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A Time to Kill 

The SPCA is struggling to finance a new hospital, and one way to save money is to speed up euthanasia.

Wednesday, Jun 11 2008

When feral kittens are put up for adoption at the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, it's usually the health-check technician who gives each one a name. The christening method is random, and ideas might come from a stack of name dictionaries or a roster of baseball players. So two years ago, when someone brought a shy, three-month-old feral into the shelter, there's a good chance a list of universities was used to name the all-black kitten Tulane.

With the right attention, feral kittens are not difficult to tame, and Tulane appeared to be a good adoption candidate, according to his medical log. Volunteers reported he enjoyed having his head petted, and purred contentedly when sitting in their laps.

The person who adopted Tulane already had a domesticated cat the kitten got along with. But Tulane never formed a bond with his adopter. On May 2, more than a year after the adoption, that person returned a very different cat to the SF/SPCA. Now 18 months old, Tulane demonstrated fearful and aggressive behavior and was categorized as "completely feral," according to the log. He was put in a cage where he ran in tight circles, knocking over his food bowl. Veterinary staff assumed the spilled food meant Tulane wasn't eating, even though at least two employees say there was fresh crap in his litter box.

The SF/SPCA's feral team was making plans to return Tulane to a managed feral colony where they thought he would be happier and would likely eat better. But before arrangements were made, veterinary staff decided, without a full medical examination, that the cat's failure to eat was a symptom of a serious condition. Tulane was euthanized.

In a country that kills nearly four million cats and dogs a year, Tulane's euthanasia, of course, went unnoticed. But within the San Francisco animal welfare community, his death stirred a small tempest. That's because the SF/SPCA's behavioral unit had been remarkably successful with cats like Tulane. In fact, former staff behaviorists say no cat with Tulane's symptoms had been euthanized in at least 12 years.

The fact that Tulane was so quickly put down was unsettling evidence to many that the SF/SPCA has fundamentally changed its "no-kill" principle, which had made San Francisco the safest city for cats and dogs in the country and served as a model for hundreds of shelters in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Japan. According to former employees, Tulane's demise last month indicates that the SF/SPCA has lowered the bar for euthanasia, and greater numbers of animals will now be put down.

There are several other recent cases that have unsettled staff. One is Isaac, a well-adjusted two-month-old puppy the SF/SPCA adopted out to a family in late December. He was returned four months later for nipping at twin nine-year-old boys. Behavior staff categorized Isaac as "fearful" and put him down within three days of his return. In several other cases, puppies have been euthanized for "food guarding," which most trainers say is a fixable behavior.

The SF/SPCA has also announced a new protocol for euthanizing sick kittens, which conflicts with the public's perception that the shelter adheres to no-kill principles.

The reason for the new euthanasia policies is, in part, money. The SF/SPCA is scrambling to find funding to complete its controversial $30 million, for-profit animal hospital, the Leanne B. Roberts Animal Care Center. The project is only half complete, and with the looming specter of hiring staff, new equipment costs, and opening expenses, there has been an emphasis on saving money around the shelter, where it costs an estimated $43 a day to house a healthy cat. Since president Jan McHugh-Smith was hired a year ago, she has scaled back or eliminated internationally known behavior and medical services that had saved thousands of animals over the years.

Employees and volunteers were alarmed at the recent closure of the 30-year-old Hearing Dog Program, along with major changes to adoption policies, cutbacks to the Cat Behavior Program, and the loss of the volunteer Affection Eaters program, which might have been able to help Tulane.

The cutbacks and new policies have caused at least seven staffers to quit, as well as an uncertain number of volunteers. Some of them have organized into two groups who are vowing to expose the new policies even if it means that donors, the lifeblood of the nonprofit, stop cutting checks.

You might expect a group named Cat Crusaders to have a membership of little old ladies with large tabby appliqués sewn on the front of their bright orange sweaters. But that isn't the case. Among the 50 Cat Crusaders, who comprise former SF/SPCA staffers and past and present volunteers, are accountants, teachers, attorneys, an engineer, and a Ph.D medical researcher.

Recently, about 35 of them were jammed into a small classroom brainstorming ideas for their new organization. As quickly as they pitched ideas, former volunteer Julene Johnson wrote them on a blackboard. "We need to send a letter to the board of directors," one person says. "I say we start a media blitz — does anyone know somebody at the Chronicle?" another asks.

Soon the organization's structure took chalky shape on the board. Boxes delineated subgroups with specific tasks. The Hot Data Group will compile SF/SPCA–related statistics; the Funding Group will look for financial mismanagement; and the Community Awareness Team, or CAT, will prepare information to distribute at summer fairs and other public events.

At one point the group discussed whether it should directly lobby SF/SPCA donors. It was a sobering moment. If people stop writing checks, what would that mean for the animals? Ultimately, the discussion was tabled temporarily, though there was enthusiastic support for publicly criticizing the animal shelter. "The community, which has supported the SPCA for years, needs to know what's going on, and it's up to the donors to make their own decisions," Johnson says.

The dissent took another form on a recent Saturday afternoon outside the SF/SPCA's adoption center on Florida Street. Here 75 people chanted, waved placards, and wore yellow armbands to condemn the April termination of the SF/SPCA's popular Hearing Dog Program. A police squad car was parked across the street to make sure the shelter's driveway was kept clear and that potential adopters were not harassed. The protest was the first outside the SF/SPCA in more than a decade, and also the first time former employees and volunteers had challenged the nonprofit's policies so publicly.

About The Author

John Geluardi


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