A Time to Kill

The SPCA is struggling to finance a new hospital, and one way to save money is to speed up euthanasia.

Soon the organization's structure took chalky shape on the board. Boxes delineated subgroups with specific tasks. The Hot Data Group will compile SF/SPCA–related statistics; the Funding Group will look for financial mismanagement; and the Community Awareness Team, or CAT, will prepare information to distribute at summer fairs and other public events.

At one point the group discussed whether it should directly lobby SF/SPCA donors. It was a sobering moment. If people stop writing checks, what would that mean for the animals? Ultimately, the discussion was tabled temporarily, though there was enthusiastic support for publicly criticizing the animal shelter. "The community, which has supported the SPCA for years, needs to know what's going on, and it's up to the donors to make their own decisions," Johnson says.

The dissent took another form on a recent Saturday afternoon outside the SF/SPCA's adoption center on Florida Street. Here 75 people chanted, waved placards, and wore yellow armbands to condemn the April termination of the SF/SPCA's popular Hearing Dog Program. A police squad car was parked across the street to make sure the shelter's driveway was kept clear and that potential adopters were not harassed. The protest was the first outside the SF/SPCA in more than a decade, and also the first time former employees and volunteers had challenged the nonprofit's policies so publicly.

Hearing dog trainer Martha Hoffman, who worked for 20 years at the SF/SPCA, was standing among the protesters with Gotcha, her personal hearing dog. She is a kindly woman whose easy manner is complemented by a warm smile and a soft speaking voice.

In early April, Hoffman says she was alarmed by deep budget cuts to the Hearing Dog Program, but had been told it was safe — after all, the program had been prominently featured at the SF/SPCA's 140th anniversary celebration on April 18. The hearing dogs had demonstrated their skills beautifully, alerting their hearing-impaired owners to ringing phones, fire alarms, and dropped items. The demonstration was a big draw among the supporters and major donors who attended the celebration. So when Hoffman was called in by management for a meeting the next day, she was not concerned.

But when Hoffman arrived in the training room, she knew something was amiss. McHugh-Smith, vice president Dori Villalon, and human resources director Alice Jordan were already there. McHugh-Smith told Hoffman and two other Hearing Dog employees that the program cost $400,000 more than it raised in contributions. Jordan gave the three employees a letter stating that the program was finished and that their jobs were eliminated. They were to gather their belongings quickly and leave the building immediately. Villalon escorted Hoffman to her desk and stood over her while she collected her things.

"What was I going to steal?" says the 54-year-old Hoffman, who is widely respected for her work as a dog trainer and author. "All I could do was laugh it off, but really I was humiliated." Worse, she says, is that the 13 dogs currently in the program were put up for adoption. "I couldn't understand that," she says. "Why would they do that when we had a waiting list of 65 people who needed those dogs?"

The final insult to Hearing Dog supporters came when it was discovered that the SF/SPCA board of directors had given McHugh-Smith a $500,000 low-interest loan to help her purchase a home in Marin. Such loans are common at prestigious nonprofits, but nonetheless it made the firing of the Hearing Dog employees and other service cutbacks harder to take.

McHugh-Smith has also made controversial changes to the Cat Behavior Program. Longtime SF/SPCA cat behaviorists Dilara Parry and Mikel Delgado, who were the most prominent standard-bearers of the now-defunct no-kill policies, gave their notice in April, claiming management had been continually undermining them. And, Delgado says, there had been a shift in the policy that every treatable animal should be given a chance at adoption.

"The cat behavior staff had to struggle to keep this program together, especially over the last year," says Delgado, who is a certified cat behavior consultant. "This was physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting."

Management made it clear that less time and money would be spent on marginal animals, Delgado says, and services were vanishing. The volunteer-run Affection Eaters program, which helped traumatized cats regain their appetites in the shelter, quietly disappeared. A popular hotline service that gave behavior advice to people thinking of giving up their cats was reduced from a national scope to only SF/SPCA-adopted pets, she says.

"We would get about 120 calls a month, mostly for fixable problems like a cat peeing on a bed, excessive meowing, a whole gamut of behavior issues," Delgado says. "Most calls were from San Francisco, but we got calls from New York, Israel, and Beirut. We were able to help these people who were in a crisis mode. It was a great way to keep hundreds of cats in their homes."

Then adoptions director Holly Stempien-Fink sent out a memo to staff announcing new protocols for the euthanasia of sick kittens. When kittens are anesthetized for spay/neuter procedures, they will be simultaneously tested for both the feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and the feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), sometimes called feline AIDS. If the blood tests are positive for FeLV, a follow-up serum test will be immediately given. If it is still positive, the kitten will be put down while still under anesthesia. The memo is ambiguous about the fate of those kittens who test positive for the less-deadly FIV.

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