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Sacramento shelter manager saving lives, one animal at a time

Front Street Animal Shelter manager Gina Knepp with a year-old pit bull mix slated to be euthanized at the facility in Sacramento. Knepp spent time with the dog Thursday and took her to the office and found her to be social, able to be trained and not a threat and took her off the euthanization list.
Front Street Animal Shelter manager Gina Knepp with a year-old pit bull mix slated to be euthanized at the facility in Sacramento. Knepp spent time with the dog Thursday and took her to the office and found her to be social, able to be trained and not a threat and took her off the euthanization list. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

Gina Knepp remembers the confused looks she got last year when she decided to haul adoptable cats and dogs to a “drag-queen bingo” event at a Sacramento midtown bar.

She remembers the scoffs, back in 2012, when she brought stray felines to a professional cat show.

In April, after she jumped out of an airplane at 18,000 feet to raise money for her Front Street Animal Shelter, some said she had finally gone too far.

Is there anything that Knepp would not do in the name of wayward animals?

“I don’t think I’d run naked across Capitol Mall,” she said, her raspy voice erupting in laughter. “Then again, maybe for the right amount of money …”

Sacramento’s downtown city animal shelter, once a sad concrete bunker where stray animals went to die, has undergone a dramatic transformation since Knepp fell into the role of manager more than three years ago.

Under her leadership, the shelter has a new name and a refurbished public image, and is saving thousands of healthy animals that previously would have been killed.

Knepp, 52, deflects credit for the turnaround. It is the result, she said, of hard work from staffers and volunteers who embraced key policy changes and help sustain a relentless social media campaign.

Among other changes, Knepp ended a policy mandating that any animal weighing less than 2 pounds be put to death, and she cultivated rescue groups willing to provide “foster care” to animals outside the shelter. Dogs that growled during their stressful first hours at the facility no longer would automatically be targeted for euthanasia. Feral cats, once universally killed, would be neutered or spayed and released back into the neighborhoods where they were trapped.

To encourage more people to adopt animals, Knepp gave the shelter a makeover, informally changing its name from City Animal Care and Control to the friendlier Front Street. She installed fetching portraits of animals in the lobby and held open houses featuring music and food. She hired a social media specialist to promote shelter cats and dogs, including maligned breeds such as pit bull terriers, on Facebook and other platforms.

At least once a week, Knepp takes her show on the road, bringing adoptable animals to wineries and breweries, garden shops, parades and parks. This holiday season, shelter dogs will be featured in the Sacramento Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker.

Knepp’s approach has not been without controversy. Critics dismiss some of her promotions as gimmicky and some of her policies as misguided.

But few disagree that the end result, at least on paper, appears a stunning success. During Knepp’s tenure, the number of animals leaving the facility alive, rather than in trash bins bound for a rendering plant, has soared.

In September 2011, shortly after Knepp came on board, the shelter’s live-release rate was 20 percent. Staffers were putting to death 700 cats and dogs per month. Today, according to figures kept by the facility, the numbers are reversed. Close to 80 percent of Front Street animals leave the shelter alive. The only animals condemned to the euthanasia room, said Knepp, are those that are dangerous, fatally ill or gravely injured. About 250 animals per month fall into that category.

“By the time I retire, I want the Front Street Shelter to be a place where people hope their pets end up if they get lost,” Knepp said, “because they’ll know we’re not going to kill them.”

All three of Sacramento’s main animal shelters, including the county’s and the SPCA’s, have been successful in recent years in increasing adoptions and reducing euthanasia rates. But the changes at Front Street have been most profound.

“Before Gina arrived, it was the Dark Ages,” said longtime volunteer Ellen Nakata-Harper. “Now, we’re in a Renaissance period. It’s a joy being at the shelter. Gina is a great leader.”

Making a difference

Knepp’s work ethic, and her affinity for underdogs, stems in part from her childhood in Hollywood Park.

Her late parents emigrated from Brazil shortly before her birth in 1962, and worked long hours cleaning offices, washing dishes and making pizzas. Knepp served as the family translator, and from a young age helped dress, feed and bathe her sister Sarah, who has cerebral palsy.

After high school, Knepp attended UC Berkeley for a couple of years before entering the workforce. She sold attic insulation, worked as a process server and waitressed before joining the Sacramento Police Department as a dispatcher. Knepp was managing the city’s 911 service in 2005 when she was tapped to run the city’s 311 call center, which helps residents get information about services from leaf pickup to utilities.

She was unprepared when her bosses in the Department of General Services asked her to take over the animal shelter job after manager Penny Cistaro left for another agency in July 2011.

Knepp was hardly “an animal person,” she said. Growing up, her parents never allowed animals in the house unless they were destined for the dinner table.

“I was afraid of dogs,” she said. “I didn’t know a husky from a Shih Tzu.”

But in the shabby, woebegone shelter, Knepp saw something enticing. “I started thinking, ‘Wait a minute. I could really make a difference here,’ she said. “So I went for it.”

At the top of her list of priorities, she said, was ending the killing of friendly, healthy animals. It was a goal some thought impossible at a municipal shelter charged with taking in stray and injured animals, with a tradition of killing dozens of dogs and cats a day to open up space for new ones.

In 2010, staffers at the facility put to death 8,354 dogs and cats. During the first eight months of 2014, they euthanized 1,788. Adoptions have risen from 1,474 in all of 2010 to 2,340 in the first eight months of this year.

Knepp is determined to reach higher. “Tell me I can’t achieve something, and those words are magic to me,” she said. “Pixie dust.”

Today, Knepp cannot deny that she is something of an “animal person.” She lives in her childhood home with her husband, Christopher, four rescue dogs and an 18-pound Maine Coon cat. Her daughter, Ruby Santos, attends college in New Mexico. Knepp remains conservator and caregiver for her sister, who lives just down the street.

“I would never leave Sacramento without Sarah,” she said. “As hard as it was, and still is today, I wouldn’t change anything.”

As a manager, Knepp’s best traits are her tenacity, energy and ability to make the people around her feel valued, said her best friend, Wendy Klock-Johnson.

“Gina didn’t single-handedly turn around the shelter,” Klock-Johnson said. Rather, “she turned around the people who helped her get it done. Gina is fearless when she sees a challenge, and that fearlessness washes over people.”

Bending the rules

Not everyone is hailing Knepp as a miracle worker.

Some argue that Front Street compromises its finances when it slashes adoption fees to as low as $5. They note that the decrease in euthanasia rates reflects, in part, that the shelter farms out a huge number of dogs and cats with health or behavioral concerns to agencies and individuals willing to “foster” them until their situations improve. They wonder whether the numbers are sustainable.

“Where are the next 500 cats going to go?” asked Dia Goode, a retired legislative consultant and animal advocate who has monitored the shelter and its policies for more than a decade. “At some point, the market gets saturated.”

Knepp has done “an excellent job of rebranding the shelter, and with PR and fundraising,” Goode said. But she believes the facility focuses too much on “getting animals out of the door as quickly as possible” and not enough on preventing them from arriving at the shelter in the first place.

A couple of months ago, Goode publicly chastised Knepp for allowing customers at a busy adoption event to take home unaltered dogs and cats with the promise they would bring them back for spay-and-neuter surgery.

“It sets a very bad precedent when you tell people it’s OK to delay altering their animals,” Goode said. “It’s unconscionable, really.”

Incorrigibly upbeat even in the face of criticism, Knepp said she took a “calculated risk,” and has no qualms about bending the rules to achieve her goals.

“I do live on the edge a little bit,” she said, seated in her small office, reaching for a square of nicotine gum to curb her cigarette cravings.

On a typical day, Knepp arrives at the shelter hours before it opens at noon. She meets with staff, walks the kennels and reviews lists of dogs and cats targeted for euthanasia. She reviews Front Street’s Facebook page, fills out grant applications, hustles donations. She has been known to clean kennels when staffing is short.

On a recent afternoon, in dress pants and heels, she moved in a whirlwind from her office to the front lobby to rows of kennels filled with barking dogs.

“Look at you!” she cooed at a stray black Labrador pup that a technician was evaluating for behavioral issues. “You’re so handsome! Why are you here?” Knepp pulled out her cellphone and began scrolling through her contacts for a potential adopter.

Progress has not come without sacrifices.

Knepp, who earns an annual salary of about $115,000, said she typically is at Front Street or in the field 70 hours a week. She manages an annual budget of about $3.4 million, attends city meetings and pitches in with the shelter’s nonprofit group, which last year raised $350,000 from special events. While undergoing treatment for thyroid cancer, she worked from her hospital bed and was back at the shelter within days of surgery.

“The job is 24/7,” she said.

One of her toughest tasks, she said, is deciding the fates of animals that have landed on the shelter’s euthanasia list. Each of those dogs and cats gets a visit from either Knepp or chief animal control Officer Danny Torres, who make the final call.

On a recent day Knepp, holding a clipboard with photos and kennel numbers of animals targeted for euthanasia, stopped at a cage holding a chihuahua mix that staff members had labeled potentially dangerous. As Knepp approached, the pup wagged its tail and moved toward her. It was enough for Knepp to order a stay of execution and further evaluation. Moments later, she signed off on the death of a cat so wild that staffers were unable to give it medication for a serious illness.

At home late at night, Knepp said, she sometimes lies awake wondering what more she can do for the animals of Front Street.

“I am not an extremist,” she said. “I do believe there are animals that we should not save because they are suffering so much or they are socially aggressive and a danger to the public, or so afraid of people that they can’t function.

“But I lose sleep over some of them. I wonder whether I should have worked harder, or if I did enough. I want to save as many as I can, and I want to make sure I haven’t missed anything.”

Call The Bee’s Cynthia Hubert, (916) 321-1082. Follow her on Twitter @Cynthia_Hubert.

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