Architect turned lobbyist won 1990 law requiring California shelters to do spay/neuter before adoption
Joan Miller, 88, who for more than 30 years bridged the divide between cat fancy breeders and the humane community by directing funds into spay/neuter work and effort into collaborative projects, died from complications of pneumonia on May 16, 2023 in San Diego, California, with her husband Peter Keys at her side.
Born in Scarsdale, New York, Joan Miller attended Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts from 1953 to 1957, earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in architecture and interior design.
“I worked for two architectural firms in San Francisco and spent one year in Sydney, Australia as interior designer for a large hotel project,” Joan Miller recalled on LinkedIn.
“I then became director of Herman Miller Space Planning in San Francisco,” after which “I started my own business in 1965. My work for over 30 years,” Joan Miller wrote, “was primarily interior design for commercial offices, airline terminal interiors, hotel and restaurant design.
“For 13 years I was the design consultant for Ghirardelli Square, a prominent shopping center in San Francisco. I selected artwork for all projects and built a large fine art collection for U.S Leasing Corporation/USL Capital, an ongoing client for over 10 years.”
From San Francisco SPCA to Maddie’s Fund
Joan Miller retired from architecture in 1997 after contributing to the award-winning design of Maddie’s Adoption Center at the San Francisco SPCA.
Funded by PeopleSoft founders David and Cheryl Duffield, named after their schnauzer Maddie, building Maddie’s Adoption Center was the collaboration between the Duffields and then-San Francisco SPCA president Richard Avanzino that led two years later to the 1999 reorientation of the former Duffield Family Foundation to become Maddie’s Fund, promoting no-kill sheltering with an initial endowment of more than $200 million.
Joan Miller, however, appears to have had no active role with any of that.
Cat Fancier’s Association
Becoming a Cat Fanciers’ Association all-breed judge in June 1981, “I thoroughly enjoyed my 32 years judging the finest pedigreed cats in the USA and the world,” Joan Miller remembered. “I was thrilled to judge cats in the early years of Cat Fanciers’ Association international growth. Memorable foreign shows included one of the first held in Moscow, Russia, and the second cat show ever held in China.”
Elected to the Cat Fanciers’ Association board of directors in 1987, Joan Miller served 25 years in that capacity, including as CFA vice president from 2008 to 2012.
Cat Writers’ Association
Even after retiring from the Cat Fanciers’ Association board, Joan Miller continued as chair of CFA outreach and education, and from 2012 to 2014 was a board member of the Cat Writers’ Association.
Joan Miller also chaired the Cat Fanciers feline health committee for many years, served for 16 years as president of the Winn Feline Foundation, served on the advisory board for the Cornell Feline Health Center for 10 years, and served for 15 years on the advisory board of the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis campus.
Joan Miller may have become best known, however, as Cat Fanciers’ Association legislative coordinator, and later, from 2008 to 2014, as Cat Fanciers’ Association legislative information liaison.
“I monitored federal, state and local legislation in the U.S., and sent alerts to a large grassroots network to oppose laws detrimental to the breeding and selling of pedigreed cats, any laws harmful to pet ownership, or to the un-owned community cat population,” Joan Miller recalled.
“I attended hearings and offered guidance with points to make as well as letters to present the view of CFA and cat fanciers on issues.”
Won California law requiring shelters to fix dogs & cats before release
Margaret Anne Cleek, an ANIMALS 24-7 board member since 2020, recalled that Joan Miller was the driving force behind amending an awkwardly worded 1990 “mandatory dog and cat sterilization” bill into a highly successful state law requiring public animal shelters to sterilize dogs and cats before release.
This requirement was based on research by Lewis Robert Plumb (1923-2001), a retired Chico State University professor of physics and pioneer of pet overpopulation study, who with his wife Charlotte cofounded the Promoting Animal Welfare Society in Paradise, California, during the early 1980s.
“Get 70% or flunk!”
Plumb discovered during the mid-1980s that unsterilized dogs and cats rehomed to the public by animal shelters actually contributed more puppies and kittens to pet overpopulation than deliberate breeding by both fanciers and commercial breeders combined.
Plumb also was first to apply the animal reproduction logarithms discovered by the Italian mathematician Fibonacci (1170-1250) to dog and cat population control through spay/neuter, producing the “Get 70% or flunk!” rule that defines success or failure in animal birth control programs.
(See Pet Overpopulation and the 70% Rule, by Marvin Mackie, DVM.)
Fight over the “Feline Fix Bill”
Despite her 1990 legislative success, Joan Miller in 1993-1994 found herself at odds with most of the California humane and animal rights community in opposition to a so-called “Feline Fix Bill,” AB 302, which mandated that free-roaming cats over the age of four months be sterilized.
AB 302 was near passage when in early 1993 Miller pointed out to Richard Avanzino that the wording of it might be used as a pretext to exterminate feral cats.
Avanzino––an attorney and lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry before becoming San Francisco SPCA president in 1976––demanded amendments to protect the ability of feral cat rescuers to maintain neuter/release colonies.
That’s when it became clear that the sponsor of the bill, the National Audubon Society, had wiping out feral cats in mind all along.
Persuaded by Miller and Avanzino, the Fund for Animals withdrew support for AB 302 in January 1994, after which humane society and animal rights backing for the bill disintegrated.
Funding to fix 60,000 feral cats
Joan Miller in 2007 helped to kill a similar bill. During the debate over that bill, both Joan Miller and Margaret Anne Cleek pointed out that in Cleek’s words, “Casual feral cat feeders are adding to the problem,” meaning that any wording meant to exempt neuter/return practitioners from some of the punitive language in the bill would have to be very carefully crafted to avoid creating a loophole allowing feeding without sterilization.
Meanwhile, Joan Miller in a 1993 article for the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association defined feral cats as “those who generally do not voluntarily accept handling by humans, and are “feral, independent wildlife” or “feral, interdependent free-roaming/unowned.”
Using this definition, Maddie’s Fund in August 1999 granted $3.2 million to the California Veterinary Medical Association to finance spay/neuter of 60,000 feral cats in California above and beyond the number altered in 1998.
USDA-APHIS regulatory amendment
Among Joan Miller’s lesser-known lobbying accomplishments was the adoption of a February 2, 2001 amendment to the federal Animal Welfare Act enforcement regulations that allows the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service [APHIS] to place federally impounded animals with some non-USDA licensed persons or facilities, such as humane societies and sanctuaries which are not under USDA jurisdiction because they are not normally engaged in interstate commerce.
This amendment, Joan Miller told ANIMALS 24-7, “allows APHIS inspectors to move more quickly and efficiently to remove animals [from abusive situations] when necessary for their health, and get them into the hands of shelters and rescue organizations that can care for their needs.”
The Rexelle case
Miller was motivated to seek the Animal Welfare Act enforcement regulations amendment by her experience with prominent show cat breeder Debra Rexelle.
Fined for keeping more than 50 cats on her property without the correct license in 1993, Rexelle was in August 2000 found in possession of 212 cats, plus 50 dead cats, at her rented home near Modesto, California.
“Rexelle was immediately suspended from all Cat Fanciers’ Association activities and registration services as soon as the CFA board was made aware of the raid and impoundment, and on preliminary investigation by the CFA Animal Welfare Committee,” Joan Miller told ANIMALS 24-7. “At a CFA board of directors hearing she was permanently suspended from all CFA services and activities for life, commencing on February 4, 2001,” Joan Miller added.
Defense attorney Lisa Fitzgerald Wagner argued that Rexelle was framed by jealous rivals. Rexelle claimed the dead cats were left to rot in order to salvage their skeletons for scientific study, and that she had passed an inspection by local animal control officers in February 2000.
Finally Rexelle and Wagner called Joan Miller and Cat Fanciers’ Association show judge Lindajean Grillo to testify in Rexelle’s defense.
Miller and Grillo each testified that Rexelle took exemplary care of the cats they saw at cat shows, but acknowledged having never visited Rexelle at her home.
Rexelle was on May 17, 2002 convicted of four felonies and four misdemeanors, but was acquitted of nine other charges, including a felony count relating to the discovery of the 50 dead cats.
“Unsurpassed in her devotion to cats”
“Joan was unsurpassed in her devotion to cats, and by no means just purebreds,” recalled Esther Mechler, director of various spay/neuter programs since founding Animal Rights Hawaii in 1974.
Forming the national SpayUSA program in 1990, hosted by the North Shore Animal League America since 1993, Mechler hosted the series of conferences from which the Alliance for Contraception in Cats & Dogs emerged in 2006, with Joan Miller as an active participant.
Mechler retired from SpayUSA in 2010, going on to form another spay/neuter organization, Marian’s Dream, in memory of her sister, which promotes awareness that cats should be spayed before five months of age to prevent “oops” pregnancies.
At around the same time, Mechler told ANIMALS 24-7, Joan Miller and Peter Keys “met at the San Diego airport on August 19, 2010. They fell in love at first sight, and were married on February 22, 2012 in Scottsdale, Arizona.”
Gradually withdrawing from her Cat Fanciers’ Association and Cat Writers’ Association activities during the next few years, Joan Miller put ever more time into helping Mechler build Marian’s Dream.
“Joan worked tirelessly to bring prominent veterinarians to the Veterinary Task Force on Feline Sterilization table at the North American Vet Conference in Orlando, in January of 2016,” Mechler said. “She invited progressive, proactive veterinarians from the American Animal Hospital Association, American Association of Feline Practitioners, and the American Veterinary Medical Association to discuss the optimum age at which to spay and neuter cats, knowing that this would impact the well-being of cats everywhere.
“Most people want to be responsible”
“They came,” Mechler continued, “discussed the pros and cons, and in the end, they unanimously endorsed a series of five statements regarding the best time for cat spays as well as neuters. All of these participants took the information back to their organizations. Within 18 months all had formally endorsed the statements,” producing the Feline Fix by Five campaign.
Explained Joan Miller, “Most people want to be responsible; they do not want litters or the behaviors that come with a female cat in season or a male who sprays and fights. The problem is that most people don’t realize that cats can come into season so early,” a month younger than dogs.
“Fix Felines by Five Months gets to the heart of the problem,” Joan Miller added. “If outdoor cats are not altered, they will be in season, pregnant or nursing; unwanted kittens will be born. That’s the bottom line.”
Fought Parkinson’s disease by singing
Mechler nominated Joan Miller for a lifetime achievement award she received in 2017 from the American Veterinary Medical Association.
By then, wrote Pam Kragen for the San Diego Union Tribune, “after suffering a few falls, [Joan Miller] was diagnosed with a fast-moving form of Parkinson’s disease that left her in a wheelchair and her speech so faint that she used an amplified headset to communicate. But at a party earlier this month [December 2016], Miller-Keys joined in singing Christmas carols and even danced a few steps to ‘Feliz Navidad’ in the arms of her husband.
Joan Miller, Kragen explained, was “a member of the Tremble Clefs, a free choir for people with Parkinson’s disease.”
“This has become our major social activity,” Peter Keys told Kragen. “Joanie was world-famous in her field and we traveled to every continent of the globe together, so when she had to give it up, she was heartbroken. This has become our outlet, so important for both of us.”