My friend Laura Gretch is, as they say back in Boston, a wicked pissah. By her own admission, she is mostly cleavage and tattoos. Surrounded by cats and dogs of all shapes an sizes in her role as Community Cares Manager at the San Francisco SPCA, she has the unique ability to attribute doe-eyed cuteness to a kitten in the descriptive nature of sailor, smoothed over with the energy of a six-year-old clenching a fistful of Pixie Sticks.
Visiting Laura at the SF SPCA today, I am reminded of my former life as the head of communications at the Massachusetts SPCA, where we worked alongside each other years ago. The sites, the sounds, and especially the smells come rushing back, but here it is different. The hallways are empty of overflowing donations of blankets and kennels, the crush of adopters has been replaced with families strolling by visiting rooms as if they are enjoying a sun-kissed day in the park, the veterinarians are quietly focused as they perform one in a never ending stream of sterilizations, and now I hear it – quiet. The rooms are quiet.
As Laura takes me down the hallway to the holding rooms for recently received animals I better understand the serenity. Rather than large rooms of kennels and cages, animals are housed in small rooms with only a handful of enclosures. Laura explains that this keeps contagions from spreading as well as preserves order in a chaotic system turnover.
Every SPCA, Humane Society, or rescue group has numbers. They survive based on their numbers. After a time the numbers become the mission if they are not careful. Laura explains the balance that they strike between the statistics and the lives that could become hidden if they were not careful. In Laura’s area, population control and education, the focus is on spay/neuter and community education. Each year the SF SPCA spays and neuters roughly 10,000 cats and dogs. Laura tells me that they are already close to that number and will “smash” it come the end of the fiscal year this month.
For some, 10,000 “fixed” animals would be an accomplishment; for Laura and her colleagues, it is just a beginning. By studying the numbers and pushing aside decades of misinformation and stereotypes, they have identified populations of pet owners in San Francisco that some thought were unreachable. Persistence and an openness to new ideas has helped the department to sterilize animals in entire communities and significantly reduce the numbers of unwanted pets. As Laura explains this news to me, I see her light up with the knowledge that the story is changing and they are rewriting the rules here at the SF SPCA. Numbers will only be a part of that story.
When I ask Laura if there is a dog that needs a little bit of help being adopted a chorus of names is shouted from the staff behind the nearest counter. Common to many adoption centers, the dog population is named by a favored trait – in Speedy’s case it may be the opposite.
Laura shows me an ancient Chihuahua, ribs straining against his thin skin. Not currently available for adoption and still under medical evaluation, Speedy is a ball of contradiction according to one staff member. His gaunt appearance is mainly due to his being “cut” and “ripped” she says. As we visit with him and his roommate, a small Spaniel named Darla, Speedy’s name proves incredibly accurate as he zigs and zags between our ankles. Where his mouth curls in a twisted smile, I see teeth where I supposed were only tired gums. His energy is vibrant, coming off in waves.
After a few minutes of playing and trying to get Speedy to pose for a photo, we squeeze through a doorway, cracked slightly to keep the newly energized Darla and Speedy from wandering the hallways. Laura and I leave the adoption center and head out to the courtyard to part ways.
As I walk through the parking lot, weaving between cars, I think back to my time of working among thousands of animals. I remember most of all the lives that were not just saved but made better by people like Laura, her staff, and the hundreds of former colleagues back in Boston. It’s simply nice to know that Speedy got a chance and someone saw a little spark in his step.
Learn more about how the SF SPCA is spreading the word about the evils of puppy mills.