“The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
— Mahatma Gandhi
In 2008, prior to becoming supervisor of District 8, Scott Wiener was campaigning door-to-door on San Francisco’s Gold Mine Drive when he heard a scratching sound coming from a planter. When he peered behind it, he discovered a frightened, hungry five-week-old kitten. “I knocked on the nearest door, but the person said it wasn’t their kitten,” Wiener recalled. “They did give me a shoebox, so I took the kitten to every nearby residence, but no one claimed it.” Wiener took the kitten to Animal Care and Control (ACC), San Francisco’s open-door shelter. “I told them that I wanted to make sure the kitten wasn’t going to be put down, and asked them to call me if it was and I would take it, even though I knew my two cats wouldn’t be too happy. A month later they called and told me the kitten was adopted. Everyone there was so caring, and it was just an overall great experience.”
Seated at a round wooden table inside his office at City Hall, Wiener said he is a lifelong animal lover. “I grew up in a household that always had cats and dogs.” He still has a cat, now 17 years old (the other has since passed away), and he realizes that for many people like him, animals are important members of the family. “And yet we have a huge problem with abandoned animals for so many reasons, like people losing their homes,” Wiener said. “ACC does amazing work providing a safety net for people and their animals, and we as a city need to take care of them. When I saw their funding gap, I knew I needed to do something. I wanted to shed public light on this issue.”
So on Nov. 7, 2013, Supervisor Wiener, along with co-sponsor District 4 Supervisor Katy Tang, brought the issue before the Board of Supervisors Neighborhood Services & Safety Committee. In his introductory remarks, Wiener pointed out that ACC doesn’t turn away any animals. “San Francisco is if nothing else an animal city,” he said. “ACC has run at a deficit for the past seven years and they have very few officers in the field to deal with animal abuse, neglect, even barking dogs; I am getting more calls from my constituents about aggressive dogs in dog parks … there’s been a significant increase in owner surrenders and abuse cases, but we have not upped their staff. ACC gets 31 field calls a day and has staffing to respond to just seven of those calls.”
ACC is responsible for all of San Francisco’s stray, injured, abandoned, neglected, and mistreated animals — domesticated and wild — as well as enforcement of all state and local animal control and welfare laws. A presentation by the city administrator’s office showed that ACC’s budget has not kept pace with the increased need for services, going from $3 million in 2003 to $4.9 million in 2013. ACC takes in more than 10,000 animals annually, with an average of 500 animals housed at the shelter on any given day. With a staff of just over 40, each attendant deals with approximately 50 animals, and the agency has only one veterinarian and one vet tech. In the field, ACC has a total of 11 officers and 1 field supervisor to respond to 13,000 calls per year, and there are many more calls they can’t respond to because they don’t have the resources. ACC Executive Director Rebecca Katz, a tireless advocate for the animals in her care, as well as for her dedicated staff and volunteers, told the committee that the agency has just one officer on duty at night and two during the day.
“Eleven officers, 24/7 — that’s even worse than park patrol, and they have 24, which is pathetic,” Wiener responded.
ACC’s outdated, inadequate facility is another major issue. “To truly understand, you need to see the facility as I have,” District 1 Supervisor Eric Mar said. “When I visited the feral cats and abused dogs there, it was obvious more staff is needed to interact with and socialize the animals, which is critical, but it’s also a very old building without modern day facilities to care for the needs of the animals.”
“How did this happen?” Wiener asked. “ACC does so much, and the budget is woefully low; it’s pretty stark.”
“The building was built in 1939 as a warehouse,” Katz explained. “In 1988 the city received notice from the San Francisco SPCA that they would no longer contract for animal services; I don’t know how they did it as quickly as they did, but the city converted the space to become ACC.”
Sally Stephens, chairwoman of the advisory Animal Control and Welfare Commission, pointed out that ACC isn’t just about animals. “People who abuse or neglect animals often abuse and neglect children and spouses. The ability to investigate all cases of abuse and neglect and not just the most heinous will save human lives as well, if ACC has enough staffing to do so.” Stephens also reminded the committee that ACC is crucial to the city’s disaster planning. “But that may not matter if the building that houses ACC and our animals is not rebuilt,” she said. “In the event of a major earthquake, we expect ACC to care for our animals … but that would be a lot harder to do if the shelter can’t be used because it’s no longer safe. So please find a way to rebuild ACC’s facility.” Stephens also praised ACC for doing so much with so little. “They are chronically under-budgeted and understaffed. They could do so much more if they had the resources. For example, they could administer programs to pair shelter animals with kids in the juvenile justice center or inmates in county jail.” Stephens also spoke to the efforts of animal advocacy groups to make San Francisco a no kill city, meaning no “adoptable” animal is euthanized. “To be successful, no kill requires, among other things, extensive public outreach and education programs, and significant behavioral training in the shelter, all of which requires adequate staffing to carry it out, something ACC does not have and has not had for many years. ACC is an open shelter — they’re required to take any and all animals that come through the door.” Since the majority of “no kill” shelters in the country are not open door shelters, Stephens said, “they can and do refuse to accept unadoptable animals, which makes it a whole lot easier to get to no kill.”
SF/SPCA Director of Advocacy Brandy Kuentzel made a P.R. pitch about her multimillion dollar private organization’s “amazing” work, which many in the audience felt was inappropriate at a hearing about helping ACC. Kuentzel said that having two animal shelters across the street from each other wasn’t “optimal” and “confused people.” It was a thinly veiled way of saying the SF/SPCA would like to be the only place to adopt an animal in San Francisco (and the only place to send your donations), but subsequent speakers pointed out that the SF/SPCA “cherry picks” the most adoptable animals from all over California and beyond, and does not accept owner surrenders. It is clear that the SF/SPCA, despite its millions of dollars, could not do what ACC manages to do even on its miniscule budget. The idea of the SF/SPCA rescuing 300 pet rats from a hoarding situation, or taking in a dog like Charlie, the troubled dog (with an even more troubled owner) that attacked a police horse, is frankly absurd.
Back at City Hall, Wiener expressed frustration that very basic city functions can’t be performed due to ACC’s severe lack of funding. “We’re not asking for the moon, here,” he said. “ACC has had the same cuts in bad years, but it hasn’t been restored in good years. There hasn’t been a global look at ACC or what they do.”
Wiener also said that the squeaky wheel gets the budget. “I encourage people who care about animal welfare to get involved; organize; be vocal.”
For more information on what you can do to support Supervisor Scott Wiener’s efforts to help ACC, contact his office at 415-554-6968. For more information on ACC and how you can help, visit www.helpacc.org.