Animal House

Diane Allevato doodles. A lot. As she listens to a visitor ask a rambling question about the Marin Humane Society, which as executive director she has run since 1980, her right hand is busy drawing forceful angles with a pen on a desk pad.

The doodling seems therapeutic, something to alleviate Allevato’s natural impatience while having to be in listening mode. When the questioner finishes, Allevato transfers the measured intensity of her scribblings to her answer and she says something pointed and eloquent like this:“Many humane societies are cat and dog organizations. That is just not consistent with our mission. It doesn’t even serve the cats and dogs very well. By that I mean that we’re not really in the business of selling used pets. We’re really in the business of selling a value system, a way of looking at our essential living creatures and realizing that they have rights and interests and we have responsibilities.”

The directness of those words and the ambitious moral stance they embrace don’t quite fit a first impression of Allevato. Diminutive, 60 years old, a thatch of thick hair well seasoned with gray and casually dressed to the point of Birkenstocks over socks, she could easily be mistaken for a substitute English teacher rather than who she really is—a woman of the ’60s who left law school intent on changing the world and discovered canines and kitties served that quest better than a courtroom.

Allevato’s eyes are small and dark, but when she speaks they become transfixing, enlivened by passion and twinkling with good humor. After ten minutes in a room with Allevato, you’re ready to leap onto the barricades with her—or at least sign up as a Humane Society volunteer and start swabbing out some kennels.

It would be an overstatement to say that Allevato is the Marin Humane Society—and a disservice to her dedicated staff and the nearly 800 volunteers who walk dogs, chuck cat cheeks and, yes, swab kennels—but it’s hard to imagine how the society could have become the national model for animal care and community involvement it is today without her vision and drive.  

That’s a question the Humane Society must answer soon because Allevato is stepping down at the end of June to devote her time to animal rights causes. (Her replacement had not been announced by deadline.) “I’m leaving the job, but I’m not leaving the work,” she says. “It’s a good time. It’s one of those milestone years and it’s a milestone year for the society, too.”
Indeed, the Marin Humane Society turns 100 this year and can celebrate its centennial this month with a menu of innovations and accomplishments that surely would have pleased its founder, a San Anselmo horse lover named Ethel Tompkins.

Under Allevato’s guidance (and, some would say, insistence), the society:

  • Opened the first low-cost spay-neuter clinic on the West Coast (and pioneered the now-common practice of sterilizing cats and dogs at 8 weeks of age).
  • Was the first to mandate that all adopted cats and dogs be injected with tracking microchips, which the society subsidizes—$5 for cats, $10 for dogs.
  • Established programs to help elderly people keep their pets by having volunteers shop and care for the animals.
  • Launched an extensive training curriculum that addresses the top reasons people give up their dogs—behavior problems.
  • Formed a network of 48 Northern California animal care facilities called Pet Partnerships that takes dogs and cats from overcrowded shelters and brings them to Marin for adoption.
  • Planned a five-year, $8 to 10 million rehabilitation of the 57,000-square-foot Novato complex to make the shelter and secondary buildings more efficient, more environmentally green and more animal friendly. Work begins this fall.

These efforts make Marin a very good place to be a dog or a cat. Because most pets here carry bar-coded microchips that identify their owners, stray animals find their way home here more often than in other places. Last year, the Marin shelter returned 1,092 stray dogs, cats and other animals to their owners. Eighty-seven percent of lost dogs (four times the national average) and 25 percent of lost cats (eight times the national average!) were returned home.

Since most local pets are neutered, the demand for animals is greater than the supply. The Humane Society closes the gap by retrieving animals from shelters that have high kill rates. In 2005, volunteers drove as far as Bakersfield and Red Bluff and returned with 1,254 animals that were eventually adopted. (Occasionally, the society will reach out even farther. This spring, for example, it took in four greyhounds rescued from a racetrack in Tijuana, Mexico. All were adopted.)

We’re not really in the business of selling used pets. We’re really in the business of selling a value system, a way of looking at our essential living creatures and realizing that they have rights and interests and we have responsibilities.”

“We might get a call from Mendocino,” says Allevato, “and they’ll say, ‘We have so many cats right now and we’re going to be in a position of having to euthanize healthy animals if we can’t place a dozen.’ The relationship is based on the fact that animals are not always in the right place at the right time to maximize their prospects for a new home.”

Not all animals that enter the Humane Society’s shelter on Bel Marin Keys Boulevard leave through the front door, though. The shelter’s “open-door” policy means it takes in any animal, regardless of condition. For some, it will be their last stop.
“If your door is open, you’re going to receive the animals that need you the most,” says Allevato. “That means we’re not going to turn our back on an animal because it bites children. It doesn’t mean that we’re going to necessarily be able to place that animal. But we’re going to care for it and if we can’t place it we’re going to give it a gentle passing.”

The issue of killing domestic animals has to be discussed in the larger context of overpopulation, says Allevato, which is why the Marin Humane Society has so strongly emphasized sterilization and reconnecting lost animals with their owners. Keeping animals out of a shelter in the first place is the best way to keep them alive. “One of the things that really troubled us was that people were talking ‘no kill, no kill, no kill,’ but it didn’t seem to make any sense to us for a couple reasons,” she says. “One, we had to all acknowledge that there were animals we were going to euthanize that had health and behavior problems that we couldn’t address. And, two, if they’re euthanizing animals 30 miles away for no reason other than they didn’t have room for them, why hold a party? It wasn’t Marin’s problem or San Francisco’s problem or any city’s problem or shelter’s problem. It was a regional problem and a national problem. We could do a whole lot more for animals and the people in our community by trying to be part of a more regional solution.”

Despite all efforts, the Humane Society in 2006 still had to make the difficult choice of euthanizing 454 dogs in and 566 cats (many of them feral). The other side of the equation, though, is the number of animals for whom the society found new homes. In 2006, the society adopted out 2,355 animals—1,037 dogs, 958 cats and 360 rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens and the occasional turtle.

Part of the Humane Society’s adoption success stems from the shelter’s staff knowing the type of animals Marin residents want. “They like smaller dogs. They like a little bit older dogs,” says Allevato. “You know, puppies are very appealing, but a two-year-old dog that’s sterilized and housebroken, that’s very nice, too.”

The shelter is often forced to choose between animals that have a strong chance of adoption and those that don’t. “We had to make a conscious decision—and this is one we talked about internally for a long, long time,” says Allevato. She hesitates. “I don’t know how to put this so it makes sense. If you have two Rottweilers with behavior and health problems . . . should you morally try to deal with those health and behavior problems or should you go 10, 15, 20 miles and rescue 10 animals that you can place tomorrow?”

In a typical week, more than two dozen dogs arrive at the shelter. Each gets a lengthy look-over from evaluators who examine the animal’s physical condition, temperament with people (is it possessive or shy?) and how it behaves with other animals (including a visit, if he’s available, from Elwood the Test Cat, a no-nonsense 11-year-old Tabby that’s backed off many an overly inquisitive puppy with a green-eyed stare and a swipe of his paw).

The purpose is to determine in what type of home the dog or cat would fit best. Is it a layabout or a leaper? Is it adoption-ready or does it need some rehab—maybe even a stretch in San Quentin (see sidebar, page 68)? The findings get posted on the animal’s cage for shelter browsers to read and, more importantly these days, on the Humane Society’s website.

The impact of the web has been “phenomenal,” says Allevato, with more than half of adoptions now initiating from a visit to the shelter’s website, which contains pictures—and some heart-tugging video—of dozens of dogs, cats and rabbits (the third-most popular pet in the United States; the society sees about 500 each year).

The Humane Society is about more than adopting pets. Half of its $5.5 million annual budget flows from a contract with Marin’s city and county governments to provide animal control services such as issuing dog licenses, rounding up strays and responding to complaints about barking or aggressive animals.

Last year, the Humane Society rescued 800 chickens from an egg factory in Gilroy where they lived four to a tiny cage. All were placed with local small ranchers.

“When we brought in those chickens,” says Allevato, “it was about providing greener pastures and a safe haven for those 800 hens, but it was also about educating our community about where eggs come from. We’re about educating our community so they can make wise consumer choices.”



Perhaps more than anything, Allevato wants people to value the lives of animals, whether they’re sitting on our laps, providing eggs for our breakfasts or chewing on green West Marin grass in preparation for becoming a juicy T-bone.

“Someone once said to me,” she says, “‘Why don’t you have a big sale? Sale! Sale! Two cats for the price of one!’ And I said, ‘Look, maybe we can adopt a few more animals that way, but aren’t we really undermining what we’re all about? Aren’t we promoting the fact that they’re valuable, sentient, living creatures that deserve care?’ So we don’t have sales. It’s not business as usual. We do have an agenda.”






Party Animal Time

The Marin Humane Society will celebrate its 100th anniversary this year with a free daylong party on June 3.

The event includes demonstrations of flyball, Frisbee and other canine contests, a pet talent show, opportunities to talk with vets and animal behavior experts and, of course, cake.

It begins at 10:30 a.m. and goes until 3 p.m. at the society, 171 Bel Marin Keys Blvd., Novato.

Details available at 415.506.6201 or





Pooches in Prison

There are dozens of well-behaved dogs walking around Marin County today that have done time in San Quentin.

Some might be shepherds or chows or shar-peis, but most are typical all-American mutts and all are graduates of Pen Pals, a Marin Humane Society program that pairs up wayward canines in need of care with convicted felons in need of caring.

Pen Pals places dogs that are either sick or don’t behave well around people with inmates assigned to San Quentin Fire Department. The dogs live with the prisoners in the firehouse, which faces Richardson Bay on the west side of the prison, from several weeks to several months until the Humane Society determines they are ready for adoption. Volunteers from the society work with the inmates twice a week on training the dogs. More than 70 dogs and more than 20 inmates have participated since Pen Pals began in May 2005.

Pen Pals was the brainchild of Larry Carson, a retired Marin contractor who heard about similar “cell dogs” programs on an Animal Planet TV show. Carson, a Humane Society volunteer and dog evaluator, pitched the idea to the society, traveled to Nevada State Prison to see it in action and convinced San Quentin to give it a try.

Nearly 40 percent of Pen Pals dogs have medical issues, says Carson, often a heartworm infection, a potentially fatal mosquito-borne parasite. Treatment requires medicine and long-term rest, and the latter can be hard to come by in typical foster homes for pets. Time, though, is something San Quentin prisoners have plenty of and Humane Society’s success rate with sick dogs has improved thanks to the care the convicts provide. “It’s the kind of thing we haven’t been able to treat very successfully because we haven’t had these wonderful, long-term caretakers,” says society spokeswoman Sheri Cardo.

Many Pen Pals dogs are shy, which makes them poor adoption candidates. They may avoid people or bite out of fear. “A dog that is undersocialized is really sort of scared of a lot of things,” Carson says. “He’s sort of shut down. In our evaluation process, we try to determine if that dog is safe but just needs time to come out, to trust people.”

That trust comes from living 24/7 with the San Quentin firefighters. The inmates have their own rooms—modest by any standards, but a prison perk for being in the fire department—and the dogs share their quarters, sometimes even their beds.

In return for providing companionship and training for their canine charges, the inmates get something in short supply within the razor-wired walls of San Quentin—affection and purpose.

“It gives them an opportunity to do something more constructive with their time,” says Carson. “It gives them an opportunity to give something back to the community and it teaches them responsibility.”

On a recent weekday afternoon, Jason Burton, one of the San Quentin firefighters, stood on a small patch of green grass next to the firehouse telling a film crew from the MSNBC prison series Lockup about his relationship with Harlon, a Humane Society dog that had just spent a month with Burton.

“She’s got a lot of love,” says Burton. “Life can get a little cold around here and she kinds of warms me up.”

Burton, a tall, good-looking young man, was due to leave Quentin in 12 days on parole, and planned to head back home to San Jose with a better attitude than the one he arrived with four years earlier. Pen Pals is partly responsible, he says.
“It made me feel better about myself,” says Burton. “It taught me to not always put myself first, to care about other living things.”

Image:  Brian Harkness works with a Humane Society Dog at San Quentin