Best Friends Blog

Sealing the deal: Rich Avanzino and the San Francisco model for no-kill Part II

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 took the helm of the San Francisco SPCA in 1976 after a long period of that agency’s decline in popularity and support. He quickly turned the fortunes of the organization around by instituting lifesaving policies and programs. In 1984, he advised the city council that the SF SPCA would be out of the animal control business by 1989 and the city needed to come up with a transition plan. In 1989, Avanzino declared the SF SPCA to be a no-kill organization and helped create and staff a new animal care and control agency for San Francisco. His drive to make San Francisco a no-kill city was still taking shape.   

Today, the type of programs that Richard Avanzino introduced to San Francisco in the 1980s and ’90s are taken for granted. If you weren’t engaged in the animal welfare movement at that time, it’s difficult to appreciate how groundbreaking and out of the box the ideas were that he and his staff brought to a traditional organization like the San Francisco SPCA. Back then, virtually every SPCA and Humane Society around the country advocated the now-discredited idea that killing shelter animals was not just a necessary evil but an act of kindness and the only option to address shelter overpopulation. Rather than argue with detractors, Rich continued to move the dial in favor of the animals.

Consider these strategies that he put into place:

  • Foster network of 700 people
  • Program to pay people to fix their pit-bull terriers
  • Program to pay people to fix stray and feral cats
  • Offsite adoptions in business areas
  • Department store promotions
  • Initiative to run eight stories about the work of the SF SPCA in the media every day of the year
  • Building of SF SPCA support base to include fully one-third of the citizens of San Francisco
  • Pit-bull terrier training and adoption program

Avanzino’s watershed achievement, however, was an adoption compact with the city that effectively turned San Francisco into a no-kill community.

Beginning in 1988, a year before he separated the city’s animal control function from the SPCA and passed it back to a newly created city agency – the Department of Animal Care and Control (ACC) – Avanzino set the stage for the next phase of his work by engaging the pro bono services of a marketing firm to prepare the public for the change, advise people of the different functions of the two agencies and point to the concentrated lifesaving focus of SF SPCA that the public could expect. A brochure was sent to every resident of the city laying out the plan and detailing the expectation of a 100 percent adoption target for the SPCA and a commitment to the success of the new agency by rescuing animals from the city shelter and placing them in new homes. That was in 1988 … that’s right, the year the first transatlantic fiber-optic cable was laid, “Rain Man” was the top film, gas was 91 cents a gallon and Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were running the free world.

Once the Department of Animal Care and Control was up and running, the SF SPCA was able to focus on its agenda of turning San Francisco into a no-kill city. They increased their adoption programs along with other services that targeted the needs of the animals. Without the space demands of an animal control function, rescued animals were able to stay at the SPCA for longer periods if need be. Animal behavior, medical rehabilitation and spay/neuter programs grew dramatically, and more challenging animals with behavior and medical issues were afforded more customized care and greater assurance of successful adoptions.

As the agency found its new footing, Rich and his team began to formulate the idea of an adoption guarantee with the city shelter that would save the life of every adoptable animal. Surprisingly, the idea was not met with open arms by the Department of Animal Care and Control, which reasoned that such a formalized arrangement would encourage the public to surrender more animals to the city shelter assuming that it was just a back door to the SF SPCA. Conversely, Rich argued that the fear of utilizing the city shelter as a resource led to pet abandonment on the streets, uncontrolled breeding and more sick and injured animals arriving at the shelters with less chance of adoption.

ACC dragged its feet, and prolonged inaction led Rich to consider a different approach: He proposed a new city ordinance called the Adoption Act. With one-third of the city’s residents as SF SPCA supporters, he knew he had the fire power to make it happen if push came to shove. Finally, the chairman of the Animal Welfare Commission came out urging the SF SPCA and ACC to put aside their differences and work on a non-legislative resolution. On April 1, 1994, both agencies signed the Adoption Pact, which stated that the SF SPCA would take any adoptable animals the city couldn’t place and work towards saving all the treatable animals as well. It was a legally binding contract that obligated the SPCA to prioritize space for city shelter animals. While work remained to accommodate all the treatable animals and more challenging adoptions, that agreement established San Francisco in the rarified air of being the first no-kill city in the nation. Over the course of Richard Avanzino’s tenure in San Francisco, the city went from killing 24,000 animals a year to 2,000, mostly sick or injured dogs and cats. Rich acknowledges that it was still a work in progress when he left SF SPCA in 1998 to lead Maddie’s Fund because they never fully tackled all the treatable animals or all the pit-bull terriers at ACC.

By any measure, Richard Avanzino is a giant of our movement and his influence continues. He is also an optimist and believes that given a chance and a choice, most people will do the right thing. He is inclusive and hopeful to the extent that he extends a hand to the most obdurate and reactionary shelter director much as he would to a grumpy, badly behaved dog. His “no bash, no trash” philosophy is not a “go along to get along” avoidance of conflict, but rather an appreciation that the no-kill philosophy is part of a wider understanding that ends don’t justify means, whether that’s killing animals to solve a shelter population problem, experimenting on animals to find remedies for human disease or bad mouthing and vilifying our opponents to achieve a desirable end. The no-kill movement is for Richard, as it is for Best Friends, part of an alternative to the “business as usual” way of doing things that gave rise to the expedience of killing animals in the first place. If we lose sight of that, we will only create unneeded opposition that will slow our progress.

Gregory Castle                                                                                                 CEO, Best Friends Animal Society

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  • Gregory Castle

    This blog is intended to acknowledge the leadership and innovation that Richard Avanzino provided for our movement while he was at the helm of SF/SPCA.  Following Avanzino’s departure, there has been a falling off in the progress the community made towards no-kill, including the City rejecting the idea of making an official commitment to becoming no-kill, close though the community is to that goal.  These more recent developments highlight the importance of leadership, which Richard Avanzino showed with such life-saving effectiveness.

  • Justin

    As a member of and advocate for the No Kill movement
    in San Francisco, as well as a Best Friends supporter, it is
    discouraging to read articles that are being written about my city which
    are inaccurate and promote San Francisco as maintaining No Kill status.
    San Francisco lost its way years ago and is no longer a leader – or
    even a participant — in the No Kill movement.

    I understand that Richard Avanzino was — ‘was’ being the key word
    — instrumental in laying the groundwork for the No Kill movement in San
    Francisco. The fact of the matter is that he has made a conscious
    effort to distance himself from the issues that have arisen within the
    past few years. The man who proved that No Kill was possible will not
    help the very city where he established his reputation and authority
    within the movement.

    The Department of Animal Care and Control and the SF SPCA continue
    to actively thwart efforts by No Kill advocates, with the support of
    Nathan Winograd, to establish No Kill as city policy, yet Richard
    Avanzino remains silent. You of all people should know the obstacles we
    are facing in this city, having come to speak to the Animal Welfare
    Commission, in support of No Kill.

    I ask that you reevaluate the misinformation you are perpetuating in
    these articles. Many people across the country think San Francisco is a
    No Kill city. It is not, and in fact never fully achieved that status
    in that no safety net was provided to include pitbulls. The more
    misleading information is dispersed by such a well-respected
    organization as Best Friends Animal Society, the more difficult our
    struggle is made, and the misinformation does nothing to help our fight
    to achieve No Kill in San Francisco. I ask that you make a point to
    emphasize the fact that San Francisco is STILL not a No Kill city, and
    that efforts to achieve that have been actively opposed by the SF SPCA,
    the very organization that made Avanzino famous to begin with.

    The No Kill advocates in San Francisco need support from respected
    organizations such as Best Friends. It is clear that the shelters of
    this city are not willing to take the extra steps to achieve No Kill
    despite the fact that we are so close to attaining this goal, and it
    does nothing for our efforts to continue to give credit to an
    organization that is not interested in pursuing what made it the jewel
    of the No Kill movement to begin with. I hope you will reconsider your
    approach in Part 3 of this series. You owe it to all the animals that
    continue to be needlessly killed in San Francisco.

    • Jackie

      Thank you for taking the time to post a very well thought out letter. Great job!

  • Jackie

    Avanzino bailed at the SF/SPCA to take a cushy corporate job with Maddie’s Fund, and left the animal shelter business behind. Shame on him! He never achieved what he set out to do, and he should not receive credit. San Francisco remains a city that kills healthy and adoptable animals. 

    In December 2006, I adopted a healthy, adoptable animal through a rescue group, Grateful Dogs Rescue, after ACC deemed him unadoptable and scheduled him for euthanasia, and after he was surrendered by his owners at the age of nine months. He now is MB-Ch Woodacre’s Court Jester UD RAE RN SR1 TT2 CGC, only the second mixed breed to earn a Utility title through AKC and the first and only to earn the RAE (Rally Advanced Excellent.) The thanks goes to Grateful Dogs Rescue who believed in Dino when everybody else gave up on him. Avanzino had nothing to do and was far away in his cushy corporate job. 

  • Curious

    Has Best Friends created any Open Admission, No Kill shelters or communities?  Just curious.  

    • Jackie

       The key word is “open admission” here. No Kill is easy to achieve in a limited admissions shelter. They only take in animals they deem adoptable and they turn away everything else. No Kill is very difficult to achieve in an open admissions shelter with a contract with the government to provide animal control services. They are required by law to take in every animal, no matter the age or condition. I want to see No Kill in any of the hundreds of urban shelters in this country that are open admissions. Show me No Kill in all the LA/Southern CA urban shelters. Then I will be impressed.

    • Gregory Castle

       Best Friends’ focus has always been on creating community coalitions that include both open-admission and limited-admission organizations working together to bring about No More Homeless Pets.  In 2000 for instance Best Friends established a statewide coalition in our home state of Utah.  That coalition, No More Homeless Pets in Utah, has led to the realization of eight communities with a save rate over 90% (six of which are over 96%).  This work is continuing and includes a 80% save rate for dogs statewide.  In addition Best Friends has inspired and helped many other communities across the country in their drive towards no-kill.

      • Jackie

        If Best Friends want to achieve No Kill, then start in the Los Angeles area shelters and then go to any urban and rural shelters in California. The San Joaquin Valley shelters are overflowing, as are the Sacramento Valley, Bay Area, and North State shelters. 

        I don’t think that Utah is representative of the rest of the country. The population and demographics is nothing compared to 80% of the rest of the country. 

  • San Francisco resident

    With all due respect to Richard Avanzino and Gregory Castle, San Francisco never became a no kill city.   By No Kill, I mean that all adoptable AND treatable / manageable animals are saved.  San Francisco currently kills the treatable/manageable cats and dogs rejected by  both the SF Animal care and Control (ACC) and SF SPCA.  Richard left the helm before a true No Kill city (defined above) was achieved.  Despite multiple, recent attempts to get him involved since his departure from the SF SPCA, Avanzino refuses to get involved.  I have a coffee mug from the “old days”.  It says, “Of all the cities in the US, only one currently guarantees that no adoptable dog or cat will be euthanized.  By the end of this year, only one city in the country will also save every TREATABLE dog or cat in its shelter.  That city is San Francisco. And standing between life and death for all these animals is the SF SPCA.”   San Francisco never saved all adoptable and TREATABLE dogs and cats.   Both ACC and the SF SPCA stand in the way of saving all adoptable and treatable animals.  I hope this failure will be part of the story Part III. 

  • Vix

    It is wonderful what a civilised community can achieve! 

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