Rich Avanzino is widely considered to be the godfather of the no-kill movement. And it certainly seemed, even early in his life, that he would do something that involved caring for animals.
In his high school yearbook, he was identified as “most likely to become a veterinarian.” But certain aspects of veterinary school dismayed him. Instead, he earned a doctor of pharmacy degree, followed by a law degree, and eventually became administrator of a health care agency in Orange County..
A call from an employment headhunter and a little dog named Sido changed the direction of his life. The recruiter represented a not-for-profit organization, and approached Avanzino because he had a reputation for saving financially distressed organizations. After three months of interviews, Avanzino learned he was being sought by an animal-welfare organization, the San Francisco SPCA. He was still passionate about animals and excited to take the job when it was offered.
The selection committee never expected that in his quest to save an organization 90 days away from bankruptcy, he would turn the idea of a shelter upside down. Avanzino and his team instituted new hours to make it easier for people to come see potential pets. They got rid of the high-altitude chamber used to kill unadopted animals and started a volunteer program and a spay/neuter clinic.
“We just started trying to do right by the animals one step at a time, and the community got engaged and the community saved the pets,” he says. Then came Sido. “My belief in the no-kill nation came back in 1979 when a dog named Sido came to the San Francisco SPCA,” Avanzino says. “She was 11 years old, and people thought that dogs over 5 years old couldn’t be saved, couldn’t find a home.”
For that reason, Sido’s owner had stipulated in her will that Sido be taken to the veterinarian and “destroyed” upon her death. Avanzino fought for the dog’s life in court and won. The support Sido received from the public and the legislative and judicial system inspired him to help even more animals have the opportunity to live.
That goal was a factor in his 1999 move to what is now Maddie’s Fund, the largest dog and cat charity in the world. There he helped to create the idea of shelter medicine, promote sterilization of feral cats, enable communities to offer an adoption guarantee for healthy and treatable animals, and increase the business acumen of shelter directors to match the passion they had for pets.
Of his career, he says: “To be part of that experience, to watch the community and the not-for-profits and the government ... embrace the importance of our bond was a dream come true for me in terms of recognizing what our species should be doing for the other species that share our home. I was able to work on my passion, work with my passion, work for my passion and make a meaningful difference.”
Avanzino is retiring as president of Maddie’s Fund next month, but he’s not leaving animal welfare behind. His dog, Bri, and cat, Puddy, will see more of him than they already do, but he will still consult for the organization, and he’ll become involved in an even more personal way by fostering pets.
“I expect to stay engaged in the cause that has taken my heart and my soul and all of my energy over the last 40 years,” Avanzino says. “I can’t leave it behind. It’s part of my DNA, and until my last breath, I will be part of it.”
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton, author of many pet-care books. The two are affiliated with Vetstreet.com. Dr. Becker can also be found at facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker.