The halo effect: How 20 years of giving turned Pet Food Express into an animal angel

A Pekinese, pulled from a high-kill shelter, awaits his new home at an adoption event

In 2010, when the City once again slashed her already bare-bones budget, Rebecca Katz, San Francisco Animal Care and Control (ACC) executive director had no choice but to consider letting two people go from her already understaffed shelter. During one of their visits to ACC, Pet Food Express (PFE) co-owner Michael Levy and director of community relations Mike Murray (who runs a German shepherd rescue himself) asked what they could do to help. Katz explained that food was a huge expense. Later that day, Levy and Murray approached Halo, a relatively new vendor co-owned by comedienne Ellen DeGeneres, and together they came up with a partnership to feed every animal at ACC.

As a kid, my parents called me Saint Francis of A-Suzie because I brought home everything from birds with broken wings to rats about to be snake food. In 2009, I wrote an undercover exposé called “How the San Francisco SPCA let us down,” which caused a huge shake-up in top management. PFE took note of my passion for pets and approached me with an idea to showcase adoptable animals in the Marina Times. We actually lose money on the ads, but that’s not why we do them — like PFE, I want to save animals’ lives.

“The ads have given us an opportunity to reach parts of San Francisco where we rarely have adoption events,” says Rocket Dog founder Pali Boucher.

Kim Durney of Grateful Dogs agrees. “It provides invaluable exposure. Readers are so moved by the sweet faces of our dogs that they may apply for one they see, or if they’re not ready, remember us when they are.”

On Aug. 8, 2013, PFE will go before the Planning Commission seeking a conditional use permit for the long-empty Blockbuster building at 2460 Lombard Street. They tried for the same spot four years ago, but a nasty campaign by Catnip and Bones owner Pam Hable and Animal Connection II’s Peter Weaver and Susan Landry kept them out. Hiding behind the flawed “chain ordinance,” they partnered with small business commissioner Kathleen Dooley to form a “pet store coalition” to fight PFE. They said it was a bad fit, and promised numerous other businesses, from hardware stores to pharmacies, wanted the space. That was untrue: Not only is the Blockbuster building still vacant, there are an additional 16 empty storefronts on Lombard, and the street is in worse shape than ever, rife with homeless encampments, crime and struggling merchants.

Of course, this hasn’t stopped Hable, Landry, Weaver, and a few others in their coalition from playing the same broken record from 2009, replete with coordinated letter-writing campaigns. In fact, a reader sent me one of their e-mails asking supporters to click a link where “a letter is already prepared,” to “change the subject line and a few things to make it more personalized,” and then “overwhelm the Planning Commission with signatures”). Much of the letter is the usual drivel, offering no credible evidence and contradicting reality (they will “lose their livelihood,” when in reality many now have multiple stores, including Animal Connection, which recently opened a store next to PFE in Burlingame). Some of it is downright slanderous (Levy has spent “an enormous amount of money to buy favor with many organizations here in order to win this battle”).

They’re also giving the same tired speeches in front of commissions and neighborhood groups, claiming that PFE only helps animals to get the Lombard space, and I’m just a shill writing articles because they “advertise.”

While PFE has shown class and restraint, I’ve had enough of the coalition’s blatant misrepresentations and bullying tactics like “anonymous” phone calls to anyone who dare support PFE. After hearing about the calls from merchants for years, I received several myself threatening to sue me, have the paper boycotted by current and future advertisers, and even “get rid of me.” One particularly vulgar caller said the reason I didn’t support the Chestnut pet stores position was that I was “on my knees” sucking a certain part of Levy’s anatomy, and “the sucking sound could be heard all over town.”

While Hable and her supporters are busy using animal rescue as a political ping-pong ball, we’re out their making a difference. My record of animal advocacy speaks for itself, and PFE has a quiet history of giving that started when they were no bigger in size than their opponents. They’ve partnered with vendors to provide 375,000 pounds of food, litter and supplies to over 100 rescue groups in Northern California; fundraised through their pet wash to pay for spaying and neutering at high-kill shelters and to buy protective vests for police dogs; donated over $250,000 worth of kitten supplies and $300,000 to make sure every shelter animal has toys and treats for the holidays through their Save a Kitten and Giving Tree programs; raised $1.5 million for rescues and shelters from their My Mutt program; and their cat adoption centers in five stores have resulted in nearly 2,000 adoptions in three years.

Co-applicant Pets Unlimited would be the recipient of the sixth cat adoption center at the Lombard store, and development and marketing manager Leah Prassinos says the exposure is something their small shelter simply can’t replicate. “We would be able to triple the number of cats we adopt out each year,” she says. “There aren’t many opportunities for Marina residents to interact with rescue — at the First National Pet Week Celebration at the Little Marina Green [sponsored by the Marina Times], we gave away all of our volunteer brochures to people who said they hadn’t seen anything in the Marina about rescue opportunities.” Other rescues at the event, including Rocket Dog, saw a similar unprecedented outpouring of volunteer interest.

Sherri Franklin, founder of senior dog rescue Muttville, says they auction off PFE’s My Mutt photo shoots at fundraising events (the poster of your pet hangs at a PFE store for a year). “Through My Mutt, we’ve raised $30,000 in donations at no cost to us,” Franklin says. She looks forward to getting her dogs in front of a whole new audience: “The Lombard PFE store would bring a rescue presence to the Marina, where currently there is no presence at all.”

Not that size matters when it comes to helping animals. “Pawtrero does food drives for us and has been incredibly supportive, and Animal House is great, too,” Franklin says. She believes there’s room for everyone. “There’s more dogs than kids here, and how many grocery stores do we have? We should have pet stores on every corner, too!”

“It’s not about size, it’s about passion,” says Karen Schaver, who runs Lake County Animal Services. “I used to drive two hours to the Petaluma PFE to bring five dogs for adoption. One day in 2004, Mike and Mark happened to be at the store, and they were amazed I was doing this all by myself. Over the years, they have been so supportive — helping me set up in three more stores to do adoptions; providing enough toys for every shelter dog for a year through the Giving Tree; helping with food, beds, supplies — even gas money.” Earlier this year Schaver’s van gave out. “They did a fundraiser, and I was able to buy a new van. I immediately drove it to rescue 20 dogs.”

On a warm July afternoon, Mike Murray visits shelters from Napa to Vallejo to ask how PFE can help, and then spends his evening trying to place a bonded German shepherd and fluffy white mutt he is fostering, recently pulled from a high-kill shelter, as a package deal. Pam Hable spends that same day marching up and down Lombard lobbying against PFE and the Lombard Business Merchants Association. Several rescues and shelters also told me that during and after PFE’s 2009 attempt to move to Lombard, they received some of those anonymous voicemails threatening to have them boycotted, and that Hable refused to donate items for charity events “because they supported PFE.” Who throws political stones at people trying to save innocent animals? Someone living in a glass pet store, perhaps…

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