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Lords of Dogtown

Rebecca Flint Marx | December 2, 2014 | Lifestyle Story City Life

“That's Fonzi. He's a real humper.” Sherri Franklin says as an eight-year-old miniature pinscher darts by our feet on his way out for a walk. “He grabs on and doesn't let go.”

Even senior dogs get frisky, especially when they're pampered as lavishly as they are at Muttville, Franklin's shelter for dogs age seven and older. Downstairs, Franklin shows off the shelter's “community cuddle room,” a space where potential adopters come for meet-and-greets and senior citizens convene for a bimonthly “cuddle club” with the dogs. Upstairs, she points out he kitchen where dinner—a mix of whole grains, vegetables, blueberries, chicken, and nutritional supplements that even I might deign to eat—is cooked for Muttville’s residents. Next up is the veterinary suite, built entirely with $50,000 in donations. A chorus of raspy barking greets us as Franklin shows me the area where anywhere from 17 to 22 dogs are kept, cage-free, in “different rooms for different personalities.” She bends down to pick up a particularly decrepit-looking Pomeranian mix with patchy fur and ragged ears. “Hey, sweet boy,” she coos, “are you coming home with me for the night?”

Franklin’s shelter, with its cage-free lodging, home-cooked meals, and surpassing air of enthusiasm and possibility, is a world removed from the relentlessly sad dog pounds that occupy the public consciousness. It’s instead emblematic of a new breed (ahem) of dog rescue groups: professional, entrepreneurial, and armed with an impressive network of foster homes where dogs can live a semblance of a normal, love-filled life until they find their so-called forever home. “There are so many rescue groups now, more than I’ve ever seen before,” says Pali Boucher, the founder of Rocket Dog Rescue, a 13-year-old organization based in Bernal Heights.

In the Bay Area, those groups include the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (the Great Dane of adoption agencies, which will find homes for 5,500 dogs this year) and long-established independent organizations like Rocket Dog, Grateful Dog Rescue, and Family Dog Rescue, as well as specialized groups like Bad Rap, which works with pit bulls, and Muttville, which only takes middle-aged and elderly dogs. To the casual observer, many of these groups are indistinguishable: Go to any of their websites, and you’ll be greeted by gallery after gallery of dogs in need of forever homes. But talk to people in the dog-rescue community about who stands out from the pack, as it were, and certain names come up repeatedly. Franklin’s is one.

Muttville and its peers are providing a crucial service in San Francisco, a city that famously has more dogs than children. Although our 0.09 percent euthanasia rate for cats and dogs is the lowest of any major city in the country, there is always a surplus of homeless pets, many of which are transported here from shelters outside the city and county. Both the SPCA and many of the smaller organizations take dogs out of overcrowded municipal shelters throughout California: Rocket Dog, for example, regularly visits Oakland shelters to save dogs on the day’s euthanasia list. Franklin’s organization has adopted out some 2,700 dogs since its founding in 2007. While that number may be a fraction of the 8,451 dogs that its next-door neighbor, the SF SPCA, adopted out between 2010 and 2014, the larger organization is increasingly dependent on well-run rescue groups to take up the slack.

“We’re all chipping away at this huge problem,” says Jennifer Scarlett, the SF SPCA’s copresident. What makes Muttville stand out, she believes, is that it “found a problem with the older dogs who we’ve all brushed aside and said, ‘I’m giving them a second chance.’” Franklin has further distinguished herself by having a physical shelter (most rescues are completely foster-based; that is, their dogs are sheltered in the homes of volunteers until they’re adopted) and running a well-organized foster network.

Before she founded Muttville out of her home in Potrero Hill, Franklin owned two hair salons. Though she’s obviously besotted with her geriatric charges—during our shelter tour, she showers kisses on a parade of tiny snouts— she makes it clear that Muttville, which has seven full-time employees and 250 volunteers, is very much a professional operation. “That was a problem in the past,” Franklin says of rescue groups lacking financial and managerial chops. “It’s not just about dogs—you have to get the money to pay for them. We spend on average $1,400 per dog to get them ready for adoption. So you have to grow and be able to do this as a profession. I think that’s what’s starting to happen; I think we’re getting better at what we do.”

Franklin is renowned for her powers of financial persuasion: Much of Muttville’s annual $1.25 million budget comes from private donors. At her sold-out sixth annual gala benefit, Moolah for Mutts, held in September, she raised about $300,000 from ticket and table sales and a live auction, breaking her previous record. Among her better-known benefactors are clothier Wilkes Bashford, philanthropist Emily Scott Pottruck, and Gina Schock and Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s. The pink VW Beetle that she uses to transport dogs around town was a gift from Oprah, a souvenir of the time she was invited to appear on Winfrey’s annual “My Favorite Things” segment in 2010. Franklin, who is in her 50s, is also a savvy marketer. “We say we’re bringing sexy back to senior dogs,” she says. “Once you’ve had a senior dog in your life, you realize, oh my god, it’s so much easier than a puppy.”

The need to sell potential adopters on dogs with issues— of age, behavior, or health—is a sign of the success achieved by San Francisco dog rescuers. Whereas 25 years ago the SF SPCA had a yearly intake of some 12,000 dogs and a 50 percent euthanasia rate, today—thanks in large part to its enormously successful spay-neuter program, which has led to a reduction in the city’s dog population—the organization “has one of the lowest intake and euthanasia rates per capita in the country, if not the lowest,” says Scarlett.

More spayed and neutered dogs means that fewer litters of easily adoptable puppies show up at the SF SPCA. Instead, the shelter sees a lot of adolescent dogs, many of which have behavioral issues. “Or we get older dogs with injuries or health issues, dogs that are harder and harder to get out [of the shelter],” Scarlett says. “It’s changed how we shelter: We know there is a certain population who will require more time or medical care or behavioral intervention.” She estimates that some 70 percent of the dogs that the organization takes in will require extra care. That’s why, she explains, smaller, specialized rescue groups are crucial—they lighten the load at larger municipal shelters. “They’re the wave of the future. The importance of having both shelters and foster-based groups is the safety net it creates” for animals that can’t handle shelters—and for shelters that can’t handle more animals.

A rescue group’s reputation can rise or fall on the strength of its behavioral evaluations, which gauge a dog’s temperament for potential problems like aggression toward people or other animals. A few years ago, Lara Monroe, a Noe Valley dog walker, adopted a “neurotic” chow-shepherd mix from Rocket Dog that subsequently bit seven people. Monroe, who was a first-time dog owner at the time, claims that the group was unresponsive to her pleas for help; ultimately, she was forced to put the dog down. “No one in their right mind would have given that dog to a first-time owner,” she says. “We all want to save all the dogs, but we have to be selective.”

Boucher, Rocket Dog’s founder, acknowledges that dogs exhibit problem behavior “all the time” after leaving the shelter, but maintains that her group, which has placed over 7,000 dogs since its founding and recently opened an animal sanctuary in East Oakland, refuses to take in dogs with known human or dog aggression. “We ask people to stay in touch with us and ask if they need our help,” she says. “Rarely have there been cases where we couldn’t help turn things around.”

The heartache inherent in choosing which dogs get saved and which ones get left behind creates a tension that informs and animates all rescue groups, regardless of their size or reputation. Being successful in this line of work depends as much on establishing emotional boundaries as on good business practices. “If you don’t find some time to balance your life, you will be totally overwhelmed with emotion,” says Franklin, who in October took her first vacation in seven years. “You have to be professional. I think that a lot of people have their hearts in the right place, but that tends to lead to burnout. I want to save dogs. I don’t want to take dogs in who are truly not adoptable, just to save a life.” To save lives, she adds, it’s not enough to just look at what the dog needs. “It is all about making the connection and bond. You have to look at the human.”

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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