Can San Francisco quit killing pet surplus? SPCA moves toward national precedent; ANIMAL CONTROL COMMUNITY ANXIOUS, SKEPTICAL

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 1993:

SAN FRANCISCO, California––Known for controversial innovation, San
Francisco SPCA president Richard Avanzino touched off perhaps the biggest furor of his
career in September by proposing that the city pound should stop euthanizing animals purely
for the purpose of population control––and offering to take care of adopting out the animals.
Not just an idealistic gesture but a detailed plan, Avanzino’s strategy for increasing
placement of adoptable animals is backed by a million-dollar special budget and an SFSPCA
shelter expansion already underway. If Avanzino achieves the goal, San Francisco will
become the first major city ever to achieve victory over pet overpopulation.
And the goal is within sight. Since Avanzino returned the municipal animal control
contract to the city in 1989, the SFSPCA has concentrated upon promoting adoptions, discount
neutering, humane education, and improving relations between landlords and tenants with
pets. The payoff has become evident in plummeting euthanasia rates not only at the SFSPCA
itself, which has virtually become a no-kill shelter, but also at the city Animal Care and
Control Department shelter.

“The facts speak for themselves,”
Avanzino says. “In fiscal year 1991-1992, the
Animal Care and Control Department reported
757 adoptable dogs and cats euthanized at its
facility. Last year the number was 222, a 71%
reduction. These numbers show just how close
we are to saving every adoptable pet in our city.”
Avanzino defines “adoptable” by crite-
ria he himself developed: immediately adopt-
able (the 757 and 222); adoptable with medical
treatment or socialization; animals with low
odds of successful treatment due to the severity
of their condition; and animals who aren’t
adoptable at all. The latter category includes
demonstrably vicious dogs, very wild feral cats,
very old animals, and animals with incurable
injuries and diseases.
Overall in 1991, the SFSPCA placed
4,611 animals while euthanizing just 24, all for
health reasons. The San Francisco Animal Care
and Control department meanwhile placed about
6,000 animals, euthanizing 10,000. The com-
bined record of roughly 50% placement was
easily the best of any major municipal area.
Because the SFSPCA received
fewer animals in 1992, it also placed fewer:
4,417. Four out of five were cats, and
“approximately half (of all the animals)
were considered difficult to place,”
Avanzino states, “because of age, illness,
or injury. Most of these animals would
have been euthanized in other shelters, but
the majority of our animals find a new home
within a very short period of time.” The
demand for pets relative to the present sup-
ply at the SFSPCA is so strong, Avanzino
says, that “The most common length of stay
in our shelter is two days, and the average
stay, even when our longest-staying resi-
dents are factored in, is two to three weeks,
depending on whether the animal is a dog or
a cat, male or female.
“A very few animals,” Avanzino
acknowledges, “generally less than 2%, do
take considerably longer and can spend sev-
eral months in our shelter before finding the
right home. Some may say this is too long,
but we think, with the daily love, socializ-
ing, exercise, and care we provide, life in
a loving new home is worth the wait.”
The SFSPCA is able to provide
extra individual care for animals in longterm
custody because the de-emphasis on
euthanasia has increased the number of vol-
unteer helpers, and because the declining
shelter population has increased the amount
of time available to each animal, regardless
of length of stay.
Overall, the number of animals
impounded in San Francisco has fallen from
20,256 in 1983 to 12,601 in 1992, even as
the number of animals kept as pets has
increased 18%, from circa 331,000 to an
estimated 391,000.
“We don’t have to kill.”
Fewer animals are out on the
streets, and many of those who are at large
are cats enrolled in neuter/release projects
coordinated and supervised by the SFSPCA.
Often criticized by conventional humane
societies for endorsing neuter/release,
which the Humane Society of the U.S. inac-
curately describes in official publications as
neuter/abandonment, the SFSPCA takes the
view that cat feeders are going to be feeding
stray cats anyway, as long as they can find
some, and that working cooperatively with
the feeders to make sure the cats are not
reproducing, are vaccinated, and are super-
vised on a daily basis is far more productive
than driving the feeders underground. (The
consequences of the opposite approach are
evident in Chicago, where Anti-Cruelty
Society executive director Jane Stern oppos-
es neuter/release so vehemently that
although ANIMAL PEOPLE knows of
five active neuter/release projects within the
“Chicagoland” metropolitan area, none of
the coordinators were willing to identify
themselves when Stern asked several
months ago if we could recommend a model
neuter/release colony that she could visit.)
“We don’t have to kill animals to
get across our message that altering pets is a
vital part of responsible pet ownership,”
Avanzino insists. “Last year the SFSPCA
altered 5,871 dogs and cats at our low-cost
neutering clinic. We also alter the sexually
mature animals in our shelter before they
are adopted, as well as some of the animals
in the city shelter. And we regularly set
aside months, including May, June, and
July this year, to provide free neutering
surgery for cats, in addition to offering free
surgery throughout the year for feral cats
and the pets of seniors. These efforts have
paid off, and we will continue them.”
In all, the combined record of the
SFSPCA and San Francisco Animal Care
and Control is markedly better than the
SFSPCA alone achieved during the 121
years that the 125-year-old organization per-
formed the city animal control services.
Then, Avanzino explains, as a non-tax-
supported public charity the SFSPCA devot-
ed a disproportionate share of its resources
to impoundments and euthanasia, the costs
of which were only partially covered by the
pound contract. Meanwhile the reputation
of the SFSPCA as an agency for helping
animals was tarnished by the association of
the shelter with “dogcatching,” as animal
care and control work was generally
described and mostly consisted of until
recent years.
This in turn not only hurt revenue,
but increased pet overpopulation, Avanzino
argues, because public knowledge of the
euthanasia rate inhibited people from sur-
rendering pets they could no longer keep.
Instead, Avanzino charges, citing case
studies, many people preferred to abandon
surplus dogs and cats on the streets or in
public parks, thinking this at least gave the
animals a chance of finding a new home or
surviving in the wild.
Ending abandonment
Avanzino contends that ending
euthanasia of adoptable animals altogether
will effectively halt abandonments, saving
huge sums now spent for animal control
because stray pickups are demonstrably the
most costly job animal care and control
departments perform on a per animal basis,
and keeping strays for the mandatory five-
day holding period in case they might be
reclaimed by someone is the most costly
part of animal care and control overall.
“When the killing stops,”
Avanzino says, “we will put an end to one
of the most compelling reasons behind ani-
mal abandonment, “the perception that the
animal is better off on the streets than being
killed at the pound. To save the lives of
these animals, we need to get them into
shelters before they are abandoned and
become sick, injured, or traumatized,” ren-
dering them unsuitable for adoption.
Further, Avanzino states, “Under
our proposal the city shelter would not have
to keep a single animal longer than is already
required under state and local law.”
Surrendered animals can already be eutha-
nized immediately, and still could be if
unsuitable for adoption. “The only new
thing the city shelter would have to do is
offer to us or any other qualified humane
organization each healthy, adoptable dog or
cat whose time has run out at the city facili-
ty. For our part, we will take all of these
animals and see that every one gets a loving
home at no cost to the city––an arrangement
that could save city taxpayers more than
$150,000 a year and could, over time, save
millions of dollars. We are ready,” he con-
tinues, “to commit our resources, increase
our adoption space, expand our services, and
take whatever other steps are necessary to
make sure every adoptable animal who
comes to us gets a new chance at life.”
The string attached, Avanzino
explains, is that San Francisco must pass a
special ordinance or in some other way make
a firm, legally binding commitment that
“healthy, adoptable animals won’t be eutha-
nized, whether by the city shelter or by a
private shelter. Without that guarantee, we
will not eliminate the reason behind so many
tragic cases of animal abandonment, the
notion that an unwanted pet is better off on the streets than in a
shelter. To save these lives and prevent the suffering animal
abandonment can cause, we need a legal mandate that stops
the killing.”
There are no formal studies of the reasons for pet
abandonment, because of the difficulty of identifying and
questioning an adequate number of the people who do it.
However, there is a wealth of supporting evidence for
Avanzino’s belief about the motives from other quarters.
Most dramatically, in 1989, John Freed, then execu-
tive director of the Greenville Humane Society in South
Carolina, contracted to send surplus puppies and kittens to the
North Shore Animal League, and announced the shelter
would no longer euthanize healthy young animals. “The dogs
and cats were always out there,” Freed told ANIMAL PEO-
P L E shortly before his retirement last spring, “but they
weren’t coming to us. They were being passed along from
family to family and not getting neutered, and were having lit-
ters, and some were ending up in pet stores or puppy mills and
with bunchers for laboratories because we weren’t part of the
loop. Instead of being left out and cutting our euthanasia rate
by not getting the animals, we got ourselves into the loop.
We promised we’d find homes for the puppies and kittens, and
people who didn’t want to have anything to do with us before
because they thought we were just going to kill the animals
suddenly started coming in.” This gave the humane society
the opportunity to promote neutering among a portion of the
public it hadn’t previously reached. The number of animals
the shelter received soared from 10,500 in 1988 to 22,000 in
1992. But the percentage of euthanasias dropped, from 76%
in 1988 to 50% in 1992, as the number of adoptions shot from
2,800 in 1988 to 5,650 in 1992––and every animal adopted
was neutered before leaving the building, at an in-house clinic
partially funded by NSAL.
The psychological influence of euthanasia as a factor
in cats being out on the street was confirmed by a 1992 survey
of nearly 200 cat rescuers undertaken by ANIMAL PEOPLE
with financing from the Massachusetts SPCA. The survey
found that while 38% of the rescuers take sick and injured cats
to animal shelters, 80% do not take healthy cats to shelters,
apparently because of the likelihood that they will be eutha-
nized instead of being successfully adopted out.
In addition, the psychological profile of animal col-
lectors assembled in 1981 by researchers Dooley Worth and
Alan Beck identified inordinate fear of death as their apparent
motivating characteristic. Vicariously transferring this fear
from themselves to animals, they typically refuse to have any
animal euthanized.
Finally, criticism of animal shelters from outside the
animal protection community almost always centers on
euthanasia––for instance, the scattershot tabloid offensive
waged intermittently
for more than a decade by Joan
Dahlberg-Meisenholder (see “Watchdog,” page 11). Public
concern over euthanasia rates and methods may actually
exceed concern about pet overpopulation itself.
Opposition to Avanzino’s approach has come chiefly
from conventional humane societies and animal care and con-
trol departments, including, Avanzino notes, San Francisco
Animal Care and Control. Numerous shelter directors and ani-
mal control officers have seconded Steve Blacksher, execu-
tive director of the Longmont Humane Society in Longmont,
Colorado, who objected in a September 24 letter to Avanzino
that, “The proposal to legally prohibit animal shelters and
humane organizations in San Francisco from killing any adopt-
able dog or cat places sole responsibility for stopping the
killing of homeless animals on the backs of humane organiza-
tions. It implies that adoptable animals die because shelters
choose to kill them rather than find them loving homes. By
advocating legislation to stop the killing in shelters, you rein-
force the idea that shelters euthanize animals unnecessarily,”
instead of as “a last recourse.”
Continued Blacksher, “It is highly commendable that
pet overpopulation has been substantially reduced in San
Francisco, but elsewhere, the problem remains immense.
Your legislative proposal sends a strong message nationwide
that overpopulation is no longer an issue and that irresponsible
owners are no longer to blame. All we have to do to stop the
killing is simply make it illegal for humane organizations to do
so. I’m appalled to think what breeders, puppy mill operators,
and pet shop owners will do with this message,” Blacksher
concluded. “They’ve been arguing all along that this pet over-
population stuff is a bunch of hoopla, and your message only
adds fuel to their fire.”
Blacksher rejected Avanzino’s implication that “the
killer image of animal shelters is the primary reason that ani-
mals are abandoned. My belief,” Blacksher stated, “is that
animals are abandoned because of an appalling lack of respon-
sibility on the part of pet owners. I think it is ridiculous to
suggest that pet owners abandon their animals on the street
rather than take them to shelters because they are interested in
the animals’ welfare. People abandon their pets simply
because they don’t care about them. Let’s focus our legislative
efforts on the true culprits here––those people who abuse,
neglect, and abandon their animals.”
However, despite the popularity of Blacksher’s view
among colleagues, abandoning dogs and cats has been illegal
in most of the U.S. for decades. Because of the difficulty of
proving abandonment of animals found at large, the number
of successful prosecutions in any given year, nationally, can
almost be counted on the fingers of one hand. Virtually all
successful prosecutions under abandonment statutes instead
pertain to neglect of animals still in custody.
Parallel to pound seizure
Led by the late Robert Sellar, then president of the
American Humane Association, humane societies recognized
as long as 50 years ago in connection with the use of impound-
ed animals for biomedical research that an association with
killing animals could inhibit people from bringing in dogs and
cats they were unable to keep. As Animal Welfare Institute
founder and president Christine Stevens puts it in her book
Animals And Their Legal Rights, “If forced to surrender ani-
mals for painful experiments, the entire structure (of a
humane society) would lose its moral basis as a sanctuary for
animals where they would be safe from inflicted suffering.”
Providing surplus animals to biomedical research nonetheless
became commonplace from the late 1940s into the mid-1980s,
before the majority of humane societies recognized the delete-
rious impact of the association with vivisection upon public
trust and support.
No matter how necessary, the impact of euthanasia
upon public perception may be similar. Richard Avanzino is
determined to find out.
––Merritt Clifton
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