Beleaguered director to leave San Francisco SPCA

November 20, 2009 at 1:37 am Leave a comment

SFSPCAThe San Francisco SPCA announced today that Jan McHugh-Smith would be leaving her position as director in March of next year and returning to her home state of Colorado to be closer to her family and work for the Humane Society Pikes Peak Region.

Controversy and criticism have plagued McHugh-Smith and the SF/SPCA in recent years. An expensive veterinary hospital — a legacy from her predecessor — as well as the decision to close down the SF/SPCA’s three-decades old hearing dog program without any notice to its longtime staff and clients contributed to a growing narrative in the community that the organization had lost touch with its animal lifesaving mission.

A move to get the SF/SPCA to change course gained momentum in 2008, when a scathing article in the alternative newspaper SF Weekly accused the organization of abandoning its commitment to no-kill — a movement that originated at the shelter when Richard Avanzino was its head.

Called “A Time to Kill,” the article said that a kitten named Tulane and a young dog named Isaac had been killed by the SF/SPCA even though they could have been saved — and that this change was part of a larger picture:

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.

Although McHugh-Smith insisted in an interview with me that the SF/SPCA, and she, remained commited to a no-kill goal, the community wasn’t convinced. A series of contentious Animal Welfare Commission hearings followed, with local rescue groups and the organization demanding changes at the shelter.

The changes that came about weren’t what those groups had in mind. The expensive veterinary hospital came online during the current economic downturn, and is currently a million bucks in the red. Hours and staff were cut, and the shelter’s relationship with the high-profile Academy of Dog Trainers was terminated.

Another scathing cover story in another Bay Area alternative weekly, entitled “How the San Francisco SPCA Let Us Down,” alleged that SF/SPCA was sucking in all the donor money but letting the local rescue groups do all the work:

At a January 8, 2009 meeting of the Commission of Animal Control and Welfare (ACW) – which advises the Board of Supervisors regarding animal issues in the City – animal care supervisor Eric Zuercher presented some startling statistics: While the SF/SPCA took 122 dogs from (Animal Care and Control) in 2007-08, independent rescues took far more. Grateful Dogs Rescue, which gets 80 percent of its dogs from ACC, took 141 in 2007, and 146 in just the first three quarters of 2008. Rocket Dog Rescue, which, Zuercher stated deals with the toughest cases (pit bulls, medical issues), took 111. Other groups also stepped in – Muttville takes older dogs, Wonderdog takes a lot of small dogs. The 122 taken by the SF/SPCA represents just 14 percent of the total dogs they took in 2008.

Where cats are concerned, the SF/SPCA fairs better, with 73 percent of its cats coming from ACC in 2008, though that is down from 84 percent in 2007. The percentage of cats taken from other shelters jumped from 16 percent in 2007 to 25 percent in 2008.

Toni’s Kitty Rescue saved 200 kittens in just four months, all of which would have been euthanized otherwise because ACC does not adopt out kittens under eight weeks of age (and the SF/SPCA won’t take them). Lana Bajsel’s Give Me Shelter gets 95 percent of its cats and kittens from ACC – they currently have 100 cats in their system on an $80,000-a-year budget, while the SF/SPCA has just 170. Without the rescues, Zuercher concludes, many more animals would have died.

“We would be so greatly diminished without the rescues,” Zuercher says. “They astound me and inspire me with the amount of effort they put into this.”

With McHugh-Smith’s departure, the Board of the SF/SPCA says they’ll be conducting a national search for a new director. Will real change come — once again — to San Francisco?…

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