San Francisco: The Nation's First Adoption Guarantee City

2000 by Richard Avanzino

Audience: Executive Leadership, Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers, Veterinary Team

The San Francisco SPCA is considered a national leader in the animal welfare movement and the question is frequently asked, "how did it happen?" The fact is, the organization moved forward incrementally.

From 1979 to 1989, the focus was on building innovative new programs for adoption, spay/neuter and animal behavior. In 1989, the agency gave up its animal control contract and went no-kill. And in 1994, The SF/SPCA signed a landmark agreement with the City's Department of Animal Care and Control, guaranteeing a loving home for every healthy San Francisco cat and dog.

Richard Avanzino, SF/SPCA President from 197701999 explains the twists and turns of these milestones in the interview below:

Part One: Giving Up the Animal Control Contract

Q. Rich, when did you first consider giving up The SF/SPCA's animal control contract?

A. Believe it or not, the third day after I was hired. It wasn't that I had a flash of genius: the Board of Directors focused my attention on this issue because every single year at contract negotiation time, the Society was in a battle with the City over funding. And it appeared that this battle would never end (and it didn't). We were absolutely adamant that we would not compromise the quality of humane treatment and care for the animals entrusted to us and yet the City wasn't providing us with enough money to adequately do the job. Increasingly, we had to make up the difference with charitable dollars. Giving up the contract seemed like the best option for the long term. In 1978, we said in our magazine, "As a humane society, our obligation is to insist that the City recognize its responsibility to allocate enough funds for the humane and proper care of its animals. That obligation exists for us, with or without the contract." For our next long-range plan, the Board asked me to give them a phase out plan for getting out of animal control and an operational model for life without the contract.

Q. In addition to funding disagreements, were there other considerations?

A. Yes. As I said, being tied to the contract detracted from our ability to serve the animals. By receiving government money, we were at the behest of bureaucrats who wanted to establish a type of service that was very different from our own organizational vision. We wanted to define our own destiny and set our own standard for helping animals in need. Enforcing pooper scooper laws and killing animals were definitely not a part of our organizational agenda.

Q. When did you tell the City you wanted out?

A. In 1984, as part of our annual contract negotiations, we insisted that the City develop an official prototype on how it would perform animal control as a municipal function. We wanted to put the City on notice that we weren't planning to contract forever.

Q. And did the City put a prototype together?

A. In a nutshell - no. It took them three years to develop a prototype and a transition plan. Two years later, we signed a contract to perform animal control for 1988-89 and gave official notice that we would not renew our contract the following year.

Q. So now you're at crunch time. Were you and the Board nervous?

A. Absolutely. This was a huge deal. We had been "the pound" for 101 years and now we're looking at going over a cliff into uncharted waters. A month before we gave our final notice, the Board convened a retreat to discuss our options for the last time. We looked at the risks and benefits of the separation for the animals, the organization and the community and we identified a lot of fears and concerns. We worried about the animal's care, negative press, a feeling among our membership that we were abandoning the animals, and similar concerns among the staff. And we worried about the kind of job the City would do and how the community at large would respond. We expected the worst but not one of those worries actually came to pass.

Q. Did you work in advance to prepare your membership for the separation?

A. Definitely. Way back in 1978 we wrote a three page-article in our magazine titled A Tradition In Question. In it, we explained the dilemma we were in with City and laid out a rationale for giving up the contract. Over the years, we kept our membership apprised of this tenuous situation through a variety of mailings. When we were really nearing the end point, we did a six-page piece in the magazine that laid out every single issue and argument about the contract. And the day after we gave final notice to the City, we sent a personalized letter to every single Society member. Preparing our members for the separation was invaluable for maintaining their support. We received fewer than ten letters from our contributors telling us not to separate.

Q. Weren't you scared about the financial ramifications of giving up the contract?

A. At the time we gave up the contract, it was providing us with 1.8 million dollars annually. Our total budget was about five million dollars. Obviously, we were walking away from a significant chunk of our revenue stream. It's interesting to note, we were subsidizing the contract with more than one million of our charitable dollars. But clearly, there was concern about our economic future. We expected to have a 1.2 million shortfall the first year and continue on in deficit spending at a lesser rate over the next four years. The fact is, after our first year in which we had to use about $30,000 of our reserves, we reached a budget equilibrium and never looked back. History proves the financial wisdom of this decision. Today, the Society's budget, combined with animal control, totals nearly 16 million dollars, providing the animals with almost ten times more money than they had in 1989.

Q. Obviously, then, your members were forthcoming with more dollars...

A. Yes they were. I never believed our members wanted to use their dollars to pay for government services or support the massive killing of animals. I did believe our members and the community would support a safety net for the animals and generously pay for expanded services for animal care. Maybe I shouldn't say this, but in my entire tenure, I never talked to our members about our animal control work, only our philanthropic work. I believe this strategy created a constituency that gave generously to our charitable work and allowed for a successful separation from animal control.

Q. What do you think were the major factors in your successful separation?

A. Key points were that the move was carefully planned and set up over an adequate period of time. But I think any organization considering a separation should really base their decision on what they believe is in the best interest of the animals. That was ultimately what caused our decision and making the change enabled us to be in sync with our mission. We were founded to protect our communities animals and provide for their well being, not to perform animal control or kill cats and dogs. The killing function is a government responsibility and passing it off to a humane organization through a contract is a disconnect. For 101 years, the reputation of The SF/SPCA was, "that's the place where animals are killed". That was not the purpose of our organization. You can't be the animal's best friends and be their principal killer.

Q. Do you think your giving up the animal control contract in 1989 had a broader significance?

A. I actually do. Before we did it, everyone thought we were bluffing. No one believed we would actually turn our backs on nearly two million dollars per year, abandon a 101 year history or give up the advantages that come with being a government contractor. But we did it, and I think it changed the dynamic around the country, giving more leverage to those who continue to contract. In other words, when a contracting agency voices their upset and concern today, I believe the politicians take them much more seriously and know that if push comes to shove, they will walk away. In addition, the success of The SF/SPCA after the separation clearly got noticed by animal welfare groups around the country. This is evidenced by all the organizations that have subsequently given up their own contracts including the ASPCA in New York.

Part Two: Going No Kill

Q. OK, Rich, the contract is history. What happened next?

A. The next thing we had to do, and we actually started working on this about a year before we ended the contract, was to let the community know about the change in animal service providers. It was critical to explain the new role of both The SF/SPCA and the Department of Animal Care and Control in order to avoid annoyance and confusion. We were fortunate to have the pro bono assistance of a Marketing/Communications firm who helped guide us through the process. For example, they suggested we mail a brochure to every San Francisco resident to explain the services of each organization. They also gave us advice on publicity, suggesting, for example, that we meet with the editorial board of the leading regional newspaper to ask for editorial support (which the newspaper in fact provided.)

Q. How did you shape your message and explain your new purpose?

A. Way back when we first started talking about separating from animal control we were frequently asked, what will The SF/SPCA do now? In our 1988 magazine article, The Animal Control Dilemma, we talked about how we would expand our life-saving services like adoption outreach and foster care. And we said even then that "with a more clearly focused agenda, we could achieve our objectives more quickly. First, we could reach our 100% adoption goal, and achieve zero pet overpopulation in San Francisco...." By the time we mailed our city-wide brochure, we were able to elaborate on our life-saving goals in a more sophisticated and clearly defined way. We also emphasized the very real and positive effects of separating from animal control, stressing for example, that now two agencies were working on behalf of the animals, providing them with more than twice as much staff, more than twice as much space and more than twice as much money. And we talked about how we would insure the success of the new Department of Animal Care and Control by rescuing animals from the City shelter and saving their lives, too.

Q. So did you start talking about no- kill at this time?

A. Actually, we did not. The day our contract ended, we stopped killing adoptable and treatable animals. But in those first years, we talked to the community about saving the life of every adoptable animal that came into our care. We purposely didn't use the term no-kill in deference to all of the animal welfare groups in the bay area to whom no-kill was offensive.

Q. And in those transition months, did things go smoothly, both with Animal Control and with the community at large?

A. Things went amazingly well. The community adjusted to the change without any problems. And with our prompting, the City opened its new Shelter literally right down the street from us in a converted City-owned building. (That made it easy for us to walk there and pick up animals.) At our urging, they hired our animal control staff. And they chose as their director a former SF/SPCA staff person who had worked for me in Shelter operations for five years. As a result, we really didn't have to worry about the quality of care or service the animals were receiving at animal control.

Q. What was life like at that point at The SF/SPCA?

A. It was an adjustment but in a good way. Initially, we had far fewer animals so we increasingly rescued animals from the City shelter, and accepted animals from out of county. We seriously enlarged our existing programs like adoption Outreach, Foster Care and our Volunteer Program. Three areas got huge: Animal Behavior, Medical Rehabilitation and Spay/Neuter. As animals stayed with us longer, we wanted to make sure existing behavior problems didn't worsen or new ones develop. In addition, we started to focus more on saving older and more troubled animals. Hence, a one-person animal behavior department grew to three staff and hundreds of volunteers. For medical rehab, we created a whole new 30- person department to treat the medical conditions of sick, injured and underage treatable animals. We even remodeled a wing of our building to accommodate this new medical emphasis, and added a state of the art, high-volume spay/neuter theatre. We pioneered early age spay/neuter, altered every animal prior to adoption, and created new spay/neuter incentives to get more animals fixed. At the same time, we expanded our publicity and community awareness programs to tell everyone about our new life-saving successes and ask them to help fund it. The results were unbelievable. In 1988 we had 27,000 members, 601volunteers and an annual budget of approximately 3 million (not including the animal control contract). Today, there are more than 90,000 members, 2,000 volunteers and an annual budget of 12.8 million.

Q. And so all was bliss in 1989?

A. Not entirely. We were saving all of the healthy and treatables at The SF/SPCA but we wanted to do more. We wanted to establish an adoption guarantee to save the life of every adoptable cat and dog in the city and county of San Francisco. And so we started to think about formalizing an agreement with the Department of Animal Care and Control that would enable that to happen. Those negotiations and their aftermath were one of the most interesting and challenging chapters of my 22 year tenure at The SF/SPCA.

Part Three: Signing the Adoption Agreement with Animal Control

Q. Rich, you said earlier you wanted to formalize an agreement with Animal Care and Control. Since you were already taking Animal Care and Control (ACC) animals, why was this so important?

A. First, even though the numbers were small, adoptable animals were still dying at ACC. An agreement could insure that all of the healthy animals were saved. We reckoned that once we had something in writing, we could then issue a citywide adoption guarantee. And here's why we thought a guarantee was so critical. We believed that pet owners who abandoned their animals on the streets did so because they feared their family pet would die if surrendered to an animal shelter. And this started a cycle of death: there was a perception the animal would die, which led to the fear of using the shelter, which led to abandonment and neglect, which put the animal at risk of injury, illness and uncontrolled breeding, which led to sick and injured animals being debilitated and impounded, which led to euthanasia once the animals were picked up and taken to animal control. By proclaiming loud and clear that no healthy adoptable cat or dog would die in any city shelter and backing it up with a written agreement, we believed we could break this cycle. People would have the confidence to bring their animals into the shelter and not abandon them and these healthy animals could then be placed. Not having to pick up and kill sick and injured animals would save the taxpayers money. And although this would mean more animals coming into shelters in the short term, in the long term, we felt this would reduce shelter populations and shelter deaths.

Q. Sounds good. How did ACC feel about your idea?

A. There was not a lot of enthusiasm for this agreement. After a long period of inaction, we decided to try a new tack: a proposed City ordinance called the adoption Act. The ordinance would have made it against the law for a public animal control agency or humane society to kill an adoptable dog or cat. And that's when all hell broke loose.

Q. What happened?

A. When we took the Act before the Animal Welfare Commission (as a precursor to going to the Board of Supervisors), ACC, who sits on the Commission, came out against it.

Q. On what grounds?

A. First, the agency said that an adoption guarantee would prompt pet owners to casually surrender their animals to the shelter for any reason. In other words, ACC believed that the threat of a death sentence was what kept pets in their homes. By contrast, we thought it was precisely that fear that led to abandonment. We believed that rather than blame or punish people who brought their pet to the shelter it was better to be non-judgmental and instill in people the trust that the animal shelter would give animals a second chance at life. ACC also said that if we told the public that adoptable animals were no longer dying, people would think pet overpopulation was solved and would no longer spay or neuter their animals.

Q. How did the animal welfare community feel about the proposed ordinance?

A. We got letters of support from the Cat Fanciers' Association, the American Dog Owners Association and from the San Francisco Dog Training Club. However, the California Animal Control Directors Association railed against it. And we were vilified by our animal welfare neighbors. Four of the largest bay area shelters asked their Board to write letters of condemnation to our Board. Then they started negative publicity campaigns, both internally to their own membership and externally to the local media. We had obviously touched a raw nerve - and the reaction was strong and swift.

Q. But this proposed ordinance didn't affect other counties. What was the deal?

A. Although all of the animal welfare agency letters we received echoed many of ACC's arguments, there was the real fear, both stated and implied, that this legislation would bring public scrutiny to their own operations, encouraging challenges to the status quo with comments like, "if they can do it in San Francisco, why can't we do it here?" There was also the concern that this legislation might surface in their own counties or cities if people believed it was an effective way to stop the killing.

Q. So how was the whole Adoption Act issue resolved?

A. The Chairman of the Animal Welfare Commission came forward and urged The SF/SPCA and ACC to put aside their differences and work together on a non-legislative agreement. On April 1, 1994, both agencies signed the Adoption Pact, which provided the adoption guarantee, stating The SF/SPCA would take any adoptable animals the City couldn't place, and work towards saving all the treatable animals as well.

Q. And was the agreement satisfactory?

A. It was great for the animals. The year before the Agreement was signed (calendar year 1993), 5,712 cats and dogs were killed in San Francisco. Of those, 131 were adoptable, 2,603 were treatable and 2,947 non-rehabilitatable. From 1994 to the present, no adoptable cats or dogs have been killed in a San Francisco shelter.* Impounds have dropped to only 10,181. And according to a joint report from both The SF/SPCA and ACC, in 1999 at both facilities, there were only 873 treatable cat and dog deaths and 1,961 non-rehabilitable deaths for a total city-wide of 2,916 cat and dog deaths (again, compared to 5,712 in '93). This is a human population/animal death ratio unmatched by any other urban center in the United States.

Q. Did implementing the Pact work out for the two organizations?

A. It was difficult at best and at times it was actually rocky. I often likened the relationship with ACC to a marriage. Our aggressiveness in getting the adoption Pact signed and publicizing the adoption guarantee's lifesaving results created hard feelings and difficult peer relationships for ACC. These feelings exist to this day although with a new leader at the helm of The SF/SPCA, I know things have improved. Could we have achieved the same results in other ways? I really don't know. I only know that thousands of four-legged creatures are walking on this earth today because of the adoption Pact.

Q. Do you have any advice for groups who want to work cooperatively with their municipal agencies but are running into brick walls or hostility?

A. Working partnerships are always difficult. This is especially true when organizations have different agendas, needs, philosophies, employers, constituents and histories as is usually the case with municipal animal control and private shelters. Throw in conflicting personalities or other variables and it can really be tough. Sometimes, the barriers come from outside. As groups try to put collaborations together, they should be prepared for external critics, those who would try to disrupt, discourage and prevent a partnership from going forward. This can take the form of verbal attacks, or unfair representations in the media. But it's all about keeping your eye on the goal. The insults, innuendo and criticisms have got to be ignored. All that really matters is
saving lives.

*Some pit bulls terriers have been euthanized but there is a dispute as to their classification.

Part Four: The Adoption Pact


The San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals ("The SF/SPCA") and the San Francisco Department of Animal Care and Control ("SF/DACC") share a common purpose in saving animals' lives, preventing animal suffering, and eliminating animal abandonment. In an effort to achieve this common purpose, the SF/SPCA and SF/DACC hereby agree as follows:

1. Adoption guarantee for "adoptable" Cats and Dogs.

1.1 SF/DACC guarantees that it will not euthanize any "adoptable" cat or dog and that, if it is not able to place a "adoptable" cat or dog through its own adoption programs, it will offer the cat or dog to the SF/SPCA.

1.2 The SF/SPCA guarantees that it will take an "adoptable" cat or dog offered to it by SF/DACC and that it will hold the cat or dog until it arranges for the adoption of the cat or dog into a suitable home.

1.3 The above guarantees shall apply only to "adoptable" cats and dogs who resided in San Francisco prior to surrender or impoundment.

2. "Treatable" Cats and Dogs.

2.1 The SF/SPCA and SF/DACC shall work together towards ending the euthanasia of "treatable" cats and dogs.

2.2. If the SF/SPCA requests any available "treatable" cat or dog from SF/DACC, SF/DACC shall give the cat or dog to The SF/SPCA; provided, however, that SF/DACC shall have the right to treat the cat or dog and make it available for adoption through its own programs.

3. Definitions.

3.1 The SF/SPCA and SF/DACC are categorizing cats and dogs as "adoptable," "treatable," or non-rehabilitable" solely for the purposes of the Agreement.

3.2 SF/DACC shall have the right to define the terms "adoptable", "treatable," and "non-rehabilitatable," and The SF/SPCA agrees to abide by those definitions for the purposes of this Agreement. Without restricting that right, both parties currently contemplate the following guidelines:

3.2.1. "adoptable" shall include only those cats and dogs 8 weeks of age or older that at, or subsequent to, the time the animal is impounded or otherwise taken into possession, have manifested no sign of a behavioral or temperamental defect that could pose a health or safety risk or otherwise make the animal unsuitable for placement as a pet, and have manifested no sign of disease, injury, congenital or hereditary condition that adversely affects the health of the animal, or that is likely to adversely affect the animal's health in the future.

3.2.2. "Treatable" shall include any cat or dog who is not "adoptable", but who could become so with reasonable efforts.

3.2.3 "Non-rehabilitatable" shall include: 1) cats and dogs for whom euthanasia is the most humane alternative due to disease or injury, 2) vicious cats and dogs, the placement of whom would constitute a danger to the public, 3) cats and dogs who pose a public health hazard, and 4) cats and dogs the adoption of whom would violate SF/DACC policy.

4. Public Information.

4.1 The SF/SPCA and SF/DACC shall each portray this Agreement, the partnership it represents, and the other party to the Agreement in a positive and cooperative light.

4.2 To ensure that the public is provided with complete and accurate information, The SF/SPCA and SF/DACC agree that euthanasia statistics should not be reported out of context. Accordingly, where necessary and practicable, in "public communications:"

4.2.1 Any statement regarding the number of cats and dogs euthanized in San Francisco shall include full and complete disclosure of the euthanasia statistics for each organization and shall include the number of cats and dogs euthanized in all categories as defined pursuant to this Agreement.

4.2.2. Any statement regarding the effect of this Agreement on reducing or eliminating the euthanasia of cats and dogs in San Francisco and/or the existence or non-existence of "pet overpopulation" in San Francisco shall include full and complete euthanasia statistics as described in 4.2.1

4.2.3. Any statement regarding the guarantees under Section 1 of this Agreement shall include full and complete disclosure that these guarantees apply only to "adoptable" cats and dogs who resided in San Francisco prior to surrender or impoundment.

4.3 For the purposes of this Section 4, the term "public communications" shall include any oral or written press releases, publications, reports, media interviews, public presentations, or other similar type communications issued individually or jointly and any promotional or other literature issued individually or jointly, by either organization.

5. Implementing Procedures.

The SF/SPCA and SF/DACC have jointly developed written implementing procedures to facilitate the effective and efficient implementation of this Agreement. If either party fails to substantially comply with the implementing procedures, the other party shall have no further responsibilities or obligations under this Agreement.

6. Termination.

Notwithstanding anything herein to the contrary, The SF/SPCA and SF/DACC shall each have the absolute right to revoke this Agreement at any time by written instrument delivered to the other organization, and any such revocation shall be effective upon receipt.


Dated this__________day of _______________________1994.


The San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals


Richard Avanzino, President


San Francisco Department of Animal Care and Control


Carl Friedman, Director


Please see our Code of Conduct guidelines.