Our September cover story about the San Francisco SPCA drew more feedback than anything we’ve ever printed. I did not set out to write an exposé about the organization – in fact, both of my publications have been huge supporters for many years. When I started the “Pet Page” in the Marina Times in 2002, I worked closely with the SF/SPCA, and Pet Page editor Cindy Beckman continues to do so. In August, president Jan McHugh-Smith penned an article for us about the SF/SPCA’s cat program, and we donate ad space every month so they can promote their available animals.
But on an innocent visit to inquire about a dog named Shiloh, whom I had heard randomly was about to be euthanized by the SF/SPCA if a foster home wasn’t found immediately, I began to see red flags. The visit led to a series of chapters in my Northside San Francisco column, “Jasmine Blue’s Tails of the Dog Park” (June–September 2009), where I shadowed Rocket Dog Rescue founder Pali Boucher in her efforts to save the “throwaway dogs” in the stray and surrender kennels at San Francisco’s city-run shelter, Animal Care & Control.
Over the course of four months, I began to see and hear things that just didn’t add up, and it became evident that the current administration of the SF/SPCA was more concerned with numbers and the bottom line than they were with saving San Francisco’s animals. From the bloated, money-sucking $30-million hospital project to the sudden demise of the popular Hearing Dog Program, I saw missteps and bad judgment calls galore, as well as an obviously out-of-touch board of directors who continue to allow the SF/SPCA’s reputation to deteriorate before the public’s eyes. Even Best Friends Sanctuary, one of the nation’s largest and most respected animal rescue organizations (profiled in the National Geographic Channel series Dog Town), has questioned the SF/SPCA’s commitment to the “no kill” movement, and they’re not alone.
Three weeks after our story came out, it also elicited a rebuttal from SF/SPCA president Jan McHugh-Smith, which she posted both on the SF/SPCA Web site and on Craig’s List. McHugh-Smith mostly quibbled with a few minor errors (“SF/SPCA vice president Dori Villalon served as Director of Sonoma County Animal Care & Control, not Sonoma County Humane Society”), but the majority of her rebuttal actually corroborated what I said in my article.
McHugh-Smith is, unfortunately, typical of the leadership of many large, well-funded nonprofits – a polished politician with a gift for talking around the facts and bending them to her benefit. Nowhere is that more evident than in her attempt to justify turning
down nearly 90 percent of the dogs from San Francisco’s shelter in favor of bringing in dogs from other counties and even other states.
McHugh-Smith is particularly proud of her work in the Central Valley. About Madera County, she says that they receive over 9,000 animals annually and euthanize 5,000 of them. She boasts that Madera is thankful to the SF/SPCA and provides a quote to prove it: “By rescuing our animals, the SF/SPCA allows us the time and opportunity to educate our community on the importance of spaying and neutering, to improve our own adoption efforts, and to more humanely care for those animals in our care.”
But if Madera is receiving over 9,000 animals a year and destroying more than half, the SF/SPCA isn’t helping very much (and neither, apparently, are their education efforts).
McHugh-Smith also references Lake County Animal Control, providing this quote: “One of our goals in 2008 was to reduce our euthanasia
rate by 20 percent or more. The SF/SPCA played a major role in attaining that goal.”
What McHugh-Smith doesn’t mention is that Lake County enacted a mandatory spay and neuter law in 2006. “Since enacting the ordinance our numbers have gone down steadily each year,” the director of Lake County Animal Care & Control says on the “yesonsb250” Web site, the campaign to enact a mandatory spay and neuter law throughout California. “Our spay and neuter ordinance works! We have no increased cost related to the ordinance; in fact it has saved us money. The most telling sign for us about the legislation, in Clearlake, which accounts for 30 percent of all strays in the county, animal intake is down 30 percent compared to the same time period one year ago.”
In fact, the SF/SPCA taking a few animals from these shelters is like putting a finger in a dike – the Central Valley ranks third in the nation for highest euthanasia rates, destroying more than 40,000 animals annually. While understandably these shelters are grateful when other groups step in to save some of them, the vicious cycle continues, mostly due to lack of education, poor funding, and limited access to low-cost or free spay and neuter services.
Even if the SF/SPCA takes 100 animals from Madera County, for every one they save, 50 will still end up in the “dead animal barrels” (anyone who has ever seen these horrific barrels overflowing with lifeless bodies never forgets it).
It is also interesting to note the types of animals the SF/SPCA will take from the Central Valley – rescue groups refer to them as “cute and fluffies,” highly adoptable animals that move quickly and make their “live release rate” look good. During my four months of research as a volunteer with Rocket Dog Rescue, I witnessed the case of an elderly, average-looking German shepherd mix named Lulu who came down on a truck from Lake County. Lulu wasn’t supposed to make the trip, but a volunteer in Lake wanted to give her a chance. In the e-mail she wrote, “If the SF/SPCA takes Lulu, she could find a home; if they don’t, at least she had a nice car ride.”
On a Saturday afternoon, a volunteer at the SF/SPCA did take Lulu, but come Monday morning – presumably when the powers that be got a look at her – an e-mail circulated through the rescue groups explaining that the SF/SPCA wanted to ship her back to Lake County. For the SF/SPCA, this is a win-win situation – they would be getting rid of an undesirable
dog and also be allowed to count her as a “live release,” which simply means that the animal left the SF/SPCA alive (even though she would have been euthanized upon her return to the other shelter).
Over the next couple of weeks, the volunteers in Lake County and the SF/SPCA went back and forth about what to do with Lulu. Finally, Rocket Dog’s Boucher stepped in to take her. Boucher asked if I could meet her volunteer at my veterinarian, Dr. Sherman Wong of Blue Cross Pet Hospital, to get Lulu checked out and to board her for a few days until Rocket Dog could find a foster home. When I arrived, I was shocked – just 30 minutes after leaving the SF/SPCA’s care, Lulu’s ribs were poking out and her back was completely bald. Rocket Dog volunteer Rob noted that the SF/SPCA said Lulu failed their test for “food guarding” – not a wonder, he mused, because she was obviously starving. Dr. Wong confirmed that Lulu was emaciated and suffering from a bad skin condition.
I had Pali e-mail the SF/SPCA to ask whether they had treated Lulu medically for her skin problem while she was in their care, and they informed her that the only thing they had done was test Lulu for heartworm – they didn’t even bathe her. After two weeks in Rocket Dog’s care, Lulu was a new dog – no more ribs poking out and a shiny coat of fur, even on her back. And she never exhibited any food-guarding tendencies.
One of the most telling moments in last month’s feature story was the Aug. 6 e-mail SF/SPCA vice president Dori Villalon sent to Boucher in which she said: “As a nonprofit, we understand the challenges you have regarding expenses and making decisions based on resources. We make these difficult decisions every day when we visit ACC and decline animals because we don’t have the means to care for them.”
In other words, they decline animals at ACC for lack of resources, but they have the means to care for animals from other counties and other states. In her rebuttal, McHugh-Smith had nothing to say about that.
No one wants to see animals euthanized in the Central Valley, but the harsh reality remains that when other organizations like the SF/SPCA step in, it enables the lawmakers in these counties to continue business as usual. And with over 40,000 animals euthanized annually, the killing fields of the Central Valley show no signs of changing any time soon. (I had my own rude awakening to this crisis when I took three foster puppies from the
Kern County shelter in Bakersfield, which I detail in this month’s chapter of “Jasmine Blue’s Tails of the Dog Park”)
If the SF/SPCA truly wants to make a difference in the Central Valley, they could start by utilizing some of those $70 million in assets to purchase mobile spay-and-neuter vans, to set up low cost spay-and-neuter clinics, to fund spay-and-neuter education, and to promote community outreach programs. Sadly, they haven’t even done any of these things here in San Francisco.
Because the SPCA has “San Francisco” in front of its name, I think it is reasonable for citizens of this city to expect them to put San Francisco’s animals first. Instead, they decline nearly 90 percent of the dogs at ACC. Since pit bulls – which make up nearly a quarter of the dogs in the stray and surrender kennels – are (unfortunately) exempt from the Adoption Pact signed with ACC in 1994, this means the SF/SPCA is turning down nearly 90 percent of just 75 percent of the dogs. (The SF/SPCA has a quota of two pit bulls at any given time, likely to appease advocates, but they regularly turn down some wonderful pits and pit mixes that ACC considers very adoptable.)
The SF/SPCA’s practice of finding reasons to decline animals (usually minor medical or behavioral issues) or declining them sight unseen based on ACC’s assessment (I saw piles of paperwork where the SF/SPCA never sent their own behaviorist to check out a dog) leaves the overburdened, under-funded grassroots rescue groups struggling to save as many as they can – but they can’t save them all, and animals are being euthanized while the SF/SPCA touts its “live release” rate to solicit donations. The fact that just two of those grassroots rescue groups – Rocket Dog Rescue and Grateful Dogs Rescue – saved more dogs from San Francisco last year than the SF/SPCA is indefensible, no matter how smoothly McHugh-Smith glides her way around it.
Prior to McHugh-Smith’s plea in her recent rebuttal to send letters of support to Northside S.F., we only received two out of numerous letters and phone calls disagreeing with the feature story. One e-mail, from an anonymous G-mail account, said simply, “This article is full of lies!” The other chastised me for not talking about the good work the SF/SPCA has done with feral cats. Since my experience was with dogs, and because last year’s SF Weekly article, “A Time to Kill,” dealt so eloquently with the cat situation, I didn’t go into detail in my article, but there are indeed still problems with the SF/SPCA’s cat program: As this issue was going to press, I received a phone call from Lana Bajsel, executive director of Give Me Shelter, San Francisco’s largest independent cat rescue, saying that 22 cats at ACC were slated for euthanasia because the SF/SPCA declined them in favor of “perfect cats” from elsewhere.
In the continuing Hearing Dog Program saga, a report surfaced that the SF/SPCA no longer has a single hearing dog instructor on staff or on its freelance list, despite the fact they went to court to challenge the San Francisco Hearing Dog Program for a $500,000 behest – which they won by convincing a San Mateo judge that they still ran a hearing dog program. Further, Joe Eskenazi reported on his SF Weekly blog that a woman informed him that SF/SPCA dog trainer Helen Colombo had “offered to conduct her scheduled, in-person refresher course over the phone.” The woman, Patricia Frieze, is deaf. I plan to follow up on these claims, as well as Bajsel’s, in future Northside S.F. articles.
Finally, I would like to extend an invitation to Jan McHugh-Smith to sit down with me in a public forum to discuss the many issues she did not address in her rebuttal. I would be happy to provide the questions ahead of time as well as to use a mutually agreed-upon moderator for the event. In the long run, I only want what I think every animal lover in San Francisco wants – for the SF/SPCA to return to its former glory days as America’s model shelter.
Because we received so many letters, we couldn’t print them all, but here is a cross section of what many of them said. We will post more on our Web site and will continue to post them as they come in. Should we get any letters of support as McHugh-Smith requested in her rebuttal, we will post them as well.
EDITOR: I have been a volunteer at both the SF/SPCA and ACC, though for years only at the latter. The Northside S.F. article reflected everything I have learned along the way. With each ensuing director since Avanzino, the SPCA has been sliding down – with Jan McHugh-Smith it has hit bottom. The response of the SPCA for the most part says that everything in the Northside S.F. article is true. Do they get animals from all over the place while their money comes from San Francisco? Yes. Did Dr. Scarlet bring back animals from a reservation? Yes. As to claims of big bargains on spay-neuter, even at 50 percent off, the SPCA is still more expensive than anyplace else in this city. And as to the Hearing Dog Program accusations? Not a single word.
I once believed that I could not say anything bad about the SF/SPCA as long as they helped even one helpless, homeless animal. No more. Now I know they must change. Currently the SPCA is about money, nothing more and nothing less. They get it and they spend it. No one else can afford ads in the San Francisco Chronicle. They are willing to “partner” with rescues only if rescues sign agreements not to say anything negative about them. I will now never stop working to change the SF/SPCA back to what they once were. That will mean the exit of the current hierarchy, for, as I hear on the gossip mill, the thing that bothered them most in the Northside S.F. article were the words “clickety” and “clackity.” [Ed. note: These words refer to the sentence, “Villalon teeters up to her in the lobby of ACC. Dressed in four-inch heels and a designer suit, Villalon …”]
EDITOR: I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for the research and commitment that went into your article. You are also a person of intense scruples, I’m sure. You have said what many have thought, wished to say, been afraid to say. You put your principles before your fears, which is hugely commendable.
I believe every word you have written – you have facts backing you up, not assumptions. In the rescue (and other) world, people are so accustomed to reacting on an emotional (or psychological) basis by stating an opinion as fact and not backing it up with anything that resembles hard evidence. You have provided the evidence and given fuel to a bonfire that can only help the animals.
I do think that Central Valley animals need help – we rescue them, as do all other groups – but the City’s animals need help, too.
Thank you for articulating that which so few others could have done.
Founder, Wonder Dog Rescue
EDITOR: Jan McHugh-Smith’s response to the Northside S.F. exposé of the SF/SPCA smells of cherry-picked facts: look at them up close and they make the SPCA look good, but look at them in context and they make the SPCA look horrible. And she’s quite the apologist for “inevitable” euthanasia, isn’t she?
Why doesn’t the SF/SPCA help fund and promote spay and neuter clinics and facilitate foster programs in these high-kill Central Valley shelters, instead of just taking individual animals, which does nothing to stem the supply? You know what they say: “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.” Well, take a dog out of a shelter, you save one dog. Teach a shelter to promote spay and neuter, you save many dogs.
I hope you do a piece on Nathan Winograd and the “no kill” movement, which will put all the apologists for “inevitable” euthanasia to shame.
EDITOR: Thank you so much for printing the article about the SF/SPCA. I knew some of this even 20 years ago when I worked there – many things were hidden – dogs killed quickly and never spoken about again. I am repulsed by their actions and lies and prejudices. I am so glad you have the courage to reveal the darkness of this multimillion-dollar society. Shame, shame, shame on them.
EDITOR: Thank you for investigating the SF/SPCA. I work with Siberian Husky and Alaskan Malamute Rescue and pull the dogs from ACC that the SPCA passes on. I am happy that you have exposed them for what they are. Collecting money is their primary purpose. I always say follow the money and you find out what is really going on. A lot of animals could be saved on the director’s salary alone; the money at the SF/SPCA has become so big that they have forgotten their original mission.
EDITOR: Very few publications have had the “sand” to voice anything but a glowingly positive, bordering on downright “slobbery” review of the SF/SPCA. Don’t get me wrong, the SPCA and many of their volunteers do go far beyond the limits of their abilities to negotiate between the twisted lines of bureaucracy and the greedy, faux do-gooders, (I knew a volunteer who would secretly take animals home for a while, readmitting them weeks later, in an effort to buy some time). The SPCA, however, is not squeaky clean, and their image as a caring, compassionate, “port-in-the-storm,” “no-kill” haven is a myth, having been long eclipsed, for those in the know, by ACC, Rocket Dog and others.
I could not finish reading your report without crying … a lot. I felt that it held the perfect dose of hard-core reporting on a scarier, big-money monster than any of us could even fathom, combined with the kind of writing that reminds us we’re alive and so are all of our beloved pets – the lucky ones we cuddle with in bed at night (even though our husbands don’t always want us to), as well as the unwanted pound puppies that someone gave up on or just couldn’t take the time to deal with. The reasons never end, but their lives do.
Send your letters to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters may be edited for space.
Editor’s Note: As this issue was going to press, we received an anonymous tip from
inside the SF/SPCA. On Thursday, October 1 the organization closed for the day; management held a mandatory meeting, laid off more than a dozen employees, and axed the Academy for Dog Trainers. With the $30 million hospital boondoggle continuing to suck funds, this will likely not be the last layoffs or the last program to go.