A Time to Kill

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

The new protocol is a dramatic departure from the no-kill ethic because the tests often show false positives. For more than a decade, the SF/SPCA policy was to keep virus-positive kittens for up to three months because they sometimes develop antibodies to fight the disease though a natural process known as seroconversion. Even if they don't seroconvert, FIV-positive cats can live for years, and often enjoy regular lifespans without developing symptoms. Volunteers say they now expect a greater number of kittens to be put down during the late summer months, when kitten season starts in earnest and dozens of litters are brought into the SF/SPCA and Animal Care and Control.

SF/SPCA veterinary staff argue that it's cruel to keep kittens alive after they test positive on the off chance they may seroconvert, because they often develop other diseases such as respiratory infections and ringworm. They are also contagious, says Dr. Jennifer Scarlett, the SF/SPCA's associate director of veterinary services.

But cat rescue groups say euthanizing virus-positive kittens so quickly is unacceptable. Lana Bajsel, the outspoken chairwoman of local nonprofit Give Me Shelter Cat Rescue, says she has repeatedly asked the SF/SPCA to give her virus-positive cats because she can find them homes, but the SF/SPCA has repeatedly refused. "I'm not asking the SPCA to pay for their care, and I'm not asking them to change their euthanasia policies," she says. "All I'm asking them to do is pick up the phone and call me so I can come down and pick those cats up. Once these kittens were deemed worth time, money, and effort, but now if there's a sign of a problem, they're euthanized. ... They kill them."

Former SF/SPCA president Richard Avanzino forged the concept of a no-kill shelter during his 23-year tenure. The goal of a no-kill shelter is to save any animal that is healthy, manageable, or treatable. It is probably an impossible goal, but in striving to reach it, the SF/SPCA has saved thousands of animals' lives in the Bay Area and, by showing the way, helped to save millions of others nationwide. The philosophical ideal is that sick dogs and cats are treated until healthy, and those with behavior problems are retrained or adopted out to people who can work with their idiosyncrasies. The underpinning of the no-kill philosophy is that animal populations are controlled through an aggressive sterilization program and not through euthanasia.

Guided by this overarching principle, Avanzino developed innovative programs and services for animals and their owners. He expanded the SF/SPCA's spay/neuter program by making it affordable or free to the poor. He started mobile adoptions in which dogs and cats are showcased in public places. He expanded shelter space by fostering out animals not ready to be adopted, and hired behaviorists to work with both animals and their adopters.

The final piece of the no-kill puzzle was the 1994 Adoption Pact between San Francisco Animal Care and Control and the SF/SPCA. At the time, ACC was forced to kill nearly 6,000 animals a year because of poor resources and little space. About half of those animals were readily adoptable or treatable. Under the terms of the pact, Avanzino agreed to take all healthy animals that came into the city-run shelter, and many of those with medical and behavior problems. The results were stunning. By the time Avanzino retired in 1999, the number of animals killed citywide had been reduced from more than 6,000 to 2,916; of those, 1,961 were extremely ill or otherwise untreatable. None were readily adoptable.

Avanzino's innovations resulted in an unprecedented reduction in animal deaths in an urban setting. The SF/SPCA exported the model to other cities and countries by holding "Mission Possible" seminars, which were attended by animal control officials from around the world. Due in large part to Avanzino's innovations, the number of shelter killings nationwide in 2007 was 12.5 per 1,000 U.S. residents, the lowest since such data was first collected in 1947.

"San Francisco had become an international model," says former SF/SPCA director of operations Nathan Winograd, director of the national No Kill Advocacy Center and the author of Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America. "We were saving lives at two to three times the rate of the rest of the country. We had a top-notch dog behavior program, a top-notch feral cat program, a top-notch spay/neuter program, and a top-notch hospital."

Fortunately, Avanzino's innovations touched a chord with Bay Area donors. The SF/SPCA went from near bankruptcy to being flush with contributions, bequests, and legacies. The nonprofit regularly had surpluses in the millions of dollars, Winograd says, which demonstrated the widespread support for the no-kill shelter model.

On a recent windy afternoon, two construction workers wearing hard hats heft sheets of plywood off a truck and carry them through the sliding metal doors of a sprawling two-story warehouse. The building takes up half a block behind the SF/SPCA complex at the eastern edge of the Mission District. Inside, banging hammers and whirling electric saws echo in the cavernous space as workers busily transform the structure into the 44,000-square-foot Leanne B. Roberts Animal Care Center. It will be the second-largest pet hospital in North America.

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