Susan Pearce trundles through the parking lot pushing a plastic two-tiered intake cart loaded with a dozen empty carriers. It’s this short walk that links San Francisco’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SF SPCA) to Animal Care and Control (ACC), the city-run shelter. The cages rattle and shake, practically trembling in anticipation of the precious cargo awaiting them.

Pearce, one of SPCA’s intake specialists, arrives at ACC as she does most weekdays to run through the available animals with Eric Zuercher, the city’s animal care supervisor. They pore over identical lists detailing descriptions and dispositions: sick or healthy, well-behaved or fractious. ACC, an open-admission shelter, takes in nearly 7,000 cats and dogs a year, plus another 2,700 animals of assorted species. That includes all the city’s strays and most of those relinquished by their owners. Animals that ACC can’t place are offered to trusted rescue groups, like the SF SPCA. After briefly examining the prospects, Pearce decides which ones her organization will accept or consider. Heading back, her cart is laden with eight cats and kittens and a list of dogs for a behaviourist to test and possibly bring over.

Though rescue groups and shelters are, more often than not, known for sparring, in San Francisco, cooperative rescue relationships have earned the city a reputation as a mecca for animal rescuers, a place to go to be inspired by community involvement and creative solutions that are saving animals’ lives.  

ACC’s Eric Zuercher dedicates half his workday to coordinating with rescue groups to find placements for as many animals as possible. The SF SPCA, a private non-profit organization with 150 employees and more than 1,000 volunteers, is by far the largest and most influential rescue group working with ACC, taking in 2,500 of ACC’s animals each year. But it isn’t the only one. At least ten groups have strong ties to the city shelter. Many of their leaders began as volunteers at ACC before spinning off their own organizations. 

Corinne Dowling, founder and director of Give a Dog a Bone, is one of them. She was a volunteer dog walker at ACC when she noticed one group tended to be overlooked: custody dogs. Rescued from abuse or neglect, or waiting to be reclaimed by owners who were hospitalized, evicted, or arrested, these dogs wait months, even years, at the shelter for court cases to be resolved. Some aren’t allowed to go outside because of behaviour or medical issues. Most aren’t permitted to play with other dogs. Kennel stress from lack of stimulation, companionship, and exercise can slowly drive the dogs crazy. 

Give a Dog a Bone stepped in to fill the void. For eight years, Dowling has provided toys, activities, exercise, and warm affection to these special-needs dogs. Dowling’s arsenal includes bins filled with chew toys, Kongs stuffed with a tasty cream cheese formula mixed with holistic ingredients—Bach’s Rescue Remedy, Melatonin, and Omega-3—and a canvas bag containing plastic hands and feet tied to sticks she uses to safely pet these dogs destined to stay confined behind bars.

“On this earth, in this lifetime, they’re not going to live the life my dogs have,” Dowling says, reflecting on this reality with sadness. A third of the dogs she nurtures will be euthanized. Courts will decide to return some to miserable lives, back to owners who don’t deserve them. A lucky few will be adopted into new homes. But all will benefit from the love and caring bestowed upon them by Dowling and her volunteers. Zuercher says programs like these improve the quality of care that the city shelter can offer to animals in its fold.

“We need the rescue groups,” says Zuercher. “They’re not getting paid. They’re spending thousands of dollars. We don’t put up walls and tell them to go away. These partnerships are responsible for saving many animals.”
In the case of the SPCA, an adoption pact formed in 1994 formalizes their relationship with ACC, but other rescue groups are also invited to put holds on animals they could potentially save should time run out. Many are given office space. Some even have keys to the place.

“Over the years, we’ve done more and more with rescue groups,” says Dr. Bing Dilts, ACC’s shelter veterinarian since 1995. “Most start out as volunteers. It’s spawned a culture of coordination. This whole city is very tolerant of everything, and that trickles down to every department.”

Admittedly, San Francisco’s citizens tend to be affluent, liberal-minded, and well-educated, a model society for inspiring progressive animal welfare. 

“San Francisco is an accepting community,” says Carl Friedman, ACC’s director and a 35-year veteran of animal sheltering. “Differences are celebrated. People who came here in the 1950s and ’60s rooted for the underdog because they were the underdog. The citizens of this city would not tolerate this city running a pound.” 

Friedman explains that community cooperation is just one factor in the formula that has helped turn San Francisco into a shining example of progressive animal welfare. According to both SPCA and ACC, unwavering dedication to spaying and neutering has saved more animals’ lives than any other initiative. About 125,000 cats and dogs have been altered by the SPCA since the late 1970s, and ACC has fixed another 20,000 since its inception in 1989. In the ’70s, a popular SPCA program gave people $5 for each animal brought to the clinic to be spayed or neutered. Paying people for a surgery they were used to paying for created a buzz that raised awareness for companion animal overpopulation, sparking the mass spay and neuter effort.

These days, people don’t get paid if their animal has the surgery, but it is available at a subsidized rate or for free at SPCA’s veterinary clinic. Subsidizing surgeries now keeps an exponential number of unborn animals from landing in the shelter system later, says Kiska Icard, SPCA’s program management director. 

It’s this forward thinking that has led to an impressive decrease in the city’s unwanted companion animal population. Ten years ago, ACC took in 9,300 cats and dogs and euthanized more than 3,800. The shelter’s live release rate (defined as the percentage of animals leaving alive) was 59 percent. By June, 2006, ACC’s yearly intake had dropped to 6,700 cats and dogs, of which just 1,357 were euthanized, bumping the live release rate up to a whopping 80 percent. On average, shelters in the U.S. and Canada euthanize 30 to 40 percent of the animals they take in, and some shelters face statistics that are the reverse of those in San Francisco: they are forced to euthanize up to 80 percent of their animals because of space constraints and a drastic shortage of available homes.

The drop in ACC’s intake numbers has allowed the SPCA to stretch its reach to outlying communities that face an overwhelming abundance of unwanted animals. Called Life Links, this program has SPCA vans hitting the road several days a week to pick up animals from 25 overtaxed shelters outside San Francisco.

“It’s like the rescue wagon,” says Holly Stempien Fink, SPCA’s adoption director. “These dogs are in line to be euthanized.”

This past spring, San Francisco’s record of animal kindness was recognized nationally when it was named America’s most humane metropolitan area by Humane Society of United States. The criteria didn’t include shelter rankings, but it did rate many other humane indicators, including the number of vegetarian restaurants, fur shame (how many fur retailers operate in the area), the prevalence of captive animals exploited for entertainment, and the number of pet stores selling animals obtained from puppy and kitten mills.

It’s a fitting victory for the city named after St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals. Here in San Francisco, dogs rule. About 750,000 people live in San Francisco’s 49 square miles, and an estimated 120,000 canines call the city home. That has led to a proliferation of plush doggie daycares, swanky multi-million dollar kenneling facilities, and oodles of neighbourhood dog walkers and pet sitters. Animal-friendly events abound, including wine-and-cheese parties to promote puppy training, as well as plentiful dog parks that facilitate impromptu socializing for dogs and their people. Every fall, a city-wide blessing ceremony for the animals is held at numerous churches in honour of St. Francis, drawing hundreds of animals and their guardians. 

The spirit of St. Francis is evident at ACC, where people like Donna Duford, coordinator of behavior and training, passionately describe the value of volunteer support. Town hall-style meetings, email updates on cases of interest, and detailed notes kept on each animal all contribute to keeping volunteers in the loop.

“Policies have been changed because of volunteers,” says Duford. In addition to her staff position, Duford volunteers many hours a week to her play group program, which brings groups of dogs into the shelter yard to play and socialize.

“I know we have saved dogs’ lives with the play group program,” Duford says. “They keep up with their social skills while they’re here and maintain their mental state. People will stop and look at these dogs because they look happy and cared for in their kennels.” 

The ACC taps resources in the business community, too. Bernie Machado of Bernie’s Grooming is a beloved part of the team. She works out of a small space in the shelter. In exchange for rent, she baths, clips and tenderly cares for the shelter animals alongside her fuzzy clients.

“This shelter doesn’t belong to me—it belongs to everyone in town,” Friedman says. “The success is that we all work together. Do we have friction? Yes. But the people in this community help me save lives. We’re talking about how to save animals. That makes us committed to working out our differences.”

Friedman insists the achievements in San Francisco “can happen anywhere,” though, at times, finding homes for rescued animals also requires some salesmanship. Many people don’t like going to animal shelters (even the beautiful surroundings offered by the SPCA’s 27,000-square-foot facility), so the shelter goes to them. Approximately 10 percent of SPCA’s animals are adopted off-site. Animals are color-coded by temperament, and those who test well are taken on day trips to office buildings. Staff set up cages to showcase animals up for adoption, and also take the opportunity to hand out educational information on issues such as spaying and neutering, says Joan Mapou, SPCA’s adoption outreach coordinator. 

As Mapou gets ready for a trip to the financial district, she places soft, fluffy beds made by schoolchildren along with colorful donated toys in each cage. She looks over the information posted on the cages of the available animals and talks about the most elaborate example of SPCA’s off-site promotions: Holiday Windows. Macy’s Union Square department store offers its windows for this wildly popular annual event, designing elaborate theme sets for the occasion—a giant train, a shopkeepers’ village, a quaint old-fashioned home. Animals populate the sets throughout the holidays, with SPCA staff and volunteers standing by to ensure that the throngs of delighted shoppers don’t tap on the windows or otherwise frighten the animals. The animals return safely to the shelter each night, and any animal who experiences stress is pulled from the project. 

“We’re all trying to save lives,” says SPCA adoption director Fink. “We try to reach people from different angles. We want people to adopt an animal from a rescue group.”

That’s a sentiment everyone in San Francisco’s rescue community agrees on. “You can’t save them all, but you can save them one by one,” says ACC’s Eric Zuercher. “That’s what keeps you going.” 

Carreen Maloney was a journalist in Canada for 10 years at the Ottawa Citizen, the Winnipeg Free Press and Business in Vancouver. Now she writes about animal issues and runs Fuzzy Town, a U.S.-based toy and animal products company. She has rescued animals for 17 years, and can be contacted at