One Man's Mission: Home for Every Pet

California animal-welfare activist is taking his controversial 'no kill' crusade across the United States.

Richard Avanzino has the mischievous smile of a born troublemaker.

And so he has been, with some pride, for more than 20 years as head of the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He's brought a Midas touch and an orator's voice to the world of animal welfare, pioneering everything from foster care for pets awaiting adoption to his much-publicized "no kill" policy, guaranteeing a home for any healthy cat or dog brought to his shelter.

"He's a visionary," says Carl Friedman, director of San Francisco's Department of Animal Care and Control, the municipal agency that works closely with the private, nonprofit SPCA. "But like all visionaries, he's loved and loathed."

Well, the lovers are delighted and the loathers are nervous. Mr. Avanzino has just been given a huge bankroll to spread his philosophy nationwide. On Jan. 1, 1999, Avanzino will take charge of the $200 million Duffield Family Foundation, funded by technology wealth from the owners of PeopleSoft of Pleasanton, Calif. In his new post, Avanzino will gain enormous economic leverage for changes in the sprawling animal-shelter industry. "We can infuse megabucks into every city and community, coupled with programs that accomplish the purpose of ending the deaths" of healthy, adoptable animals, says Avanzino.

Yet the growing clout of this man and his ideas is apt to intensify already deep divisions in the animal-welfare field. For many, his "no kill" approach is at best misleading and at worst corrosive of public support for the many agencies that insist they must, sadly, euthanize because of space and economic constraints.

"He's done a wonderful job. But there is no way that can be done in every city in the nation," says Roger Caras of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New York. Mr. Caras says the notion that most communities can find a home for every stray is ludicrous. And the notion that a pure "no-kill" policy is widely possible has caused supporters in some communities to lessen their donations to shelters that haven't embraced that approach, says Caras.

GENERALLY, nationwide efforts to preserve more animals through greater pet responsibility, including programs for neutering and spaying, are paying off. The number of cats and dogs being put down has declined at least 20 percent since 1990, according to experts. But the number euthanized is still large: about 4.8 million annually.

San Francisco is the largest "no kill" community in the nation. That doesn't mean every animal is saved. The city's Animal Care and Control agency still euthanizes more than 4,000 dogs and cats each year. But virtually all "adoptable" animals are housed either at the SPCA or the city's animal control facility until a home is found. And a large percentage of animals needing medical treatment are turned over to the SPCA and receive care that can run into the tens of thousands of dollars.

While acknowledging that "adoptable" can be a squishy term, Avanzino's defenders say he has created a "no kill" city by any reasonable definition.

"It's not smoke and mirrors," says Merritt Clifton, editor of Animal People, published in Clinton, Wash. "The approach San Francisco took has rapidly lowered the number of animals killed in shelters in that city. It's now being emulated in a number of other places around the country," Mr. Clifton says.

Statistical analyses by Animal People of animal deaths per capita in more than 30 US cities show San Francisco's rate to be the lowest in the nation. A range of policies forged over two decades have led to the success. Avanzino claims 1 in 3 households now either donate time or money to the SPCA. He's worked the supply and demand side of the equation, with aggressive, low-cost spaying and neutering services and state-of-the-art grooming and training programs to make adoptees almost irresistible to visitors.

Take a trip down "Lassie Way" in the SPCA's new $7 million adoption center and you can see why. The facility, which opened a few months ago, has the ambience of an exclusive auto showroom, dotted with computers and stylish furniture. Animals are displayed during adoption hours in "apartments," small rooms with televisions, sofas, and paintings, creating an environment meant to help adopters imagine Fido at home.

To keep the experience pleasant, a "sound cloud" is positioned overhead and air is pumped downward and out floor-level vents to make sure there is nary a whiff or sound of the animal kingdom.

Avanzino speaks of animals as "individuals" and is unabashed in talking about love and relationships between pets and their "care- givers." He cites opinion polls that show 93 percent of pet owners regard their animals as full-fledged members of their family.

Yet there is nothing soft and fuzzy about the man. With his stocky frame and weathered face, he has the instincts of a good politician and the zeal of a true-believer salesman. Indeed, critics and supporters alike say part of Avanzino's notoriety has to do with his brilliant marketing skills. To which, he says: "What's wrong with marketing?"

Indeed, Avanzino has proven an avid fund-raiser for the SPCA, raising nearly $12 million annually in donations.

When he takes hold of the Duffield Foundation next year, he will control grants equivalent to the combined funding from all the other dozen or so private foundations involved in animal welfare in the US. Critics or not, "that's going to tilt the playing field in his favor," says Clifton.

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