SF’s Animal Control director kicks dogs to the curb

San Francisco unveils a controversial new program that pairs panhandlers with puppies.

This editorial originally appeared on the Dog Evolve blog.

Animal Care & Control, San Francisco’s municipal shelter is a dismal place, but it’s a far cry from the squalor and deplorable humanity you will find in the areas surrounding San Francisco’s SROs (Single Room Occupancy Hotels) and Supportive Housing Units. These areas are heavily populated with addicts, criminals, pedophiles, the mentally ill, and about a few million bed bugs. A block walk in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district can bring even the fiercest optimist to full-tilt fire and brimstone.

I’m a San Francisco transplant, and by the average American standard, a bleeding-heart liberal. I’ve been here for 14 years and my tolerance for the homeless problem in San Francisco is threadbare. I’m sick of the feces, the crime, the harassment, and the vagrancy. I’ve spent a decade watching the sucking, sacking, and raping of our city services and I am sick of it.

Oddly, I am also disillusioned with my own intolerance. I was raised to give, donate, and serve. My mother taught at Head Start and helped prepare meals for the local soup kitchen. I share her values and remember with love and sadness the secret trips to the pharmacy to pre-pay, in anonymity, for a family’s medicines.

When I first moved here, I bought a lunch every week to give away; I packed my own coffee so I could give away the one I bought from the cafe; and I kept packages of socks, tissue, and toiletries ready to distribute. I was petrified of loosing my small town New England values. I did not want to become indifferent to the toils and tribulations of the big city. Eventually, something broke and I passed right through indifference to righteous indignation.

San Francisco is an expensive city and I work hard everyday while I watch others take, and take, and take. They don’t just want a leg-up; they want the whole leg! Which they probably lost shooting heroin (see what I mean, I’m over it)!

With the help of Bevan Dufty, the mayor’s new point person on tourism (I mean homelessness), it seems that some San Franciscans are poised to take even more. The recent announcement of WOOF, a “Puppies for Panhandlers” program has left me bewildered and angry. I have always been a supporter of the city’s public animal shelter. Always! Even when I worked at the much more illustrious SPCA, I would bring the youth programs to tour ACC and explain how important they were to San Francisco’s Animal Welfare Mission.

San Francisco Animal Care & Control (ACC) is easily recognized as the underdog. Awkwardly decorated with paint discarded in MUNI’s maintenance closet, ACC sits in the shadow of the shiny and ever expanding San Francisco SPCA. It does a dirty, difficult job with a budget that has left them adding pens and pencils to the “Wish List.” But these days I am starting to reconsider which came first?

Is the city’s shelter grasping at straws because they have a shoestring budget? Or, as I am lately inclined to think, is the city running on a shoestring budget because their managers come up with ideas they can’t sell because they boil down to crappy craft projects made from shoestring and straws.

Dufty and ACC Executive Director Rebecca Katz have been given multiple opportunities by the media to explain the details of the program, but they have failed to do anything but repeat collateral information. I’ve spoken gently against the program twice on both local news and national television. I am done being gentle.

How bad is the city’s animal shelter?

San Francisco Animal Care & Control’s newest program is destined to be a collaborative disaster. WOOF intends to pay panhandlers to foster “unadoptable” dogs and puppies.

Bevan Dufty claims this is a win-win solution as it will curb panhandling & free up space in the animal shelter. The program is taking its share of sneers and jeers, but it looks like it might still be moving forward as there has yet to be a public outcry. I hope to see one soon.

Several reporters have attempted to shed light on the program’s obvious pitfalls, but no real details have been given by Dufty or Katz. In a recent interview on Fox News Rebecca Katz went on the defensive and ensured viewers that the participants would not be homeless, crazy or addicted. As details on the programs requirements and screening process have yet to be expanded upon, I can assume that the basic requirements are that the new WOOF participants live in supportive housing and are currently panhandling for money.

I am not unfamiliar with, nor indifferent to, the current budgetary restrictions on our municipal shelter. I was recently trained at ACC to evaluate the dogs for adoptability and I was formerly involved with ACC’s shelter enrichment program, Give A Dog A Bone. I know in detail that San Francisco Animal Care & Control (ACC) is antiquated; the staff is overworked and underpaid. For anyone who loves animals, the job can be downright depressing. Our shelter certainly needs improvements, but first I think it needs new leadership

I cannot believe that in my beloved dog-loving city of San Francisco there is no better option than to pay panhandlers to foster shelter puppies and dogs. I am shocked and angry that this idea is taking precedence over other options. The facility may be old and the budget may be small, but the leaders have done nothing to secure this city department’s place in the community.

In the time that I have lived here, I have seen Muttville, a privately funded rescue organization based in San Francisco, grow from a casual passion of one hard-working woman who loves senior dogs into a sprawling metropolis. Muttville‘s network of supporters and volunteers include foster parents, volunteers, dog walkers, donors, trainers, veterinarians, and business advisors. Sherri Franklin has driven Muttville up, up, up, and away. Yet, our city shelter sits idle and continues to let other groups pick up its slack. ACC’s leadership is clearly failing.

It seems that our city shelter, having neglected the outreach and educational needs of our city is now overcrowded. They blame the downward economy, but DogEvolve, a dog training company started by myself and Pamela Wyman in 2006 is thriving. Our biggest client base: adopters! DogEvolve doesn’t hold traditional puppy classes, we cater to adopters, most of whom adopt from rescue organizations.

But Katz told the LA Times, “[ACC] keeps euthanizing dogs…” If you were under the impression that San Francisco is a No-Kill city, you are wrong. It’s like buying organic products at a chain supermarket. The organic label is legally defined and carefully orchestrated. Often the word “organic” can be slapped on to a product that contains a percentage (often small) of organic ingredients. “No-Kill” is also just a label. One that the city is trying to move away from.

Currently, the city is not killing “adoptable” animals. The real question is what makes a dog adoptable? As it currently stands, nonprofit rescue groups are the safety net keeping so many animals from being euthanized. ACC’s annual live release rate includes animals that exited the city’s shelter as “unadoptable” and were rehabilitated and adopted through outside agencies. If rescues are unable to take these animals then they are euthanized at ACC.

I asked Ms. Katz why ACC would not first attempt a regular foster program before going to the extreme of paying panhandlers. Foster programs are successful in many shelters. They are made up of volunteers with the time, resources and self-motivated interest in helping animals that need extra attention. It seems to me that the $10K donation intended to start WOOF would go a lot farther in supporting the animals if the foster parents were upstanding members of the community.

But, according to Katz, the foster option has been exhausted. This is a misleading statement because ACC does not have any foster programs, as Rebecca Katz implied on Fox News. It relies on private, nonprofit organizations to foster animals. ACC’s underaged kittens are fostered by the non-paid volunteers of Toni’s Kitty Rescue. Toni’s Kitty Rescue works closely with ACC, but is a separate agency and privately funded. They currently raise kittens to a healthy weight for spay and neuter. These kittens are fostered in the private homes of well-meaning animal loving volunteers. They are paid nothing.

A similar program for underaged puppies should be considered before handing puppies who are too young to neuter to panhandlers. Puppies too young to neuter are also under-vaccinated and at a critical socialization juncture. Any bad experiences they have at this time in their life are likely irreversible. The idea that young puppies should be fostered by people barely able to take care of themselves is absurd. The lack of consideration for the delicate condition of a young puppy boggles my dog-training mind.

It’s jumping way into left field to consider paying panhandlers to do what is already being done by rescue groups. If the rescue groups are overwhelmed they need support and funding. Starting a new program is redundant unless, as Dufty claims, puppies really can keep panhandlers from begging for money. According to Dufty, a puppy and a promise will keep panhandlers form hitting the streets to beg, but I am skeptical. There are a lot of panhandlers on the city streets with animals. Animals whose health and well-being are supplemented by charitable organizations such as Vet SOS, The San Francisco SPCA, and Pets Unlimited.

If training volunteers to foster “unadoptable” dogs is not being attempted, Katz hasn’t given any good answers as to why the city would rather spend time and money training panhandlers. If we need more foster homes, why not at least consider supporting the groups that have already supported ACC and its animals for so long?

Kelley Filson is a certified, professional dog trainer. She lives and works in San Francisco. Kelley graduated from the University of Vermont in 1998 with a degree in Animal Science. She has worked at animal shelters on the east and west coasts of the United States. In 2004 she graduated at the top of her class in Jean Donaldson’s Dog Training Academy at The San Francisco SPCA. She is an owner, partner, and trainer at DogEvolve.

Kelley Filson and Tinky