Founding president of Maddie’s Fund after long tenure as president of the San Francisco SPCA
PLEASANTON, California––Maddie’s Fund on March 25, 2015 announced that founding president Richard Avanzino is to retire in June, at the end of the current fiscal year.
Said David Duffield, who cofounded Maddie’s Fund with his wife Cheryl, in honor of their deceased schnauzer Maddie, 1987-1997, “We truly appreciate everything Rich contributed to Maddie’s Fund—thought leadership, a no-kill purpose, a dedicated and talented team, and a good sense of humor. He is an inspiration to the entire animal welfare movement, and we are grateful for his vision at Maddie’s Fund over the past 17 years.”
Headed SF/SPCA for 23 years
Avanzino, 72, president of the San Francisco SPCA for 23 years before joining Maddie’s Fund in 1998, has helped to lead a dramatic transition in the guiding philosophy of animal sheltering.
Most dramatically, Avanzino in 1984 challenged the concept behind 90 years of humane efforts to wrest animal control contracts away from laboratory suppliers by returning the San Francisco animal control job to the city. Avanzino argued, in part, that the best way to keep homeless dogs and cats out of laboratories was to stop breeding a surplus.
Avanzino made the San Francisco SPCA a no-kill agency, emphasized dog and cat sterilization and adoption, and a decade later introduced the Adoption Pact, through which the San Francisco SPCA guarantees a good home or lifetime care to any healthy or recoverable dog or cat, after the expiry of the requisite holding time at the city Department of Animal Care & Control.
Taking effect on April 1, 1994, the Adoption Pact was initially treated as a hoax by much of the sheltering establishment––but the American SPCA, providing animal control service to New York City since 1895, also gave up doing animal control to go no-kill within the year. Within a few years the animal control shelters serving both San Francisco and New York City were killing fewer dogs and cats, primarily because of escalated free and low-cost spay/neuter programs, than at any time since records first were kept.
Humane societies giving up animal control contracts soon became a national trend.
But neither the Adoption Pact nor the New York success were achieved overnight. Indeed, Avanzino had contemplated ways and means of implementing an Adoption Pact from his first day on the job 18 years earlier, he said later.
Elevated to the presidency of the San Francisco SPCA in 1976 after a series of broadcast reports about high-volume shelter killing by Marilyn Baker, a pioneer of televised investigative journalism who went on to found a no-kill shelter herself in Palm Desert, California, Avanzino arrived with a background as a pharmacist, attorney, lobbyist, and public health administrator––and a lifelong conviction that killing animals “for their own good” just because they happen to be homeless was not only wrong but destructive to the humane ethic.
“Ironically,” Avanzino laughed in 1996, “I wanted to do something involving animals all along, but I didn’t want to become a veterinarian because in those days there was no avoiding having to kill animals in a veterinary course of study.”
Early Adoption Pact critics often suggested that Avanzino was able to implement it only because the San Francisco SPCA was among the most affluent humane societies in the world, with a strong donor base, and a cooperative board of directors, who respected his already long tenure of leadership, enabling him to follow through on long-range plans.
“It wasn’t always this way,” Avanzino said.
Arrived in crisis
Founded in 1868 with Gold Rush money, the San Francisco SPCA had maintained a shelter since 1875, and had provided municipal animal control service beginning in 1888, albeit with frequent interruptions in the early years when the pound contract was frequently allocated as political patronage. But the San Francisco SPCA had used up its initial endowment dealing with the aftermath of the 1906 fire and earthquake, building the former shelter (now used for the administrative offices) in 1932, and most of all in subsidizing animal control from 1905, when it assumed the job for keeps after 17 years of litigation and controversy involving other claimants, until 1989.
Hired in 1976, Avanzino inherited debts, a staff demoralized by increasing amounts of animal control killing, and a donor base of just 1,700 people. And his predecessor remained on the board, in the most prominent office, muddling staff loyalties.
Avanzino arrived to find no parking space available for him, no desk, and staffers betting that because of his lack of previous animal care and control experience, he wouldn’t last ten days.
“If I had only 10 days,” Avanzino has often recounted, “I decided to make the most of them.”
On his second day, he abolished use of the decompression chamber for euthanasia. The board backed him up, even though the San Francisco SPCA had been instrumental in popularizing the use of decompression, introduced by Richard Bonner of the Los Angeles Board of Animal Regulation 26 years earlier. The San Francisco SPCA had even formed two subsidiaries, the Northern California SPCA and the Western Humane Education Society, to help introduce decompression killing to other shelters. Both subsidiaries were defunct, however, before Avanzino was hired.
Avanzino instituted other reforms, reporting to the board president about every action. “After several months,” Avanzino recalled years later, “the board president told me to quit bugging him and go on about my work,” a unique vote of confidence in a field notorious for board meddling in administrative affairs.
Eventually Avanzino inherited the big office, shared over the years with a variety of well-fed cats and dogs.
The donor list grew to 64,000, including 80 annual donors of $10,000 or more.
“The customer is always right.”
The secret of successful fundraising, Avanzino argued, was similar to the formula for running a successful for-profit business: the customer is always right.
“If we do what the public expects us to do, they respond,” Avanzino explained. “The public wants an SPCA to be taking care of animals and adopting out animals. The public does not want an SPCA to be killing animals. The humane community correctly recognized when many major organizations including the San Francisco SPCA took a stand against turning shelter animals over to laboratories that surrendering animals to be used in potentially painful experiments would erode the public trust in their institutions, and would result in people abandoning animals instead of bringing them in.
“But for some reason they never applied that same understanding to the matter of taking over animal control contracts and euthanizing animals en masse because of overpopulation. And the same thing happened.
“Perhaps the biggest reason why animals are abandoned today,” Avanzino realized early in his humane career, “is that people don’t want them to be killed. They would rather turn them loose on the street to fend for themselves, and pretend that they are giving the animals a chance, than be certain that those animals will be euthanized.
“In 1989, after 101 years, the San Francisco SPCA returned the animal control contract to the city. We worked very hard to regain the trust of the community that we are not going to kill animals,” Avanzino testified. “We’re getting the people to bring those animals in so that we can neuter them, put them up for adoption, and end the cycle of abandonment, uncontrolled breeding, and killing.”
Among Avanzino’s formative experiences in animal sheltering was the Sido case, recounted in a San Francisco SPCA brochure:
“Some years ago a San Francisco woman feared no one would be able to properly care for her dog after she passed away. As a result she stipulated in her will that upon her death the dog be humanely put to sleep. That dog’s name was Sido. The woman died in 1979 and the friendly 11-year-old sheltie mix was put in the temporary care of the San Francisco SPCA. But the San Francisco SPCA refused to release Sido to those who wanted to carry out the terms of the will, and instead fought for Sido’s life. The public rallied to Sido’s cause, and the crusade spilled over to the courts and the state legislature. After six tense months, a new law was passed. The little dog’s life was spared. Sido spent another five glorious years with a loving family.”
Remembered Avanzino, “The legislation saved only Sido, but the court case set a legal precedent on disposition of animals in wills, and has been relied on in many similar cases.”
More important, the Sido case underscored for Avanzino that the public would respond positively and generously when the San Francisco SPCA––or any humane society––was seen in the role of saving animals instead of killing them.
“Why we must euthanize”
Avanzino entered the humane field at a time when shelters killed more than seven times as many animals as today. An essay about the necessity of shelter killing authored in the 1950s by animal gas chamber inventor Raymond Naramore was posted on the wall in almost every shelter.
Early in Avanzino’s career, circa 1979, the somewhat ponderous Naramore essay was superseded by “Why we must euthanize,” by Phyllis Wright, the first companion animal welfare director for the Humane Society of the U.S.
Wright dedicated her life to promoting the replacement of the gas chambers and decompression chambers then used to kill upward of 20 million dogs and cats per year, mostly unwanted puppies and kittens with pentobarbital injection; to replacing the words “kill” and “destroy” then used to describe the fate of shelter animals with “euthanize” or “put to sleep”; and to help shelter workers cope with the stress of killing animals, which had made drug and alcohol abuse, marital failure, and suicide epidemic among shelter staff.
Today, 39 years after Avanzino started in shelter work, there are more than three times as many animal shelters in the U.S., but they cumulatively kill barely 2.7 million dogs and cats, half as many as when Maddie’s Fund debuted, and very few of the animals killed in shelters are puppies or kittens.
“90% live release rate”
Almost every shelter strives to become “no kill,” or at least to boast of a “90% live release rate,” a rather misleading statistical benchmark that Avanzino popularized to describe in localized terms the transition from killing upward of 100 homeless dogs and cats per 1,000 Americans to killing fewer than 10.
While some shelters in some communities have achieved “90% release rates,” more than 95% of the reduction in shelter killing during Avanzino’s career has resulted from reduced shelter intakes of dogs and cats, through successful promotion of spay/neuter. Total U.S. shelter adoptions reached about four million per year circa 1984, and have remained in the vicinity of four to 4.5 million per year ever since.
Influencing and facilitating the turnabout from the high volume killing era to today, Avanzino furthered many of the most successful innovations in sheltering, mostly during his tenure at the San Francisco SPCA.
Feral cats & spotting talent
Among the biggest of those innovations was neuter/return feral cat control. The San Francisco SPCA was among the first humane societies in the U.S. to have a full-time feral cat coordinator, Emma Clifford, who went on to found Animal Balance, promoting feral cat and street dog sterilization in island habitats including the Galapagos islands, the Dominican Republic, and Cape Verde.
Avanzino also hired and boosted the careers of many other future organization directors of distinction, perhaps most notably Brenda Barnette, who as San Francisco SPCA development director increased the organization’s revenue ninefold.
Enjoying similar success as executive director of Pets In Need, in Redwood City, California, Barnette moved on to Tony LaRussa’s Animal Rescue Foundation, where she doubled program spending, halved fundraising and administrative expense, cut the debt owed for a $16 million new shelter from $6 million to $3 million, and quadrupled adoptions.
Heading the Seattle Humane Society from 2006 to 2010, Barnette boosted adoptions from circa 4,500 per year, already one of the highest totals in the U.S., to 6,091 in 2009, the most in the 112-year history of the organization. As director of Los Angeles Animal Services since 2010, Barnette has cut shelter killing to the lowest volume in the 68 years that records have been published––indeed, to barely 60% of the previous low achieved by her predecessor, Ed Boks.
But among his many successes, Avanzino simultaneously promoted some of the most damaging mistakes in sheltering history, mostly after moving to Maddie’s Fund to pursue attempts to replicate his San Francisco successes in other communities.
Popularizing the use of the “live release rate” has been perhaps the most self-defeating of those mistakes, since it encourages shelters to refuse admission of hard-case animals; to release feral cats in places where their presence is unwelcome to neighbors, property owners, and birders; to release animals to poorly supervised shelterless “rescues” and underfunded no-kill shelters that lack professional management; and to rehome dangerous dogs, especially pit bulls.
Since the formation of Maddie’s Fund, the for-profit nuisance animal control industry has more than doubled in size, now killing as many as a million feral cats per year; the numbers of animals impounded each year from failed shelterless “rescues” and no-kill shelters has more than quadrupled; and while only two dogs rehomed from shelters had killed anyone from 1858 through 1998, rehomed dogs now kill as many as half a dozen people and six to seven thousand other animals per year.
Maddie’s Fund has not developed effective programs responding to any of these issues, and indeed has barely recognized that they exist.
Originally called the Duffield Family Foundation when formed in 1994, Maddie’s Fund was rededicated to specifically promote reduced shelter killing after the Duffields became acquainted with Avanzino’s accomplishments at the San Francisco SPCA. The Duffields, who founded the PeopleSoft and Workday business software empires, have endowed Maddie’s Fund with more than $300 million.
Before the Duffield Family Foundation was retitled Maddie’s Fund, the Duffields funded construction of Maddie’s Adoption Center. Opened in 1996, Maddie’s Adoption Center re-conceptualized animal sheltering, from the floor paint to the skylights.
Some shelters already included design elements such as a boutique-like adoption environment, get-acquainted rooms for visitors, dog housing that could double as a training environment to teach dogs how to live among furniture in homes, group housing for cats, glass instead of bars or wire for cage fronts, and video cameras allowing potential adopters to view animals from afar, but Maddie’s Adoption Center was the first to put them all together in a single building. The shelter became––and remains––a Mission District tourist attraction.
But the Duffields wanted to do more. Two years after Maddie’s Adoption Center opened, they hired Avanzino to head their revamped and repurposed foundation, which was initially headquartered just across the San Francisco Bay Bridge in Alameda––in the same neighborhood where Avanzino grew up.
Soon many other key personnel from the San Francisco SPCA followed Avanzino to Maddie’s Fund, including Lynn Spivak, director of public relations for the SF/SPCA since 1983. Retiring in June 2013 after 14 years as director of marketing and communications for Maddie’s Fund, Spivak was the next-to-last of the SF/SPCA veterans on the Maddie’s Fund team. Avanzino himself will have been the last.
Maddie’s team going forward
“Under Rich’s leadership,” said Maddie’s Fund board chair Amy Zeifang, “we introduced concepts and practices not seen before, testing ideas to see what impact they might have. Going forward, our board has empowered a strategically chosen executive team to continue to advance the no-kill legacy and to seek new ways of supporting the adoptions of shelter pets.”
The phrasing of Zeifang’s statement suggests that the remainder of the Maddie’s Fund team may not change much post-Avanzino. Other key members, involved from the beginning, include vice president of operations Mary Ippoliti Smith and director of veterinary programs Laurie Peek, DVM.
Under Avanzino, Maddie’s Fund awarded more than $153 million in grants to animal welfare organizations. The first funded projects were mostly coalitions of animal charities and animal control agencies who were to try to move whole communities toward no-kill, following five-year-plans based on the San Francisco model. The grant application process required doing about a year of intensive demographic research, financed in part by Maddie’s Fund and guided by Maddie’s Fund staff.
Maddie’s Fund required applicant coalitions to be headed by no-kill organizations while including the animal control agencies serving their communities. Coalition organizers typically had trouble holding together partnerships of agencies that did not perceive themselves as all benefiting, or benefiting equally, from the promised grant money. In addition, one of the Maddie’s Fund requirements was that shelters should increase adoptions each year, even while greatly reducing shelter intake and therefore the incoming volume of adoptable animals. Many, especially those doing the most adoptions already, saw this as unrealistic
The very first five-year-plan to receive Maddie’s Fund money, anchored by Tony LaRussa’s Animal Rescue Foundation in Walnut Creek, California, fell apart within a year. Eventually Maddie’s Fund reorganized the grant application process and somewhat eased the goals for coalition applicants. Several dozen community coalitions have markedly reduced shelter killing with Maddie’s Fund help, albeit that none as yet have actually achieved no-kill animal control or reduced shelter killing to the San Francisco rate of barely one animal killed per 1,000 human residents.
Maddie’s Fund later started the University of California at Davis shelter medicine program; funded shelter medicine programs at the University of Florida, Cornell University, and Purdue University; and since 2010 has sponsored the annual Maddie’s Pet Adoption Days rehoming drive.
But one of the most successful and influential Maddie’s Fund programs originated in part to try to rectify a strategic mistake.
Aware that the use of the term “no kill” had contributed to polarization among no-kill shelters, animal control agencies, and open-admission humane societies, Maddie’s Fund in 2004 hosted a conference in Asilomar, California at which Avanzino in gist offered a compromise: Maddie’s Fund would de-emphasize “no kill” terminology, even though it appears in the Maddie’s Fund mission statement, if shelters of every sort would participate in a nationwide shelter data collection project which, among other goals, would promote standard definitions of “adoptable,” “treatable,” and “irrecoverable” animals, for whom euthanasia would be the only humane disposition.
The Asilomar Accords do not appear to have accomplished much to reduce friction between no-kill and open admission shelters. This is in part because of the work of the No Kill Advocacy Center, in Oakland, California, founded and directed by Nathan Winograd. Winograd in 1994-1995 and in 1998 headed the Department of Law & Advocacy under Avanzino at the San Francisco SPCA, and until early 2000 held other positions under Avanzino’s successor as the San Francisco SPCA president, Ed Sayres Jr., who went on to head the ASPCA from 2004 to 2013 and now heads the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council.
The No Kill Advocacy Center, contrary to the beliefs of Avanzino and the Duffields, promotes polarization on the theory that protest drives progress.
Neither has the Asilomar Accords data tracking contributed much, as yet, to increasing the information available to the sheltering community about trends at the national level. The 21-year-old ANIMALS 24-7 data tracking system still incorporates information from more jurisdictions, with better regional representation, and produces closely comparable annual estimates of shelter killing somewhat sooner each year than the Asilomar system.
But the Asilomar Accords questionnaires track a great deal of information that the ANIMALS 24-7 system does not.
Most significantly, the Asilomar Accords system has firmly established the “90% live release rate” as a seemingly accessible goal, even though it requires that 90% of the animals entering a shelter be safely releasable. As the numbers of healthy young animals arriving at shelters declines, especially proportionate to the numbers of feral cats and dangerous dogs, pit bulls in particular, this is less and less realistic. Pit bulls and pit mixes now make up more than a third of all the dogs admitted to U.S. animal shelters, and two-thirds of the dogs killed in shelters.
“St. Francis terriers”
Avanzino’s most spectacular failure at the San Francisco SPCA may have been his 1996 attempt to rehome pit bulls by renaming them “St. Francis terriers.” Advised by Winograd and then-San Francisco SPCA chief dog trainer Jean Donaldson, Avanzino argued that pit bulls might be dangerous chiefly in response to human expectations. Changing the name, Avanzino, Winograd, and Donaldson contended, might change the expectations and the dogs’ behavior.
About 60 so-called St. Francis terriers were placed, after extensive screening and training, but Avanzino reluctantly suspended the program after several of the re-dubbed dogs killed cats.
The pit bulls involved had not seemed especially aggressive. Like most pit bulls, even those trained to fight, they had appeared to be of rather sweet and gentle disposition.
But as pit bulls are notorious for doing they proved to be explosively reactive, going from calm to all-out attack without giving the series of warning signals that most dogs do, and responding to stimuli below the threshold of human perception. Like the majority of pit bulls whose attacks on humans make the ANIMALS 24-7 log of fatal and disfiguring attacks, maintained since 1982, the St. Francis terriers first known attacks were lethal. And no one knew they would attack before they did.
Eventually the San Francisco SPCA resumed promoting pit bulls. But pit bulls rehomed by the San Francisco SPCA have several times spectacularly run amok.
Under Avanzino, Maddie’s Fund has made promoting pit bull adoptions a particular focus. Whether the effort has saved more animals’ lives than it has cost could be debated.
“I am very pleased with the progress Maddie’s Fund has made and the opportunities within reach,” Avanzino said in his retirement announcement. “We currently need to find homes for an additional 2.4 million dogs and cats a year, and on average about 17 million people are considering a pet. So if just 14% of those people adopted a homeless animal companion, the United States would be a no-kill nation.”
The argument is fallacious, since it would require increasing the volume of animals adopted from shelters by 50%, at a time when pit bulls and feral cats together make up more than 50% of shelter admissions totaling barely eight million per year. The greatest opportunity for reducing shelter killing––as always––remains in reducing the births of the animals who are most likely to come to shelters and least likely to be rehomed.
Yet Avanzino can be credited with having led U.S. animal sheltering to the point where talk of “a no-kill nation” is seriously entertained.
Finished the Maddie’s Fund retirement media release, “With no-kill now a mainstream ideal, Avanzino decided to step down from the day-to-day operations as president to spend more time with his family. But even in retirement, he intends to stay engaged in animal welfare, promoting the no-kill message and serving as a strategic advisor to Maddie’s Fund.
Concluded Avanzino, “The opportunity to make a lifesaving difference everyday with Maddie’s Fund has been immeasurable. This will be a new chapter in my life, and I look forward to spending leisure time with my ‘better half,’ three adult kids, eight grandkids, and two adopted ‘four-legged kids.’”
(See also https://www.animals24-7.org/2014/03/12/why-we-cannot-adopt-our-way-out-of-shelter-killing/ and https://www.animals24-7.org/2015/02/26/casualties-of-the-save-rate-40000-animals-at-failed-no-kill-shelters-rescues/; and https://www.animals24-7.org/2014/11/14/record-low-shelter-killing-raises-both-hopes-questions/.)