San Francisco’s Rescue Row Offers Innovative Animal Sheltering Ideas

On a recent trip to San Francisco, I visited three shelters on “Rescue Row” (the actual name of the street on which they are all located). As an 11-year veteran of volunteering at Austin Animal Center, dubbed “the largest No Kill community in the nation”, I’m always looking for ways that other shelters are succeeding in saving lives.

The Mission SPCA was clean, beautiful, and had impressive pet living quarters. Each dog has her own room, some with the lower half of the glass fogged so she can’t get frustrated by passing pups, a problem in many shelters. This quiet room with minimized ability to become amped by outside stimuli clearly contributed to calm, quiet canines, rather than the barking, spinning, overstimulated dogs often seen at shelters with open wire kennels.

Instead of the usual paper kennel card, the SPCA reflected its Silicon Valley tech heritage by using tablets to tell you about each pet. These tablets were sponsored by Purina whose ad was on the tablet home screen. Using advertising to fund a customer-focused feature such as a tablet kennel card is smart.

After the tablet’s home screen ad, you click through to information about the dog, and a QR code to scan for his webpage. This is such a “customer-centric” user experience for dog adoption, and I couldn’t love it more. 

To teach dogs to keep “four (paws) on the floor”, each dog’s room had a “treat tube” lower on the glass, with a bucket of kibble near it. This served a double function of helping dogs to associate passing people positively, AND it encouraged them not to jump up on the glass. Because #manners.

Look at the perfect sit-stay manners on these little nuggets, thanks to the “treat tube”.

The SPCA’s cat area was also obviously sponsored in part by Purina, which – again – is such a great idea because they are treating this nonprofit like a business (advertising!) to fund what donations don’t cover.

Some kittens got to live in a dollhouse that looked like the famous Painted Ladies featured in the opening scene from Full House. Adding fun visual appeal is an innovative way to make shelter visitation not be sad as stereotyped.

To help customers determine whether a cat would be a good fit for their lifestyle, each feline was also labeled according to her personality such as Lion Hearted, Cat Next Door, Poet, etc. Obviously how an animal behaves in a shelter environment isn’t necessarily how they will act in a home, but it’s still immensely helpful to give customers clues as to how this pet’s disposition seems.

Next up on my tour of Rescue Row was San Francisco Animal Care and Control (ACC). This is the city’s open intake shelter, as opposed to the SPCA, which is a rescue that pulls from shelters. As seems to be the case in all urban shelters, there are a disproportionate percent of pups that fall under the “pit bull mix” category, a label I dislike, as “pit bull” isn’t a breed recognized by the American Kennel Club, and is used for a variety of breeds that may have no historical association with dog fighting. Labeling dogs as “pit bulls” makes it more difficult for them to get adopted because of the media-promoted misinformation about muscular mutts. A better option would be to designate them as “looks like a Staffordshire Terrier mix” because Staffies are an AKC-recognized breed, and there is far less baggage associated with the term.

Before entering the kennel runs, ACC had this informative board featuring pro-pittie PR that included my favorite All Dogs are Individuals graphic from Animal Farm Foundation:

Here is the kennel card for a Staffordshire-Terrier type named Honey:

What struck me most about this open-intake municipal shelter was how empty it was. San Francisco feels so much more densely populated (with humans) than Austin, yet it had plenty of empty kennels while Austin is constantly over capacity, leading to stress, sadness and burnout among the humans caring for them. Volunteers I spoke with at both the SPCA and ACC said the city’s spay/neuter ordinance for “pit bull type” dogs, enacted in 2006, caused a dramatic decrease in intake (this seems logical, but doesn’t actually comply with the No Kill position on sterilization). I adore “bully breeds” and have two of them, but they are significantly overrepresented at shelters, which results in them being 40 percent of the dogs euthanized. If this was true of Beagles or Golden Retrievers, it would be humane to put a damper on their reproduction as well.

My next stop on Rescue Row was Muttville Senior Dog Rescue, which pulls older pups from shelters and fixes them up while they await adoption in foster homes or the organization’s cage-free facility where I took a one-hour tour with a passionate volunteer. I think dogs improve with age (like a fine wine), and appreciate programs that promote the adoption of more mature canines. Older dogs are still deemed unadoptable at many shelters, and are among the first to be euthanized. The success of Muttville and Austin’s Classic Canines program show that there are plenty of compassionate people looking for quality (of personality) not quantity (of years together) when choosing a pooch.

Muttville uses clever marketing and engaging events such as Senior Prom, Cuddle Club and Seniors for Seniors (pairing people and pets of advanced age) to engage the community. Muttville is truly a place where human passion and ingenuity have significantly improved the world.

My main takeaways from these visits were the importance of proactive spay/neuter outreach and ordinances, and to try contacting companies for specific-program funds in exchange for featuring their ads. Applying business principles – advertising, user-experience design, “inventory” placement – might get Austin to the next level of lifesaving success.

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One thought on “San Francisco’s Rescue Row Offers Innovative Animal Sheltering Ideas

  1. Wonderful information loaded with great ideas to help animals find “forever” homes!! Thank you for sharing!!

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