Northside SF  

Political Animal
Free Tilly; more problems at the SF/SPCA’s new hospital; registry for
animal abusers

By Susan Dyer Reynolds

The recent tragedy at SeaWorld in Orlando where a killer whale named Tilikum killed his trainer proves once again that wild animals doing tricks for our amusement should be a thing of the past. The six-ton orca, nicknamed Tilly, likely thought trainer Dawn Brancheau’s long ponytail was a fish, animal experts say, and grabbed it, pulling her into the water and drowning her. This is a subject near and dear to my heart, because I come from a circus family. My grandfather on my father’s side, my uncle, and my father all traveled with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus; my father was a cook for the performers, my grandfather did manual labor putting up and tearing down tents, and my uncle was a well-regarded artist, creating some of those famous posters. As a child, I spent hours with my father behind the scenes. While most kids would probably love it, all I saw was frustrated, angry animals with broken spirits, from tigers pacing back and forth in a cage barely big enough to turn around in, to elephants chained at the ankles, nervously swaying back and forth. I remember moving close to an old female Indian elephant that had been captured in the wild but had spent her entire adult life traveling with the circus. Her huge brown eyes were almost human, and the sadness in them was undeniable.

My friend Kevin Kropp went to grade school with Dawn and says that she talked even then about wanting to work with whales and dolphins. Kevin says he knows Dawn wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to Tilly. The fact SeaWorld would even contemplate euthanizing the orca is beyond comprehension since what happened was entirely their fault: the whale was sent to SeaWorld by an amusement park in Canada 16 years earlier after killing a trainer there; as part of the deal, Tilly was to be used for breeding only. Needless to say, the greedy folks at SeaWorld, who make millions off these animals, didn’t stick to their end of the bargain, and now a vibrant young woman is dead. If, indeed, Tilly is “aggressive,” as many pundits are spouting, is that really surprising? We’re talking about a 12,000-pound animal removed from his pod in the wild as a baby, made to do unnatural tricks to get food, and forced to swim circles in a tank equivalent to a bathtub for you and me. Over the last decade, attendance at shows featuring animal acts has declined dramatically, yet Cirque du Soleil, which features only humans doing tricks, is packing them in. It’s time to send wild animals like Tilly to sanctuaries – end animal suffering and the accompanying human tragedies that have become far too familiar. …

A San Francisco SPCA employee sent a disturbing e-mail about more problems at the $30-million Leanne B. Roberts Animal Care Center – the pride and joy of the SF/SPCA board of directors, which lost $1 million last year – alleging that the heat doesn’t work and actually blows cold air on dogs suffering from kennel cough. The e-mail says that every time the sick dogs are seen at night “they are shaking,” and that this was reported to vice president Dori Villalon two months ago, but the problem still exists. Also according to this employee, the poor hospital design includes pipes just one-inch wide, causing the hallways to flood during the recent spate of storms. The employee says that president Jan McHugh-Smith (who steps down this month) rented a machine to “suck the water out the windows.” This is not the first e-mail I’ve received from employees about water issues at the new hospital – in November’s Editor’s Note (“Show me the money!”), I reported that fall storms caused the center to leak so badly that animals had to be moved back to the old hospital facility.

More inside sources say that at a recent staff meeting, the controversial Villalon stated, “In case anyone was wondering,” she wasn’t “going anywhere.” A source close to the board of directors says there are rumors that Villalon will serve as interim president of the organization while they search for a replacement for McHugh-Smith. Over the last couple of months, Villalon has been spotted on the local TV news encouraging people to come down to the SF/SPCA to adopt a pet, a gig once reserved for McHugh-Smith. If the rumors are true, it’s yet another blunder on the part of the out-of-touch board of directors – Villalon, who bought a dog on Craig’s List last year and later surrendered it to the Humane Society of Boulder Valley in Colorado (her former employer) and who also admits to giving up her cats after a divorce, is obviously a poor choice as the face of the once highly revered but now struggling shelter, if even temporarily. …

A bill proposed by Senator Dean Florez (D) would put animal abusers on the same level as sex offenders in California by listing them in an online registry that includes addresses and places of employment. Penned with help from the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the bill would require any person convicted of a felony involving animal cruelty to register with police and provide personal information along with a current photo. The registry, which would also include the specific offense, would be posted online ( does this but offers limited listings). Crimes listed would include violent acts like torture, mutilation, intentional killings, sexual abuse, and animal fighting as well as neglect, including hoarding. If the statewide bill passes, it would be the nation’s first criminal registry for animal abusers. As I reported in last month’s inaugural “Political Animal” column, the link between animal cruelty and human cruelty is an undisputed fact. Kudos to Senator Florez for recognizing that link and for treating animal abuse with the seriousness it deserves. …

And finally, a big thank you to the proprietors of the Union Street Inn (2229 Union Street at Fillmore). After reading about Rocket Dog Rescue in Northside San Francisco, they decided to throw a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party at their charming establishment on March 28 from 2 to 6 p.m. to benefit the hard-working grassroots group. Guests are encouraged to wear their most creative hats and join fellow Mad Hatters for a proper English tea, along with wine and hors d’oeuvres. Each ticket holder is entered in a raffle-prize drawing, there will be special silent auction items, and, of course, a prize for the best hat! Space is limited and advanced tickets are recommended. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at For more information, call the Union Street Inn at 415-346-0424 or Rocket Dog Rescue at 415-756-8188.

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