In a move that has animal welfare advocates and rescue groups rejoicing, the San Francisco SPCA Board of Directors has decided not to renew the contract of president Jan McHugh-Smith when it expires in March 2010. According to the press release on the organization’s Web site, Mc-Hugh-Smith is stepping down because she wants to return to her home state of Colorado to be closer to family.
While the press release is a typical corporate “save face” statement for both McHugh-Smith and the board, the reality is that Northside San Francisco’s September 2009 cover story, “How the San Francisco SPCA let us down,” and my “Editor’s Note” in October and November exposed a world-class animal shelter in shambles, something rescue groups and animal advocates have been complaining about almost since McHugh-Smith’s arrival. It fell mostly on deaf ears before meetings of the Commission of Animal Control and Welfare, with letters to the board of directors, and in pleas to the press – including the San Francisco Chronicle – to look into the allegations. But a pit bull named Shiloh changed everything.
On an innocent visit to Safeway, I stopped to say hello to a beautiful blue nose pit bull; his owner mentioned there was a dog that looked just like him at the San Francisco SPCA about to be killed if a foster home couldn’t be found. When I got down there, a SF/SPCA staffer told me that the dog, named Shiloh, was being “fostered” for Rocket Dog, a small grassroots rescue group, until they had a place for him. A subsequent call to Rocket Dog founder Pali Boucher led to four months of research, where I discovered that McHugh-Smith and her handpicked vice president, Dori Villalon, were more interested in making money and making their numbers look good than in saving the lives of San Francisco’s animals.
While the SF/SPCA press release touts a 20 percent increase in adoptions under McHugh-Smith, what it doesn’t mention is that a large number of the cats and nearly 87 percent of the dogs don’t come from San Francisco. It also doesn’t mention that the SF/SPCA goes to other counties, mostly in the Central Valley (where over 40,000 animals a year are euthanized), to cherry pick what critics refer to as “cute and fluffies.” Just two days before the announcement of McHugh-Smith’s departure, an anonymous source sent me a list with photos of over a dozen dogs being transported to the SF/SPCA from other shelters. True to form, every one was either a puppy or a small cute and fluffy – no big dogs, no pit bulls, no “old and uglies.”
McHugh-Smith, Villalon and the board have spent the last several months running from the media and dodging questions about the allegations. In a letter to Northside S.F. last month, board chair Catherine Brown touted the SF/SPCA’s successes, but she neglected to mention either McHugh-Smith or Villalon. She also left out the fact that many of the SF/SPCA’s programs had been slashed under McHugh-Smith’s reign, along with over 15 percent of its staff.
While Mc-Hugh-Smith’s ousting is a step in the right direction, there is much work to be done before the organization can return to its former glory days under president Richard Avanzino. The board says it will hire a recruiting firm to search the nation for McHugh-Smith’s replacement, but I hope they will take an active role in finding someone like Alison Lindquist of the East Bay SPCA, who has not only the business smarts, but also a strong background in independent rescue.
McHugh-Smith and Villalon, both polished politicians and veterans of executive positions at shelters nationwide, were notorious for driving away volunteers and rescue groups. I hope the board chooses a replacement who, like Lindquist, respects and reveres the volunteers and rescue organizations – the backbone of any shelter.
Also on my wish list is a president who puts San Francisco’s animals first. Under McHugh-Smith, San Francisco Animal Care and Control and rescue groups like Rocket Dog, Grateful Dogs and Give Me Shelter have been overwhelmed by the many animals the SF/SPCA rejects, and because of it animals are dying. I would like to see the board choose a president who, like Lindquist, spends his or her days crawling into the kennels with the animals – fancy suits may have a place in the boardroom, but not at the shelter. We need someone who loves animals and isn’t afraid to get dirty.
And finally, with the departure of McHugh-Smith, the board must also get rid of vice president Villalon, who came along as a packaged deal. In a position created for her by McHugh-Smith and the board, Villalon has done nothing but alienate and cause controversy. I revealed in last month’s Editor’s Note that Villalon bought a dog named Vida on Craig’s List and, when she didn’t “bond” with the dog, surrendered her to the shelter in Colorado where Villalon and McHugh-Smith once worked together. The SF/SPCA doesn’t need a vice president, and they definitely don’t need one like Villalon.
While I applaud the board for not renewing McHugh-Smith’s contract, I also believe that a huge part of the blame lies with them. With a string of failed presidents in their wake and a bloated $30 million hospital that they eagerly supported, the pressure is on them to make things right again. Personally, I would like to see the SF/SPCA board made up of people in the trenches of the shelter world rather than out-of-touch, high-society folks adding to their resumes for cocktail-party bragging rights. If the board had been more involved and more diligent in their duties, the lives of many San Francisco animals could have been saved, along with the jobs of many employees, and the SF/SPCA would have a scaled down, functional hospital rather than a badly built boondoggle that not only leaks money, but literally leaks water during a storm.
When news of McHugh-Smith’s departure hit the wire, I received many e-mails from animal lovers asking me not to let up on the SF/SPCA, and I promise that I won’t. My eyes will be on the board and on McHugh-Smith’s successor until the SF/SPCA regains its reputation as the best shelter in the world.
I once again extend my offer to sit down for a town hall meeting with Catherine Brown, the rest of the SF/SPCA board of directors, and a mutually agreed upon moderator. If the board is serious about fixing their problems, dialogue with the public is essential, as is input from the animal welfare community about McHugh-Smith’s replacement. Plugging in another slick, smooth-talking politician plucked by a corporate headhunter isn’t going to cut it. That’s how the board caused the SF/SPCA to plummet from its pedestal in the first place – by hiring executives rather than advocates who in turn put dollars and statistics ahead of animals’ lives.