I was pleased to receive a letter from Catherine Brown, board chair of the San Francisco SPCA. Brown says, “Debate, discussion and argument are all a healthy part of the process toward improving animal care.” She says further there are inaccurate statements in our September cover story, How the San Francisco SPCA let us down, but she doesn’t want to go into them because they were addressed in SF/SPCA president Jan McHugh-Smith’s rebuttal to the article on their Web site. However, as I said in last month’s Editor’s Note, I think her rebuttal only served to prove our point: By cherry picking a few cute animals in the Central Valley while taking only 14 percent of their dogs from San Francisco, the SF/SPCA is not helping to “reduce overcrowding.” More than 40,000 animals are euthanized in the Central Valley annually — the third highest in the nation. It is an enormous and horrific problem that requires Central Valley lawmakers to finally step up to the plate and take responsibility by providing funds for education, community outreach, and free and low-cost spay and neuter programs.
My invitation remains open to McHugh-Smith for a Q&A session in a public forum with a mutually agreed upon moderator, and I would like to extend that invitation to Brown and other members of the board as well.
A lot has transpired at the SF/SPCA since our September cover story. After 8 jobs, mostly in marketing and finance, were cut in August, another round in October saw 16 jobs lost and the hours of six other employees reduced. (Despite the layoffs, the SF/SPCA recently posted several job listings on Craig’s List.) As a result of the turmoil, the SF/SPCA will be closed on Mondays for the first time in the organization’s 141-year history.
McHugh-Smith has made appearances on the local news, blaming the economy for the problems — layoffs, reduced services, slashed programs; yet other Bay Area animal shelters are facing the same economy and thriving — most on much smaller budgets. The East Bay SPCA, for example, had total revenue of $4,298,340 for fiscal year 2007 with a deficit of $279,692 and net assets of $18,491,504. For that same period, the SF/SPCA had total revenue of $29,776,492 with an excess of $16,597,644 and net assets of $66,764,759. Yet, the EB/SPCA has been adding programs in the down economy, including their very successful humane advocate — with a budget of $1,500 per month, she visits low-income neighborhoods offering counseling, medical care, and free spay and neuter vouchers.
The EB/SPCA also does more low-cost and free surgeries, performing over 9,000 spays and neuters in 2008. Of those, 2,023 were free and 2,319 were discounted; 3,915 were at regular prices: $100 for dogs, $50 for cats; lower than many private veterinary clinics.
The SF/SPCA performed 6,600 spay and neuter surgeries, of which 2,134 were low cost or free (despite repeated requests, the SF/SPCA did not break down low cost versus free); 4,466 were at regular prices, with rates higher than many private veterinary clinics in the City: $100 for male cats, $140 for female cats, $200 for pregnant cats; and $250 to $450 for dogs, depending on sex and weight.
In a recent segment for NBC Bay Area News, McHugh-Smith boasted to anchor Diane Dwyer that the new $30-million hospital brought in $5 million last year, but when Dwyer pressed her on how much it cost to run it, McHugh-Smith sheepishly said, “$6 million,” prompting Dwyer to respond that if the hospital lost $1 million, she “didn’t see how that was helping.” When the segment aired a second time, Dwyer read a response from McHugh-Smith about the 37 percent increase in demand for low-cost and free services this year being part of the SF/SPCA’s financial hardship, but according to some prospective clients, obtaining those services ranges from difficult to impossible.
Joseph Q. (he asked that his last name not be revealed) came to San Francisco fresh out of law school last year for a job that fell through. His mother had given him a purebred 8-week-old American bulldog puppy for his birthday, but he noticed the puppy, named Bianca, was lethargic and had blood in her stool. Joseph took Bianca to the SF/SPCA hospital where, after a chest x-ray, the veterinarian diagnosed her with aspiration pneumonia and said he was “sending in someone to discuss the estimate.” Moments later a woman entered the room and informed Joseph that Bianca would require a five- to seven-day hospital stay at a cost of $3,000. Stunned, Joseph told her that he was unemployed and had no money, so she tried talking him into signing up for CareCredit, a credit card that allows low-income clients to make payments (something, according to the SF/SPCA Web site, “All clients seeking financial assistance are required to apply for …”). “I told her that I couldn’t sign up for it because I didn’t have any way to pay it back,” Joseph recalls. The woman then asked if there was anyone he could call to assist him with the cost of Bianca’s care. “She said, ‘Your dog is going to die without this treatment,’ and I started crying,” Joseph says. “Then she asked, ‘What would you do if this was a child?’ and when I started crying even harder, she said ‘There are tissues behind you.’ Meanwhile, Bianca has been in a holding pen for 45 minutes ‘dying.’ The woman told me to make some calls, so I did — my mom, my friends — but no one could help.”
When Joseph told the woman that he couldn’t find anyone who could offer assistance, she escorted him and Bianca across the street to Animal Care and Control. “She told me surrendering my dog was my only option. I wanted what was best for Bianca, so I did it.” The woman at the front desk of ACC explained the process to Joseph, and then said, “I’m going to call Pets Unlimited.” Moments later, an ACC officer drove Bianca to Pets Unlimited for treatment. “The SF/SPCA has that big hospital right there,” Joseph said, “but ACC had to drive a sick puppy across town.”
Joseph checked the next day and was surprised to hear that Bianca had already been returned to ACC, despite the fact the SF/SPCA had estimated a weeklong, $3,000 hospital stay. When Joseph went to visit Bianca several days later, ACC informed him that the SF/SPCA had taken her — American bulldogs are highly desirable, expensive purebreds. Not surprisingly, Bianca was quickly adopted.
The SF/SPCA, unaccustomed to criticism, is also cracking down on volunteers — I received an e-mail forwarded from volunteer services coordinator Melanie Zavarella that stated, “Due to the recent news, we are under the media spotlight again … the media protocol for volunteers is as follows: Refrain from communicating with the media … without permission from our Development Communications Department.” But the crackdown isn’t working — I continue to get e-mails and calls from current and former employees and volunteers concerned about the management team.
The most shocking allegation came from several sources inside the organization: SF/SPCA vice president Dori Villalon had “purchased a dog on Craig’s List.” I had heard this from an employee while researching the September cover story, but was unable to substantiate the claim. That, however, was not the most shocking part: the sources claimed that the dog, a 16-month-old female husky-lab mix named Vida, had been surrendered — to the Humane Society of Boulder Valley in Colorado. Sources sent me photos of the dog from the Humane Society of Boulder Valley’s Web site, and I realized it was the dog I had seen Villalon with on one of my undercover visits to the SF/SPCA hospital in August. It made sense, because the Humane Society of Boulder Valley is Villalon’s former employer. In fact, that is where she met McHugh-Smith, which eventually led to her job at the SF/SPCA. I called Boulder Humane’s communications director, Kim Sporrer to request intake papers for Vida, the dog shipped to Boulder by Dori Villalon. Sporrer said in an e-mail, “Regarding your request for copies of intake records for Vida, the dog transferred to us by the San Francisco SPCA, it is our policy that we do not release intake records.”
I also left messages for chief executive officer Lisa Pedersen and director of shelter services Bridgette Chesne asking for information about Villalon’s dog, but neither returned my calls.
Those once inside the SF/SPCA are not surprised that Villalon would surrender her dog. “She openly admitted surrendering her cats after she got divorced,” one told me. “And I heard she had another big, white dog named Parker. What happened to him?”
Another former employee told me that she was disgusted by Vida’s surrender. “Vida was such as sweet dog. Dori told one of our trainers that she ‘wasn’t bonding with her,’ and that’s no surprise since she left her in the old Hearing Dog Program kennels most of the time. Here she is running our adoption center where we tell people every day that animals are a lifetime commitment, and not only does Dori not adopt a dog from her own shelter, she buys one on Craig’s List and then, when the dog is no longer convenient, surrenders her — to a shelter in another state. Did she really think no one would find out?”
I received a call from another ex-employee who wanted me to know about Villalon’s “Patron Pets” program. “If we get a purebred or a ‘cuter animal’ we are supposed to charge more. Dori says these animals help to offset the cost of the other animals — I guess the ‘less cute’ and nonpurebreds. So if we get a purebred yellow lab, for example, we might charge $500.”
I couldn’t help but wonder if Bianca, Joseph’s American bulldog puppy, had been a Patron Pet.
“When I would tell people that an animal they were interested in was $500, they would often walk out, or on the phone they would hang up on me or scream at me,” the ex-employee continued. “And a lot of them would say, ‘I might as well just go to a breeder!’ which, of course, goes totally against the SF/SPCA’s mission of adopting rather than buying a pet.”
Villalon is no stranger to controversy and, according to volunteers who worked with her in Sonoma, her mouth was her worst enemy — she often made inappropriate statements to the press. During an interview for fetch The Paper, she said of killing healthy animals: “Euthanasia is necessary because of something that happens in the community. It’s one of the services we do for the community.” On the topic of Sonoma’s high euthanasia rate for pit bulls, Villalon said, “… pit bulls aren’t always good adoption candidates. There are also very few admirable people who say, ‘I’ll take on a pit bull.’ Still, pit bulls have become status symbols. You see them on rap videos and in movies.”
Not admirable? As a pit bull mom, I take exception to that. I have a feeling that talk show host and Food Network star Rachael Ray, another pit bull owner, probably would, too (along with Teddy Roosevelt and Helen Keller if they were still alive — both had pit bulls).
The $145,000-a-year vice president position, created for Villalon by friend and former Humane Society of Boulder Valley associate McHugh-Smith, is another sore spot for many inside the SF/SPCA, both past and present. “Dori is Jan’s enforcer — she’s there to do the dirty work, like firing people and escorting them off the premises,” one employee said in an anonymous phone call. “If we are so broke, why don’t they get rid of her? They never had a vice president before — why do we need one now, especially if the economy is hurting us so badly that we have to fire tons of people and get rid of all our great programs?”
A number of calls referenced the $500,000 loan the SF/SPCA gave to McHugh-Smith so she could buy a home in Marin, as well as her $237,000 a year salary. When I asked about the 5 percent pay cut the executives had supposedly taken, one former employee scoffed, “It isn’t an actual cut in pay — it’s furlough days. I’d like to have some extra days off too if I was making six figures.”
Still another employee informed me that the $30 million hospital was “so poorly constructed” that during the recent storms it leaked so badly that “animals had to be moved back to the kennels in the old hospital.”
During that same storm, I had my own leak to worry about: the basement of my house in the Haight-Ashbury flooded. When my plumber went to his truck to get a wrench, he noticed a grey pit bull tied to the gate of a house nearby. “He’s barking and crying,” he said. I immediately went to the pit bull, who was shivering in the downpour, and a young man from the Laundromat across the street indicated the dog was his. I waved him over. “You can’t leave your dog tied to a gate,” I said. “The manager over there won’t let me have him inside,” he responded. We untied the dog and took him across to the Laundromat, where the manager, whom I’ve known for years, scowled but said nothing. At least 10 homeless kids were huddled inside, doing their laundry and waiting out the storm. I noticed that the grey pit bull was not neutered, was unlicensed, and seemed sick. His young owner, Alex, confirmed my suspicion: “He’s had bloody poop.” A guy in a button-down dress shirt waiting for his clothes to dry overheard and asked, “Have you taken him to the SF/SPCA hospital?” Another homeless man named Michael piped up, “Don’t bother, dude — they won’t help you if you don’t got money. I took my dog there when she was really sick and they wouldn’t help her because I owed them like $200 from three years ago … they tried to get me to sign up for some credit card and I was like, ‘I’m homeless’ … it totally sucked.”
It was obvious that Alex was concerned for his dog, whom he called Baron, so I told him to go to my veterinarian, Dr. Sherman Wong at Blue Cross Pet Hospital. “Have him call me to confirm that I sent you.” Alex wrote my phone number on a scrap of paper, and I headed back across the street to deal with my flood.
The next day, Dr. Wong called and informed me that Alex and Baron were there. I told him to take care of the dog and send me the bill, but first I asked him to put Alex on the phone. As he began to thank me profusely, I said adamantly, “I want you to promise me that you will have Baron neutered,” I could hear Alex hesitate, “Oh, man, I promise — but I want to breed him just once…”
Inside, I wanted to scream. The day before, in the Laundromat, I saw at least five unaltered male dogs and two pregnant female dogs, along with six eight-week-old puppies.
Where is ACC? Where is the SF/SPCA? All I could think was how much San Francisco could use that humane advocate in the East Bay about now.
Meanwhile, McHugh-Smith and the SF/SPCA’s board of directors refuse to acknowledge there are deep problems within their organization, preferring instead to play the blame game with the economy and shift the focus away from animal welfare to a resounding cry of, “Show me the money!”