San Francisco's SPCA stops the killing

San Francisco's SPCA leads the way in philosophy and results


A few years ago, when the San Francisco SPCA ended its animal control contract with the city and began a quest for reducing euthanasia of unadopted pets, rescuers and shelter workers throughout the country raised a hue and cry.

"By claiming to be no-kill, they're just dumping the responsibility on the city," the story went. "There's not less killing; they're just evading the issue."

Not so.

The gradual shift from animal control agency to private, no-kill shelter charted new pathways for animal shelters, animal control agencies, and thousands of adoptable and treatable pets in this city of 800 thousand. Now, five years later, the SPCA's adoption pact with the city animal control agency assures that no dog or cat that is adoptable, no dog or cat that is treatable will die for lack of a new home.

"We have established a new standard for the nation and for ourselves, a standard we expect not only to maintain, but to exceed," said Mary Ippoliti-Smith and Paul Glassner in the SPCA magazine Our Animals.

So what is "adoptable"?

The pact is a simple statement that all "adoptable" animals will be placed in new homes, but the definition of "adoptable" has been challenged by many in the shelter business. San Francisco's definition of "adoptable" is broad and deep; it includes animals that can go immediately to new homes, animals that need minor medical treatment or obedience training, animals that need major medical treatment or behavior modification, animals with chronic but controllable medical problems, and animals that have previously been considered unplaceable because of age.

This definition of "adoptable" includes abandoned puppies and kittens, hand-raised by shelter volunteers and injured, malnourished, mangy, infected, aggressive, and old dogs and cats.

The power of positive thinking

A whirlwind tour of this huge inner city shelter with director and president Richard Avanzino reveals the tangible reasons for the success: the place hums with activity involving animals and people in the city's largest veterinary clinic, a grooming college, a hearing dog training center, a day care center for working owners, and a get-acquainted area for prospective new families and potential new family members.

After the tour, back to the office, where Avanzino's young male Great Dane joins the group for the obligatory petting, then goes to his bed beside the desk. Avanzino leans back in his chair, his eyes animated, his voice excited as he talks about the process that got his organization to this point and the philosophy that guides his management style.

A former politician -- although many would say he's not so 'former' -- Avanzino is an idea-man, a motivator, a money-magnet. He has been a small town mayor and has a background in fundraising and management of nonprofit agencies, not animal care. He has raised millions, for the veterinary clinic, for facility expansion, for animal care. The capital improvements budget this year is $6 million.

San Francisco's SPCA's goal is to end the killing of treatable and adoptable animals in the city. The plans for reaching that goal are diverse --

Does it work? You bet

Even though the commitment to end euthanasia of healthy and treatable animals in the city brought a considerable increase in animals surrendered for adoption, the SF SPCA euthanized no adoptable or treatable animals at its facility in 1994 and saved all of the adoptable animals and many of the treatable animals at the city agency. The report at the end of the fiscal year on June 30 shows no deaths of adoptable or treatable animals in the city, putting the organization well on the way to its goal of finding new homes for every potentially adoptable dog and cat from its facility and the city's animal control agency by the end of 1995.

These remarkable results have been achieved in the absence of the breeding control and number limit laws that are becoming more popular with animal rights advocates. San Francisco has a minuscule compliance rate with licensing laws, but most animals picked as strays are redeemed by their owners. All animals that leave the shelter are spayed or neutered and the shelter staff is too busy doing the job to find time to blame and vilify breeders or think up punitive restrictions that add to the enforcement burden, make criminals out of responsible pet owners, and fail to end the killing.

Information about this remarkably successful model is available from the San Francisco SPCA World Wide Web site or
San Francisco SPCA
2500 16th Street
San Francisco, CA 94103-6589
(415) 554-3000
Norma Bennett Woolf

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