Richard Avanzino achieved the "impossible" in San Francisco and
in the process launched the No Kill revolution in America.
April 1 is right around the corner. We will have our fun. We will pull our pranks. We will wake our spouses and partners and tell them something they’ve been waiting—or dreading—to hear, only to follow up with an “April Fool’s” retort. But one thing is no April Fool’s Joke. April 1 also has a far more important—and deadly serious—significance. In my humble view, it is one of the most important days in the history of animal sheltering, right up there with the day Henry Bergh incorporated the ASPCA in New York City, the first in the nation.
Sixteen years ago, on April 1, 1994, after months of negotiation and the threat of a public initiative, Richard Avanzino, then President of the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals signed the Adoption "Pact", a memorandum of understanding between the SF/SPCA and the city shelter that guaranteed a home for every healthy dog and cat in San Francisco. Each and every healthy dog and cat who entered the city's pound would be saved—no matter how many there were or how long it took to find them a home.
Redemption tells the history of the No Kill revolution.
It was a historic beginning of an altogether different future for shelter animals—not of certain death as had been the case nationwide since before the turn of the century, but a future that held promise, protection, and a new chance at life. As the front door at 2500 16th Street in San Francisco slowly swung open that morning, the first battle flag of the No Kill revolution was being raised.
I write about it in Redemption:
After the first year of the Adoption Pact, the deaths of healthy animals in San Francisco shelters dropped to zero, and the deaths of sick and injured animals dropped by nearly 50 percent, at a time when most major urban cities were killing upwards of 80 percent of cats and over half of the dogs. Although many agencies were seeing increases in their death rates, or posting only modest declines, San Francisco’s death rate had plummeted. In the first five years of the Adoption Pact, cat deaths declined by over 70 percent, kitten deaths by over 80 percent, and dog deaths by two-thirds. Of greater national significance, what the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Humane Society of the United States, and virtually every animal shelter in the country kept saying was an impossibility became a reality for the fourth largest city in the country’s most populous state.
The pet loving public, of course, supported the effort enthusiastically with hearts, homes, and wallets. People adopted San Francisco shelter pets in record numbers. The number of shelter volunteers skyrocketed. The SPCA continued to amass an impressive endowment as donations soared. Five years after relinquishing the animal control contract, the San Francisco SPCA went from “the place where animals are killed” to where they were guaranteed a home—a guarantee that extended to the city pound. With a huge groundswell of support, Avanzino took a SPCA on the verge of bankruptcy in a city that took in over 20,000 animals per year, the vast majority of whom were killed, and turned it into the safest urban community for homeless pets in the United States.
Ultimately, Avanzino’s most important legacy was the paradigm shift he took from the hypothetical to the real, with a series of programs and services that lowered birthrates, increased adoptions, and helped keep animals with their caretakers. His wasn’t the first No Kill shelter; others had been doing it on varying scales for years. Unlike other shelters without animal control contracts, however, he focused all the resources of the San Francisco SPCA to extend their lifesaving guarantee throughout the city. So that each and every healthy homeless dog or cat, no matter what shelter they entered in San Francisco, would be guaranteed a home.
By the time Avanzino left the SPCA, San Francisco’s rate of shelter killing was a fraction of the national average and over thirty times less than communities with the highest death rates. And while his successors would ultimately dismantle many of the programs that had made San Francisco into America’s first and, at the time, only city saving all healthy dogs and cats, the proverbial Rubicon had been crossed. The San Francisco SPCA had fired the first volley, and with it began a revolution.
The San Francisco SPCA redefined sheltering nationwide.
Thanks to what transpired that day, we also stopped chasing phantoms of the movement’s unfounded dogmas about who was responsible for the killing and began to focus our advocacy on reforming the true causes: the cruel and barbaric practices of the very shelters that were doing the killing. We learned who our real enemies were, and who they were not. Prior to San Francisco’s seminal achievement, the humane movement was (erroneously) united in its perception of who was to blame for the killing—the public—and the hopelessness that it would ever end. But after San Francisco’s achievement, we learned that our fight was not with the many, but with the few: the national organizations which clinged to a tradition of killing, regressive shelter directors who found killing easier than doing what was necessary to stop it, and uncaring bureaucrats who protected and promoted callous shirkers who neglect and abuse the shelter animals in their custody.
Again I turn to Redemption,
One would have expected that these groups would have gone to San Francisco and brought back with them the “cure” for the disease of shelter killing. It was, at the very least, worth a try, even if they were not convinced of its potential. Since San Francisco was the first major metropolitan city in the United States that had successfully ended the killing of healthy dogs and cats, one would have expected them to seize upon any remedy that showed promise...That is what ethics demanded. But, tragically, it did not occur.
Nothing was so unique about San Francisco that its success could not be replicated elsewhere, in each and every American city and county. The only difference was leadership; instead of following Avanzino’s lead, many shelters and their national allies went on the defensive. The “old guard”—the presidents, vice-presidents, executive directors, and general counsels—ignored and/or denigrated the programs that made lifesaving success possible in San Francisco, while animals continued to be needlessly killed by the millions.
Historian John Barry writes that “Institutions reflect the cumulative personalities of those within them, especially their leadership. They tend, unfortunately, to mirror less admirable human traits, developing and protecting self-interest and even ambition. They try to [create] order [not by learning from others or the past, but]… by closing off and isolating themselves from that which does not fit. They become bureaucratic.”
One of the fundamental downsides of bureaucracies is their focus on self-preservation at the expense of their mission. And in the case of animal shelters and the national allies who supported them, this bureaucracy led to the unnecessary killing of animals.
These agencies—and their leadership—would ignore the success in San Francisco, would not send teams to find out how it was successful, and would not similarly reduce the killing in their own communities. They would put the interest—indeed the very lives—of the animals aside, instead promulgating an anti-No Kill rhetoric with a surprising level of venom and with no valid basis for doing so.
Despite their efforts to derail reform, other communities have taken the programs and services that made success in San Francisco possible and have not only equaled, but surpassed San Francisco’s groundbreaking achievement. Today, there are communities across the United States that have eliminated the killing of healthy and treatable animals. No Kill communities exist in California, New York, Nevada, Virginia, Kansas, Kentucky, Utah, Indiana, and elsewhere. And in more and more communities, they are aggressively moving in that direction: places like Duluth, MN and Wilmington, DE where death rates have plummeted by as much as 70% since they began following the No Kill Equation model of sheltering.
Today, the No Kill paradigm is the only legitimate standard for animal sheltering in the U.S. and it is quickly—in less than one generation—turning the status quo upside down. Much like General Sherman’s March to the Sea, the No Kill movement is working its way across the country as it burns to the ground the remaining vestiges of the “catch and kill” regime it is replacing.
Our eyes are now increasingly on other communities—places like Austin, Texas, King County, Washington, New York City, and elsewhere—where reform efforts are making headway against those who cling to a tradition of killing. And as our movement achieves even greater success, it is my hope that we will celebrate “No Kill Day” the way our country celebrates other seminal events in our nation's history, as our cause is as righteous and worthy as those that have come before.
I hope you take a little time this April 1 to reflect on what we are doing, and join me for a nationwide toast to how far we have come. And while millions of animals continue to face death in shelters in regressive communities, thanks to what transpired a decade and a half ago, I have every faith that, as we continue our noble quest, we will not let them down.
Subscribe to articles from Nathan J. Winograd: If you would like to receive an e-mail when new articles are available from Nathan Winograd, click on the "subscribe" button at the top of the page.
If you like Nathan's articles, you'll love his books. Redemption is the most acclaimed book on animal shelters ever written and the winner of five national book awards. His new book, Irreconcilable Differences, is a collection of essays on animals, animal lovers, and the No Kill revolution.
Visit his bookstore by clicking here.
Comments must adhere to the terms and conditions of the comments policy.