere slap on the wrist for an agency that deserves a full flogging.

And though it does cite the “the dismal prison-like conditions” at ACC, along with the “dank rooms full of cement and chain-link smell of feces, and the endless barking of anxious, frightened dogs is deafening,” it does so only to chastise the SPCA for not saving the dogs from what it intimates are inevitable conditions at ACC. This is truly disheartening as the “dismal prison-like conditions” at ACC were not imposed on them from outside. That is how the City to chose to build the facility in the late 1980s, when no one required them to do so and they could have chosen to erect a building that was a fitting monument for a pet loving, progressive city named after St. Francis, the patron saint of the animals. They chose not to.

The fact that the shelter is traditional in its design also doesn’t mean it has to “smell of feces,” or that the dogs have to be “frightened.” Washoe County Animal Services in Reno, Nevada is of traditional design. Dogs are housed in cement kennels with chain link fences and cats are housed in traditional cages. But the shelter is clean and it doesn’t smell. There is nothing preventing ACC from holding staff accountable to clean facilities, odor control, and socializing of animals so they aren’t frightened. In fact, a socialized animal will not bark as often as dogs who are repeatedly frustrated by continuous confinement and inability to interact with other dogs and people. In the lexicon of animal sheltering, this is called “barrier frustration” and it is common in underperforming shelters, which ACC has long being guilty of.

Furthermore, the contrast with the SPCA shelter “where dogs and cats are housed in sunny, glass-walled ‘condos’ with furniture and TV” is indeed startling. Maddie’s Pet Adoption Center at the San Francisco SPCA was designed and built by Avanzino to keep animals healthy and happy, and to move them through the system as efficiently as possible. Avanzino’s vision for the adoption center cut length of stay, increased adoptions to over 5,000 per year, and allowed him to save more San Francisco dogs and cats than ever before, bringing the city death rate to all-time lows, and at the time, the lowest per capita rate in the U.S. The first of its kind, it also revolutionized sheltering facility standards around the country. As Northside San Francisco correctly suggests, that the current leadership of the SPCA is not leveraging it to save the animals at risk in San Francisco’s city pound is indeed, tragic, especially when the dog and cat loving public is donating   tens of millions of dollars for that intended purpose.

The Ball is in the Commission’s Court

Tragically, combined, the two large shelters spend over $25 per capita in San Francisco and still kill savable animals, while other communities have achieved No Kill on far, far less. San Francisco can be No Kill today—if leadership at the San Francisco SPCA and ACC want it to be. But they apparently do not. And, because of that, the animals continue to die. Both the SPCA and ACC deserve blame and condemnation, as this injustice continues to cost the animals their lives.

The Northside San Francisco article is a strong indictment against a failure in leadership at the SPCA. It describes animals being turned away from a state-of-the-art hospital marketed as a way to save more shelter animals, and the deaths that result because of it. (Although not mentioned in the article, it is worth noting that Avanzino allowed people to “wash the dishes” if they couldn’t afford the care at the former San Francisco SPCA hospital. It was not uncommon for clients to pay with donations of tennis balls for the shelter dogs in lieu of paying their veterinary bill. In fact, under Avanzino, subsidized and free hospital services for the poor, including free lifetime care for the pets of San Francisco’s homeless population, exceeded those of any shelter nationwide.)

And more importantly, the article has reignited hope among those trying to reform the broken system in San Francisco. By understanding the sordid role ACC also plays in killing animals needlessly, the next step becomes obvious: Pass legislation which would force all shelters in the City to save lives. Thankfully, the Commission is considering draft legislation put forth by one of its members but modeled after the Companion Animal Protection Act written by and in consultation with animal lovers, veterinarians, and animal lawyers nationwide.

Unfortunately, the Commission version eliminates the private right of action in the model law version which would allow any citizen to enforce it in a court of law: that provision would have given a citizen the right to file a lawsuit asking a court to force the SPCA and ACC to follow the law. According to one of the Commissioners, this would lead to frivolous lawsuits and is unnecessary because the City Attorney can enforce the law.

But this is simply inaccurate. First, the private right of action is modeled after environmental laws in the United States, and the 1998 California Animal Shelter Law, none of which had led to a rash of frivolous lawsuits and all of which are credited with ensuring that these laws are followed. Second, filing a lawsuit is not an inexpensive proposition and since the law only provides for declaratory relief and not money damages, there is no incentive to file it based on a personal grievance. Third, California rules of court allow for sanctions (including money damages) against individuals and their attorneys if they file frivolous lawsuits, including awarding attorney’s fees for the defendants. Finally, the provision will ensure that the law is followed. Given that the interim ACC director comes from the City Attorney’s office and that ACC is a city agency, it is doubtful that the City Attorney’s Office will really enforce the law against that agency. In fact, ACC has a long history of failing to enforce laws on the books including the state law against cruel practices in San Francisco’s Chinatown markets.

Enough is Enough

For the past 20 years, the animals and people of San Francisco have had to endure an animal control shelter abdicating its responsibility to save lives, and at one time, fighting the SPCA’s progressive and responsible attempts to do so. They have also had to endure an ACC which still refuses to innovate and modernize its operations as other more progressive animal control shelters have done across the country. Now, they also have to endure an about face by the very agency which once led the charge to build a better future for the animals of San Francisco: the SPCA squandering their philanthropic dollars and parroting excuses earlier leadership had rejected -and proven false-in order to justify totally unnecessary killing.

The leaders of these agencies have proven themselves unwilling to do that which they have been entrusted by the public to do: faithfully represent the best interest of animals and effectively put their tax and philanthropic dollars to work in order to achieve a No Kill San Francisco. Instead, the animal loving citizens have had to witness other cities achieve this goal with far less resources and far more animals, while volunteers and activists working for reform have had to endure the obscenity of watching perfectly wonderful dogs and cats be executed for no legitimate reason. Because leadership at SPCA and ACC have abdicated their responsibility by refusing to take very basic and common-sense measures to save the animals they currently kill, the animals and people of San Francisco deserve the protections afforded by law which will force them to do better.

While the history which got San Francisco to where it is today is tainted by revisionist interpretations, the way forward is not nearly so obscure: The Commission has a duty to pass shelter reform legislation and to do it now. Or, they too, must bear the responsibility for the continued killing occurring on their watch, while they endlessly debate issues which are both clear cut and intolerable. It’s that simple.

* Except for one or two sentences, the feature focuses exclusively on dogs, while cats are most at risk of being killed in San Francisco shelters (aside from other species such as rabbits, mice, chickens, and others which have long been killed in astonishing numbers). In addition to limiting how many dogs it accepts from the city shelter, the San Francisco SPCA has also eviscerated advocacy and rehabilitation programs to save feral, shy, underaged, older, and unweaned cats.


Post Script: When the San Francisco SPCA was the crown jewel of the No Kill movement, both the ASPCA and HSUS launched propaganda campaigns to discredit and attack it. Now that it is once again grounded in killing, they both defend it against animal lovers working for lifesaving reform. The ASPCA sent representatives to a San Francisco Commission meeting asking the City not to embrace No Kill; and HSUS sent a personal letter from Wayne Pacelle lying to them by stating that No Kill equals hoarding. For more information, see “It’s Deja Vu All Over Again.”