The Tragedy of San Francisco

The San Francisco police crime lab is a den of criminal activity. A technician at the crime lab was apparently stealing some of the drugs seized as evidence and getting high. It has been recently closed because of this and hundreds of drug cases have been dismissed. The story was only midly interesting to me, and then only because I am a former prosecutor. At best, I skimmed the articles in the newspaper every day, but that was that. And then the front page headline in the San Francisco Chronicle told of another fall out: “S.F. crime lab’s new woes—army of feral cats.”

The Police Department ordered the removal (read “round up and killing”) of the cats who make their home in and about a warehouse at the police crime lab. And, of course, that is exactly what the city pound appears to be doing, while misleading the public into thinking they will be put up for adoption. “They will be evaluated,” a spokesman for the pound said, pretending that they are focused on the best interests of the cats, instead of an expedient death at the hands of a 19th Century model of animal control. While other communities are building bridges to their No Kill future, San Francisco appears intent on digging a trench to the past.

I could write a five page blog about why this is wrong, why this is wrong for San Francisco, why killing feral cats is unethical, why it won’t work, and why the country is moving in a different direction. I could talk about what the San Francisco SPCA should be doing but is not. That is what I would normally do. But, instead, I am going to talk about my feelings. If you’ve read my books, my writings, or if you’ve heard me speak, you know that the last thing anyone would accuse me of is being “touchy-feely.” But the demise of San Francisco has been so personally and professionally painful; I need to put it into a very personal context.

I was not born and raised in San Francisco. But it is the city I chose to be my adopted home, the city I hand-picked out of all the possibilities when I chose where to go to law school. I could have lived in a number of great U.S. cities across the country. But I chose San Francisco. And I have never looked back. I’ve not always lived in the city itself. But even when I am in other communities around the Bay Area, it is the San Francisco Bay Area I live in, measured by the proximity to that marvelous city, home to green building codes, to universal health care, to bans on plastic bags, to mandatory composting, to rainbow flags waving proudly in the Castro breeze, to dog walking on Ocean Beach, to watching a ballgame at AT&T park, to the guy you love and hate at the same time, the great Mayor himself, Mr. Gavin Newsom. It is not without its competitive suitors, mind you and my eye sometimes wanders. Oh New York City, I hear your siren song: But in the end, it is always San Francisco that holds my devotion.

When my wife and I lived in San Rafael, we were “just North of San Francisco.” In the Oakland Hills, “ten minutes outside of San Francisco.” Ithaca was not “five hours from New York City,” we lived “3,000 miles from home.” And so it was whenever we left for one job or another, we would end up coming back. One evening, it was Thanksgiving, we had moved to Southern California that year. I was working at the San Francisco SPCA for Richard Avanzino and left to take a job as a prosecutor in the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office. I had a mound of crushing debt from law school, other financial obligations, and I was getting married. I could not make it work on what I was being paid. So I said my good-bye to Richard Avanzino, my boss and mentor, and the San Francisco SPCA and headed to south. We were at my in-laws home in Orange County and were about to sit down to dinner. There was a football game on television, the 49ers, being played at Candlestick. It was dark out, and there was a shot of the city, framed by the Golden Gate Bridge, rain coming down, from the Goodyear blimp. I stood there, transfixed. “We have to go home,” I said to myself. And we did. But as always, opportunity called and we left again. Those days in Riverside, upstate New York, San Diego, and San Clemente were always the days of my exile from my beloved San Francisco. I loved that city and what it stood for. And no better moment captured it than one evening in 1994.

I was walking to my car on the corner of Sutter and Steiner, near Japantown. I just had dinner with my girlfriend—now my wife of 15 years—and I was heading down the street, while she waited for me in the restaurant. I looked up at the local bus stop and saw an advertisement for the San Francisco SPCA. It was a small dog, ears straight up, head slightly bent, responding to a call. The tag line simply read, “Hear Boy.” It was a play on the words, “Here Boy” as if someone was calling out to him, but it was an ad for the San Francisco SPCA hearing dog program. At one time, the SPCA used to pull dogs out of killing shelters all over the state and train them to assist deaf people, by alerting them to a ringing phone, a smoke alarm, and in myriad other ways. (The program, like many others, has been eliminated by recent leaders.) I always had mixed feelings about the program ethically and philosophically, but in the end, it saved the lives of those dogs, and it was part of a large safety net of care that made San Francisco the beacon of hope for our movement. It was the safest community for homeless dogs and cats in the United States, its death rates a fraction of the national average. It was the only one saving all healthy dogs and cats and it just cut treatable deaths in half. It had programs and services that were the envy of the nation, and it was well on its way to becoming the nation’s first No Kill community. The achievement of that historic and profound goal was right out in front, there for the taking. And, in those days, I never doubted we’d get there.

As a young animal activist facing what often seemed like insurmountable odds to help animals, I knew that if an issue relating to animals occurred within San Francisco’s city limits, the SF/SPCA would have my back and use its considerable power and resources to help. I can’t adequately describe the feeling. And no matter how often I write, delete, and re-write, it still comes off as sappy. So I’ll just say it: I was overcome with a feeling of tranquility. I was overcome with love for the city. The animals had a champion. And things were just going to keep getting better.

It wasn’t the only time I felt that way. I felt it later a few times after moving one county north to Marin. It came over us sometimes when we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge into the city from Marin County, a community with a shelter, the Marin Humane Society—or Mar Inhumane Society as my wife and I used to call it—that killed savable animals even though the director herself admitted they could be No Kill if she wanted to. Apparently, she didn’t want to and too many animals needlessly lost their lives to her arrogance and abuse of power. She was a true scoundrel, and not surprisingly, a member of HSUS’ national sheltering committee. But San Francisco was different. That night on Steiner was different.

My girlfriend and I had just finished raising a litter of bottle feeding kittens, kittens washed out from under a bungalow when they began tearing them down at Lincoln High School in the Sunset district. Five of them, barely a few days old, cold to the touch, gasping, and near death. We nursed them back to health. All of them survived. For eight weeks, we fed them, cared for them, watched them grow. We have a picture of them that is still up on our wall: Tabitha, the popular one; Lolita, the little nerdy one; Gray Matter, the chubby one; Olivia, the long haired beauty; and Nathan, Jr., a loud mouth pain in the rear. When they hit the magic number—two pounds—off they went to the San Francisco SPCA, where they were guaranteed a home.

As I stood looking at the picture on the bus stop for a moment, I could literally feel tears welling up in my eyes. I was young, I was in love, I was graduating from Stanford Law School, I lived in the greatest city in the U.S., my whole life was ahead of me, and the animals of San Francisco—my city—had a powerful protector. It felt great to be alive.

Of course, I had the opportunity to do my part, having gone to work for Richard Avanzino at the San Francisco SPCA, and then having come back to the SPCA, at Avanzino’s urging, to buffer the disastrous tenure of Ed Sayres, his replacement. But the years after my leaving has been like watching someone you love, someone you helped nurture, someone who had so much going for them, so much promise, the valedictorian, the one voted “most likely to succeed,” leave the nest and then make a series of intentional, though disastrous choices that leave that person, or in this case, a shelter, as a magazine article correctly described, a “shell of its former self.” A washed-up has-been straight out of Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days.”

I remember sitting in Avanzino’s former office, on the corner of 16th Street and Alabama, late in the evenings, talking about what needed to be done, how to push the envelope further, how to respond to some dishonest claim by HSUS or the ASPCA, how to protect a feral colony under attack by the National Park Service. There he was, the great Rich Avanzino, my mentor, talking away, and I’d look out to the window, the little bullet hole where someone once took a shot at him through his window, the roof of the printing factory next store with all the roosting pigeons, drinking dark colored swill water that passed for coffee (boy that Avanzino was a cheap S.O.B. No matter how hard I lobbied—my arguments about good tasting coffee and worker productivity fell on deaf ears—he always went for the cheap stuff. “That’s not why people donate to us,” he would say). We made mistakes, but we cared, we worked long hours. There was no play book back then. No “No Kill Equation” to emulate. It was all trial and error.

When Brian O’Neill, the then-Superintendant of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) went after off leash dog walking, we threatened legal action. When they tried to kick out the free roaming cats, we fought back. And more often than not, we prevailed. Because we were strong, the 800-pound gorilla, with tens of thousands of San Franciscans, including some of the city’s most influential citizens, in our camp. One day, I was driving to work there and I heard on the radio that sticky glue traps were just installed throughout City Hall because of a “mouse infestation.” Why not humane deterrents? Why not trap and relocate? I remember thinking. Killing was not the San Francisco way; even for those critters some of our supporters might erroneously and unfairly call “pests” because of societal bias. But we were the San Francisco SPCA. All animals were worthy of our compassion. We always stood up for the little guy. And glue traps were a particularly brutal way for them to be killed (usually through starvation or suffocation). No, it would not stand.

So I fired off a fax to the Mayor and Board of Supervisors, and I initiated the alert to our advocates—a list of animal lovers who would go into battle when we issued the call to arms. I summoned the team into my office and discussed next steps, the roll out of the campaign. But those turned out to be unnecessary, because the fax and calls were all it took; a “shot across the bow” one city commissioner later described it. One letter and a phone tree, and within hours, the President of the Board of Supervisors was on the telephone calling to tell me he ordered them taken out, that very day. “Call off the troops,” he told me, describing how the switchboard was being tied up by angry San Franciscans. “I will, Tom,” I replied graciously. “Thanks for listening.” But how could he not? We spoke in a symphony tens of thousands of voices strong.

And while saving all dogs and cats was the chief goal and aim of the organization, and sometimes the fight involved mice or frogs or turtles or deer or pigs, the animal nearest and dearest to my department—the Department of Ethical Studies (under Avanzino), renamed Law & Advocacy (under Sayres)—was the free living, wild cat.

We negotiated the first ever TNR program on a military base, at the naval station on Treasure Island. We signed an agreement with the city to allow TNR on all Housing Authority properties. We forced the Commission on the Environment to abandon its plan for the removal of cats from Golden Gate Park. We convinced the GGNRA to sign an agreement allowing feral cats within its borders. And we brokered an agreement with the city pound to be the first responder for “nuisance” cat calls involving “feral cats” so that we could convince the complainant of TNR (we never failed!). And that was just the tip of the iceberg. We saved every feral kitten, we provided free spay/neuter five days a week, no appointment necessary, and a whole lot more. And then it was all gone. San Francisco would not cross the goal line, let alone become the nation’s first No Kill community. That honor would go to Ithaca, New York, using the very model that the SPCA would ultimately reject.

The San Francisco SPCA—first under Sayres, then under his hand-picked acolyte, Daniel Crain, and now under Jan Smith—abandoned all pretensions to No Kill entirely. The Law & Advocacy Department doesn’t exist anymore, closed by Sayres. And today, the SPCA turns needy animals away from its $30-million state-of-the-art fee-for-service animal hospital; even though it claimed the hospital was necessary to help needy animals. It allows the brutal city shelter to kill animals, choosing to impound more “highly adoptable” ones from outside the city. It even kills savable animals itself, something that I would have called “unthinkable” if you asked me about the possibility in those early, heady days. And it is leading the fight against a No Kill San Francisco—backed by our former enemies because of their promotion of killing, the regressive ASPCA and Humane Society of the United States—in hearings before the cowardly Animal Welfare Commission, the very same Commission it stood in front of in 1993, demanding that they embrace it. Oh how times have changed.

And now the Chronicle announces a “round up and kill” campaign for feral cats. The city which once attacked HSUS for lying to the public about its feral cat policy by promoting “trap and evaluate,” a euphemism for trap and kill was now using the very terminology. And the SPCA was deafeningly silent on the issue. The SPCA was not fighting back. No quote from the President denouncing the action. No telephone tree to the advocates who would flood city hall and tie up the switchboard. No position statements on their website. No letters to the Police Chief. No threats of legal action. No campaigns for clemency. Nothing. The cats face killing, while the 800-pound gorilla is reduced to a 90-pound weakling, asleep at the wheel.

It is gone. It is gone. It is gone. A self-inflicted wound.

What’s here? A cup, closed in my true love’s hand?

Poison, I see, hath been his timeless end

Can a city break your heart? It can, if that city is San Francisco.