A Time to Kill

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

When feral kittens are put up for adoption at the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, it's usually the health-check technician who gives each one a name. The christening method is random, and ideas might come from a stack of name dictionaries or a roster of baseball players. So two years ago, when someone brought a shy, three-month-old feral into the shelter, there's a good chance a list of universities was used to name the all-black kitten Tulane.

With the right attention, feral kittens are not difficult to tame, and Tulane appeared to be a good adoption candidate, according to his medical log. Volunteers reported he enjoyed having his head petted, and purred contentedly when sitting in their laps.

The person who adopted Tulane already had a domesticated cat the kitten got along with. But Tulane never formed a bond with his adopter. On May 2, more than a year after the adoption, that person returned a very different cat to the SF/SPCA. Now 18 months old, Tulane demonstrated fearful and aggressive behavior and was categorized as "completely feral," according to the log. He was put in a cage where he ran in tight circles, knocking over his food bowl. Veterinary staff assumed the spilled food meant Tulane wasn't eating, even though at least two employees say there was fresh crap in his litter box.

A cat available for adoption at  Give Me Shelter Cat Rescue.
Jake Poehls
A cat available for adoption at Give Me Shelter Cat Rescue.
A demonstration outside the SF/SPCA protesting the sudden closure of the Hearing Dog program.
Jake Poehls
A demonstration outside the SF/SPCA protesting the sudden closure of the Hearing Dog program.
One of the hearing dogs at the Florida Street protest.
Jake Poehls
One of the hearing dogs at the Florida Street protest.
One of the hearing dogs at the Florida Street protest.
Jake Poehls
One of the hearing dogs at the Florida Street protest.
No-kill advocate Nathan Winograd
No-kill advocate Nathan Winograd
Construction is under way on the $30 million Leanne B. Roberts Animal Care Center.
Jake Poehls
Construction is under way on the $30 million Leanne B. Roberts Animal Care Center.
SF/SPCA president Jan McHugh-Smith and her dog at Maddie’s Pet  Adoption Center.
Jake Poehls
SF/SPCA president Jan McHugh-Smith and her dog at Maddie’s Pet Adoption Center.
Lana Bajsel of Give Me Shelter displays rescued cats at a mobile adoption site.
Jake Poehls
Lana Bajsel of Give Me Shelter displays rescued cats at a mobile adoption site.

The SF/SPCA's feral team was making plans to return Tulane to a managed feral colony where they thought he would be happier and would likely eat better. But before arrangements were made, veterinary staff decided, without a full medical examination, that the cat's failure to eat was a symptom of a serious condition. Tulane was euthanized.

In a country that kills nearly four million cats and dogs a year, Tulane's euthanasia, of course, went unnoticed. But within the San Francisco animal welfare community, his death stirred a small tempest. That's because the SF/SPCA's behavioral unit had been remarkably successful with cats like Tulane. In fact, former staff behaviorists say no cat with Tulane's symptoms had been euthanized in at least 12 years.

The fact that Tulane was so quickly put down was unsettling evidence to many that the SF/SPCA has fundamentally changed its "no-kill" principle, which had made San Francisco the safest city for cats and dogs in the country and served as a model for hundreds of shelters in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Japan. According to former employees, Tulane's demise last month indicates that the SF/SPCA has lowered the bar for euthanasia, and greater numbers of animals will now be put down.

There are several other recent cases that have unsettled staff. One is Isaac, a well-adjusted two-month-old puppy the SF/SPCA adopted out to a family in late December. He was returned four months later for nipping at twin nine-year-old boys. Behavior staff categorized Isaac as "fearful" and put him down within three days of his return. In several other cases, puppies have been euthanized for "food guarding," which most trainers say is a fixable behavior.

The SF/SPCA has also announced a new protocol for euthanizing sick kittens, which conflicts with the public's perception that the shelter adheres to no-kill principles.

The reason for the new euthanasia policies is, in part, money. The SF/SPCA is scrambling to find funding to complete its controversial $30 million, for-profit animal hospital, the Leanne B. Roberts Animal Care Center. The project is only half complete, and with the looming specter of hiring staff, new equipment costs, and opening expenses, there has been an emphasis on saving money around the shelter, where it costs an estimated $43 a day to house a healthy cat. Since president Jan McHugh-Smith was hired a year ago, she has scaled back or eliminated internationally known behavior and medical services that had saved thousands of animals over the years.

Employees and volunteers were alarmed at the recent closure of the 30-year-old Hearing Dog Program, along with major changes to adoption policies, cutbacks to the Cat Behavior Program, and the loss of the volunteer Affection Eaters program, which might have been able to help Tulane.

The cutbacks and new policies have caused at least seven staffers to quit, as well as an uncertain number of volunteers. Some of them have organized into two groups who are vowing to expose the new policies even if it means that donors, the lifeblood of the nonprofit, stop cutting checks.

You might expect a group named Cat Crusaders to have a membership of little old ladies with large tabby appliqués sewn on the front of their bright orange sweaters. But that isn't the case. Among the 50 Cat Crusaders, who comprise former SF/SPCA staffers and past and present volunteers, are accountants, teachers, attorneys, an engineer, and a Ph.D medical researcher.

Recently, about 35 of them were jammed into a small classroom brainstorming ideas for their new organization. As quickly as they pitched ideas, former volunteer Julene Johnson wrote them on a blackboard. "We need to send a letter to the board of directors," one person says. "I say we start a media blitz — does anyone know somebody at the Chronicle?" another asks.

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.

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.

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.

Local groups like Give Me Shelter Cat Rescue, Rocket Dog Rescue, and Grateful Dogs Rescue say their meager resources are now severely strained because the SF/SPCA is taking far fewer problem dogs and cats, those who are ill or have behavior problems. These animals are more expensive to maintain in the shelter and tougher to adopt out.

"There's been a trend where they've been taking fewer and fewer problem animals from ACC," Bajsel of Give Me Shelter says. "They just passed on four cats who had resolvable medical conditions: ringworm, upper respiratory infections. I know the SPCA denies they pass on a lot of these cats, but I'm the one ACC is calling to come and get them."

Rocket Dog Rescue volunteer Kay Hoskins rode her 1970s-era bicycle up to the ACC shelter on 15th Street. Her job is to find foster homes for dogs on the verge of euthanasia. She's an energetic woman with brown hair that falls on the shoulders of her black sweater, which has a light patina of dog hair. Her green eyes widen slightly when she talks about saving the dogs with behavior problems, the misunderstood dogs she calls "angels."

"Last month we took a dog that nobody wanted because it nipped at people, and guess what? She's living with a new family and she's an angel," she says.

Hoskins was visiting two dogs she's trying to find foster homes for: Chunky, a five-year-old Labrador-shepherd mix, and Oliver, a three-year-old pit bull mix. She checked in at the front counter and then headed to the kennels. After spending time with Chunky and Oliver in their runs, she walked along a concrete walkway to look at the recent arrivals. Hoskins stopped in her tracks at the run of a young female border collie with a healthy gold-brown coat. The dog was excited to have a visitor and struggled to stay in a self-imposed sitting position while Hoskins read her chart.

The dog's time was about up. She was due to be put down within a day or two, maybe sooner, depending on space. "She doesn't have a name," Hoskins says. "She must have been a stray."

She unlocked the run door and stepped in. The dog nuzzled Hoskins' thigh and then stood on her hind legs, gently wrapping her forepaws around Hoskins' waist. "She's an angel," Hoskins says. "Did you see how she put her arms around me? Is Butterscotch too corny for a name? It fits her coloring."

Hoskins stepped out of the run and reread the newly christened dog's chart. Butterscotch is apparently good with people, but behaves poorly with other dogs.

Hoskins went back out front to ask for a "dog-to-dog" demonstration. Maybe the behavior problem was manageable. But a kennel attendant named Betsy advised against it. Butterscotch's reaction to other dogs was so strong, she might redirect aggression at her handler.

Hoskins was not ready to give up. She put a temporary hold on Butterscotch so she could make some phone calls.

In the heyday of the SF/SPCA's no-kill movement, a dog like Butterscotch would have had a chance to work with a certified dog behaviorist who had the space and resources to possibly make a difference in her behavior. But the SF/SPCA has shifted its focus to a large animal hospital, which is under construction just across the street. Now dogs like Butterscotch have become impractical.

Hoskins sat on a bench outside and talked with Rocket Dog Rescue's founder, Pali Boucher, who was out of town. "I know ... I know," Hoskins said into her cell phone. "All right. No, I'll tell them now. Bye."

Boucher puts complete faith in the kennel attendants, especially Betsy. Rocket Dog Rescue does not have kennel space to isolate a dog with Butterscotch's behavior problem, and it's too risky to put her in a foster home.

The late afternoon sun is warm, and Hoskins lingers before going in to talk with the clerk. "I'm not the one who usually does this. Pali usually denies the dogs," she says in a soft voice. "This is tough because I know what it means, and she's such an angel."

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