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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

The San Francisco No-Kill Model

When people talk about the San Francisco model of No Kill, they are usually referring to a set of programs that were developed by Richard Avanzino and his team at the San Francisco SPCA in the 1980s and early 1990s. The team developed lots of programs, but some of the most important were fostering (1980), mobile adoptions (1980), animal behavior (1983), pediatric spay-neuter (1989), landlord-tenant assistance (1991), and Feral Fix (1993). Underlying all of these programs and extending through the 1980s and 1990s were the volunteer program, modern marketing, community engagement, provision of veterinary care, and spay-neuter efforts. Avanzino says that the volunteers were particularly important because many of the programs grew out of ideas originally suggested by volunteers.

A lot of attention has been devoted to the San Francisco programs, and rightfully so, because they have proven to be the foundation of No Kill. We can accurately say that No Kill, as far as the programs were concerned, was in place in San Francisco by 1993.

But there is another piece of the puzzle that is often overlooked by people who focus solely on the programs, and that is the importance of cooperation in making No Kill work in San Francisco. Up until 1989 the San Francisco SPCA held the contract to provide animal control and sheltering for the city. In that year, the SPCA gave up the contract and the city created its own agency to do animal control and sheltering. From 1989 on, the role of the SPCA was to support the city shelter, not to be the city shelter.

It turned out that the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. The two agencies – the San Francisco SPCA and the new city Department of Animal Care and Control – were so effective that the live release rate for the city increased substantially. In 1994 Rich was able, in spite of initial resistance, to get the city to agree to sign the historic Adoption Pact. The Adoption Pact guaranteed a home to every adoptable dog and cat that entered the shelter system in San Francisco. “Adoptable” meant healthy and of reasonably good temperament. Animals who were old, blind, deaf, or handicapped were considered adoptable if they were medically healthy.

The fact that the city agency did the work of animal control and basic sheltering meant that the SPCA could focus on saving the animals who were not adoptable due to health or behavior conditions. In addition to taking in overflow of healthy animals that the city shelter could not place, the SPCA saved many of the treatable animals as well. The combined system had more resources (because the city was paying its share), and the division of responsibility allowed the agencies to increase their efficiency.

The years since 1994 have shown us that the San Francisco programs by themselves can work well in smaller communities, especially if those communities are progressive and the shelter is a private humane society. In a community of up to 150,000 or so people, a single organization can do very well just by implementing the programs. Examples that come to mind are the shelters in Otsego County (MI), Charlottesville (VA), Lynchburg (VA), and Tompkins County (NY), all of which operate as the sole shelters in their communities.

In larger cities, though, what we usually see is a cooperative effort with at least two large agencies working together. A few example are Jacksonville (the city agency works with the Jacksonville Humane Society and First Coast No More Homeless Pets), Washoe County (the city agency works with the Nevada Humane Society), Austin (the city agency works with Austin Pets Alive! and the Austin Humane Society), and Richmond (the city agency works with the Richmond SPCA). Informal consortiums of many organizations and agencies working together have also been effective. Examples are New York City and the metro areas of Denver and Portland, Oregon.

The bottom line is that the San Francisco programs are important, but efficiency derived from sharing of tasks is also an important component of No Kill success, especially in larger communities. Indeed, cooperation may be the fastest, surest way for most large communities to get to No Kill. No Kill advocates who are frustrated with a slow pace of progress in their communities may want to look at the structure of sheltering locally. Does the agency that handles animal control and sheltering have enough support? If not, what can advocates do to provide that support? No Kill seems to require an infrastructure that is strong enough to allow the No Kill programs to be deployed, and in larger cities that may mean that the shelter should not have to go it alone.


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