Best Friends Blog

Collaboration, transparency, accountability: Rich Avanzino and the San Francisco Model for No-Kill Part I

Editor’s note: In a multipart series over the next several weeks, we’ll be providing an analysis of successful No More Homeless Pets campaigns – how they work, why they work and what distinguishes them from each other to achieve no-kill in their communities.

Richard Avanzino and the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SF SPCA) are to No More Homeless Pets and animal welfare what Bill Walsh, the legendary football coach, and his team, the San Francisco 49ers, are to professional football and the West Coast offense. That is to say Rich is a game changer and a leader whose ideas and protégés infuse our entire movement. Many would arguably call Rich Avanzino the father of the no-kill movement.

In the animal welfare field, where imitation is not only the highest form of flattery but a highly encouraged method for spreading effective programs and policies, Rich’s game plan and out-of-the-box thinking have been renamed and reconfigured but have stood the test of over two decades of real world application.

When Avanzino came to the San Francisco SPCA in 1976, the agency was on its heels. It had become known as the dogcatcher and depended upon its animal control contract with the city of San Francisco for a big chunk of its operating budget. Donors were few, and the public took a dim view of the organization’s policies that reflected the 45-year tenure of Rich’s predecessor. Talk about old school.

In the wider animal welfare world, the big issue of the day was not how to save animals, but how best to kill them in as painless and efficient a manner as possible. The “high altitude,” or decompression, chamber was on the way out and lethal injection was on the way in. Life-saving was a rare and exotic topic.

Upon his arrival at SF SPCA from a successful career in law and business, Rich was shocked at the amount of killing that was taking place at the organization – 29,000 animals per year – and he instinctively began to introduce programs and practices that would save lives and reduce killing. Volunteer and foster programs topped the list.

There were two experiences that shaped Rich’s view and his resolve to put San Francisco on the path to no-kill.

The first was the case of Sido, a little sheltie mix whose owner had committed suicide and left instruction in her will for Sido to be put down since she felt no one could take proper care of her. As it happened, Sido was in the care of SF SPCA following her owner’s death and Rich flat-out refused to comply with the instructions in the late owner’s will. Instead, he took the case to court and at the same time pushed for a legislative resolution through the state. It should be noted that his defense of Sido was opposed by all the national animal welfare organizations that were around in the late 1970s.

Opposition not withstanding, Rich won. Or rather Sido won in both arenas, with then-governor Jerry Brown signing a law that overturned the portion of the owner’s will calling for the dog’s death and the courts’ declaring that disposition of a living creature in a will was different from the disposition of nonliving property. More than the victories in the courts and in the legislature, the “aha! moment” with regard to Sido was the fact that the fate of this little dog had become a cause célèbre across the country. Thousands of people were raising their hand to adopt this older dog. It was clear that with the right story and promotion, there was a home for every animal entering the SF SPCA shelter. The Sido case and all the attendant publicity had the immediate effect of changing the image of the agency from animal catcher to animal defender and was the first kiss, so to speak, in the city’s love affair with the SF SPCA.

The second experience was Avanzino’s visit to New York and his meeting with Mike Arms who was then the leading light at North Shore Animal League, one of the first prominent no-kill organizations in the country. Then as now, North Shore focused exclusively on high-volume adoptions of animals into the New York area. Most of the animals came from area shelters. Mike Arms and North Shore were making a life-saving difference with strong public support and a broad donation base without being engaged in animal control contracts, shelter killing or any of the nonlife-affirming activities that had been the stock in trade of regional humane societies and SPCAs for most of the prior century.

Avanzino began to lay plans for getting the San Francisco SPCA out of the animal control business by developing more and more life-saving programs and policies. He built a loyal following within the city and was able to marginalize the relative financial value of the city contract with the SPCA.

In 1984, he gave a five-year notice to the city that, in 1989, the SPCA would no longer be doing animal control for San Francisco and the city would need to implement a transition plan. In 1988, he gave the city a one-year notice, and, in 1989, the contract was handed back to the city along with a new start-up animal control agency that Avanzino and his staff at the SPCA helped to launch. He invited the new agency to choose from among the SPCA’s best and brightest employees. Carl Friedman, who rose during Rich’s watch from volunteer to director of Animal Welfare and Protection Services for the San Francisco SPCA, took the lead at the newly formed Animal Care and Control. Avanzino’s mantra “no bash, no trash” (i.e., no bad mouthing another animal organization) came to prominence at this time as a guide star for how he expected his staff and volunteers to relate to the new agency and its role as the city’s new animal control agency.

Free of the role, responsibilities and reputation that went with animal control duties, San Francisco  was able to devote more time and energy to innovative, life-saving programs and to realizing Avanzino and his team’s aspirations for a no-kill city, which was still five years down the road.

Part II: Sealing the Deal

Gregory Castle                                                                                                 CEO, Best Friends Animal Society

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  • Linda McClure-Woodham

    The first time I read about Best Friends, I knew in my soul that I belong there.   I live in the deep South; where there are pounds, and few true shelters.   Dead, crushed animals line the sides of highways, and most local governments resist laws & ordinances for stronger laws to protect animals.  Animals given up by owners or picked up by animal control are put to death quickly. Micro chip or not, some of these killing facilities enjoy their ‘work’ very much. (this is a pound in Georgia) 

    The years I did rescue (before my 1st breakdown) I wittnessed every horrible, cruel act a human could inflict on a helpless animal. Dogs who had lived their entire life on a chain, had collars grown into neck flesh. Some survived the surgery to remove the collar, some did not. Many dogs were so thin, they could not stand or walk. Cats are shot, poisened and tortured.  The majority of houses with dogs do not have fences, so the poor creature lives in solitary confinement at the end of a chain for all of its miserable life. There are no Fences for Fido, or Coalition To Unchain Dogs. My husband and I offered to erect a fence for a dog near my mother, but we were met with hostility and insults. 

     There are many like-minded people here doing what they can within strict, anti-animal laws. I need to win a big lottery to create a facillity like Best Friends.  I read every story and blog about Best Friends and marvel at all the good you do. My sincerest wish is to visit your facility and volunteer, to hold and show my love for all you have saved. . My heart and soul ache every single day and night for the plight of animals I see, and can do nothing to help.  I pray God will have mercy on their souls. Yes, I do believe non-human animals have souls.
    Linda McClure-Woodham, East Ridge, TN. 

  • Pingback: Sealing the deal: Rich Avanzino and the San Francisco Model for No-Kill Part II | The Best Friends Blog()

  • Lubinp

    Having lived in SF for many years, and seeing the start and implementation of his progragivec my heartms, all I can think of now is what a good man he is and cannot even fathom how large his heart is and how much warmth radiates from him towards animals and other living things. My partner and i have had dogs for over 25 years, and every one was (and is, Miss CoCo) and cant imagine doing it any other way. I will always remember the joy of picking or getting picked by a dog, and I will always remember one of my dogs picking his new sister and only then did this badly abused beaten and tortured boxer who became the light of my life, come over to me, lean against my leg, jumping into my lap, knockikng the chair over and sitting on me licking me for 15 minutes….Palm Springs, where I live now, has a no kill policy and is in teh process of building a new, state of teh art, no kill shelter with donations from some amaxzing people. I wil lfinally have the time to volunteer and and give my heart to all the residents there. Okay, I have finished running off at the mouth, but remembering that SF policy and the people at the shelter makes me grin….

  • Anonymous

    It is pretty amazing what some people are able to accomplish. I am looking forward to Part II of this story.

    • Jackie

      Everybody is capable of great things. The separation lies within the need for so many people to be popular and liked, so they do not accomplish what they need to because their need to be popular and liked is higher.

      • Anonymous

        That is a good point and definitely part of the reason, but each person is an individual so I am sure, depending on the person, there are other factors involved in what they accomplish in life. Some people just have the ability to make big social changes and have no problem being in the public eye, like this man in the blog, and some go under the radar and do amazing things without ever getting noticed.

  • I am reading the book REDEMPTION, The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No KIll Revolution in America, by Nathan J. Winograd. It is heartbreaking to know that alot of so called shelters still refuse to see that they can truly be a no kill shelter and the HSUS, AVMA and ASPCA should be ashamed at not making it the law of the land. The fact the SFSPCA and Tompkins County SPCA have proved without a doubt it is possible to accomplish a no kill policy, and the HSUS refuses to embrace it. Deplorable!

    • Jackie

      San Francisco is not a no kill city. The public shelter, Animal Care and Control, euthanizes adoptable animals at it shelter on a daily basis. The SPCA is a private shelter next door to ACC, and like all other private shelters, can pick and choose only the most adoptable animals. Compare this to the public shelter, which is required by law to take in all animals, no matter the condition, age, adoptability or medical condition.

      All private shelters should already be no kill because they only take in the most adoptable animals. That is a no brainer. The challenge is to make the government shelters in all US cities and counties so they never have to euthanize an animal due to lack of space. Until that happens, nobody should celebrate anything.

  • CambridgeRatMom

    Why aren’t we this forward-thinking in the Boston area???

  • Jackie

    I grew up in San Francisco, and I was a high school student in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s I also volunteered at the San Francisco SPCA during that timeframe, and I talked to Mr. Avanzino several times while working in the kennels.

    I remembered clearly the story of Sido, and how monumental that case was to all animals. I kept the newspaper photo of Mr. Avanzino and Sido as they walked out of the courthouse and down the stairs. I new at that time what was happening. Your blog does not mention that Mr. Avanzino ended up keeping Sido himself, and they lived a long life together until Sido passed away of old age.

    Every city can use more animal shelters, whether they are private or public, and Mr. Avanzino was one of the first to see how beneficial a private shelter could be to a public shelter, and, in many cities, they do benefit each other. On the other hand, from the public’s point of view, the split is massive, since the terms “kill” and “no kill” still get attached to the shelters, and I don’t think that Mr. Avanzino could have predicted that. One type of shelter is seen as a good guy and one is seen as a bad guy, and that is not right.

    There are many examples of how a non-profit animal shelter with a contract to provide animal control services (which is what the San Francisco SPCA was before the split) can still work wonders. Even here in the Bay Area alone, there are two fabulous examples in the Marin Humane Society and the Peninsula Humane Society. Both are non-profit groups, and both are the only public animal shelters that serve their entire counties. That is no small feat for two counties like Marin and San Mateo counties with such massive, diverse and spread out populations of humans and animals.

    While I definitely do applaud Mr. Avanzino for all the innovative programs he created that benefit animals everywhere, the real blood, sweat and tears still occurs in the public shelters and with the people who choose to stay and not walk away to the private shelter that doesn’t euthanize animals. Until the daily unfortunate fact of euthanasia still occurs, and until animals stop dying from lack of space, no body should rest on their laurels, and nobody should give up and ignore the truth.

  • It’s really great and Rich Avanzino and the San Francisco are great role Model for No-Kill. My best wishes are always with you.

  • Jim_shields

    Too bad that the SF SPCA has gotten so far away from Avanzino’s commitment.