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Richard Avanzino, Transforming Animal Welfare


Every American community has some type of animal shelter, where stray and unwanted dogs, cats and other pets are housed until they can be adopted. But because there are so many animals being picked up on the street or turned in by owners, many overcrowded shelters have to euthanize large numbers of healthy animals. That's not the case at Maddie's Pet Adoption Center.

This state-of-the-art pet shelter is one of Richard Avanzino's crowning achievements. It was built in 1998 when Avanzino was president of the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the SPCA.

There are no cages at this animal shelter. Dogs and cats are housed in comfortable quarters that resemble bedrooms and living rooms while waiting to be adopted. Avanzino explains that's because Americans think of pets as family members.

"You would not put a family member in a cage. So the housing for the animals was to replicate the kind of environment the animals would be going home to, because that's what we wanted them accustomed to, and it was a fun experience."

Instead of the dogs getting frustrated and barking and jumping because they were going kennel-crazy, at the SPCA's adoption center, he says, "They began to enjoy their environment. And the adopters, instead of walking into a place that was smelly and noisy and unattractive and ugly, [found] an uplifting destination point, a place where you could look over the pets you might add to your own family."

A new way of thinking about companion animals

Ten years ago, those noisy kennels, crowded with rows of caged animals were the norm across the country. It's not surprising that Avanzino has worked so hard to change that.

"I've always been an animal lover, probably since the time I was born. And we always had many pets in the household. My mother would always reach out to those that were stray, abandoned or lost, that needed somebody to rescue. And animals were very important in my life. I connected with them; I bonded with them. And it's brought great joy to my life."

Jan McHugh Smith, the current president of the San Francisco SPCA, calls Avanzino an icon in animal welfare.

"He will be remembered for many things: his innovation in programs, in trying to find new ways of doing things, to help raise the visibility of homeless animals. He is known for being a maverick and challenging the status quo; he changed many of the ways the community thinks about animals, what are the tools in our toolbox to help save lives."

Maddie's Pet Adoption Center was the centerpiece of Avanzino's ground-breaking "no-kill" initiative to reduce the numbers of cats and dogs that were routinely euthanized in San Francisco's municipal shelter. Any animal that the city could not find a home for was turned over to the privately funded SPCA. In 1994, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to guarantee that every healthy dog and cat would be cared for until it was adopted. It now has one of the lowest euthanasia rates in the country.

"We [in San Francisco] were killing about 26,000 dogs and cats per year. Right now, that number is now less than 2,000," Avanzino says.

His no-kill philosophy recognizes the need to euthanize animals that cannot be rehabilitated, such as very sick, injured and vicious animals. He adds that the SPCA has been able to reduce its euthanasia rates because the community cares.

"The people of San Francisco and the Bay Area have tried to help the shelter community by going to those facilities and adopting those pets who, without them, would lose their lives. They would be killed. That tragedy has to end. And it can be stopped right now."

Creating a no-kill nation

The no-kill movement and other humane programs started by Avanzino have now spread to other parts of the country. He says the movement has grown because shelters and humane societies are doing a better job of educating the public about the importance of spaying or neutering their pets.

"Fewer animals are coming into shelters, because more and more people are having them spayed. Shelters are doing a better job in showing off their pets and marketing them to the public, so adoptions are going up. So we have fewer animals coming in. We have a stronger component for taking care of their health and their proper behavior, and we're seeing the animals go home to loving environments, so they don't come back to you at a later point in time."

Richard Avanzino is now president of Maddie's Fund, the world's largest animal charity. This foundation is dedicated to promoting animal welfare with the goal of creating a no-kill nation. Although pet euthanasia rates have declined significantly all across the country, 3 to 4 million dogs and cats are put to sleep every year.

But Avanzino is optimistic. He believes the United States can become a no-kill nation by 2015. He points to the estimated 17 million Americans who will get a dog or cat this year, but have never adopted a shelter pet in the past.

"We need to get three million of them to adopt from shelters, and we will end euthanasia of healthy and treatable dogs and cats," he insists. "The market is expanding. There's more and more people that understand and want to embrace having companion animals as part of their households. Right now, 55 percent of all households have pets. If we could increase that by two percent - [to] 57 percent - no healthy dog or cat will die."

After 32 years as a leading animal protection advocate, Richard Avanzino is nearing retirement age. But he vows that he won't quit any time soon and hopes to be around if and when his no-kill goal is achieved.

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