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 SF/SPCA's current plan is that the new hospital, expected to open in the spring of 2009, will offer market-rate veterinary services for those who can afford it. The profits will subsidize the nonprofit's charitable pet care services, which currently run about $1.5 million a year. The new center will also house the SF/SPCA's feral cat program and intake offices. Once completed, the center will double the capacity of the SF/SPCA's current veterinary hospital. And planners promise the average number of spay/neuter procedures performed each year will double, to 13,000.

But there are financial concerns. The original estimate of $15 million has doubled to $30 million, and that figure could increase significantly based on rising fuel costs alone. The $17 million donated by the Roberts Family Trust specifically for the hospital long ago ran out, and the board of directors has taken out a two-year line of credit to bridge a $7 million funding gap while it scrambles to find contributions to pay for the project.

While the majority of funding has come from contributions specifically intended for the hospital, the SF/SPCA has also dipped into its general fund, which has riled donors who thought their contributions were going directly toward helping animals, not speculation on a for-profit hospital. The board of directors pulled $1.4 million from the general fund for architectural fees and other preliminary work in 1999. After the hospital is opened, it is expected to run at a first-year deficit of at least $700,000, which will have to be made up from the general fund, as will lines of credit and loan interests, which could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Cat Crusaders say the cost overruns are responsible for the service cutbacks and new euthanasia policies. They promise to challenge the SF/SPCA until it retrains its focus and resources on the principles of a no-kill shelter. And right now, their primary target is president Jan McHugh-Smith.

On the same Saturday as the Hearing Dog protest, the SF/SPCA's premier facility, Maddie's Pet Adoption Center, was bustling with people looking for pets. There was a line at the desk where potential adopters filled out forms or got advice from behavior specialists. Some people watched training videos in the lobby, while others looked for that perfect match among the candidates for adoption. Maddie's was one of Avanzino's most impressive concepts. Instead of being housed in barracklike kennels, dogs and cats up for adoption lounge in sunlit replicas of Victorian- and Spanish-styled "condos." Many rooms are furnished with pet-sized couches, climbing trees, toys, aquariums, and televisions.

McHugh-Smith was in the high-ceilinged main lobby, speaking with a young couple looking for a dog. She is dressed casually in a tailored pantsuit and appears relaxed despite the people outside protesting her management policies. In fact, she seems completely unconcerned. "Controversy isn't unusual to the SPCA because people are so passionate about animals in San Francisco. I think people forget how much controversy Rich Avanzino faced when he was building Maddie's," she says and makes a sweeping gesture that takes in the large, activity-filled room. "Then, the complaint was, 'How can you build this Taj Mahal for animals when there are people sleeping in the streets?'"

McHugh-Smith says one of the first things she changed after arriving was the restrictive adoption procedure. Potential adopters had to demonstrate with a lease or letter that their landlords allowed pets; in some cases, adoption staff were refusing potential adopters the dog or cat they liked because they felt they weren't a good match. Some would-be adopters felt so snubbed they gave the strident staffers the nickname "Adoption Nazis," says SF/SPCA marketing director Kiska Icard.

McHugh-Smith says now that potential adopters fill out less paperwork and do not have to produce lease agreements, adoptions are up by 14 percent and returns have increased by only 1 percent. In 2007, the SF/SPCA adopted out 3,602 dogs and cats. In addition, McHugh-Smith points out that with adoption rates up, those animals are spending less time in the shelter, which means they experience less stress and exposure to kennel diseases. "People can get animals from thousands of places: the Internet, in front of Safeway, from family and friends," she says. "Why would we make it more difficult for them?"

The UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine is supporting McHugh for the changes. A soon-to-be-released report gives the SF/SPCA high marks for its new protocols and the speed at which cats and dogs are adopted out.

But both current and former staffers complain the new policies contribute to impulse adoptions, which will ultimately mean a higher return rate. They say the policies may also contribute to animals coming back in disturbed states, as Tulane and Isaac were.

San Francisco Animal Care and Control is right around the corner from the SF/SPCA's sprawling complex. It is unfairly considered the "bad" animal shelter because it euthanizes the majority of unadoptable animals in the city. In fact, the city-run facility has few resources and less space. If the SF/SPCA doesn't take all the animals it should under the 1994 Adoption Pact, the ACC is forced to put them down. That is, unless one of the rescue groups, the last possible safety net for dogs and cats, doesn't swoop in at the last minute.

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