A nod to the innovator of our era, the father of the no-kill movement retires

Like Henry Ford and Steve Jobs, Rich Avanzino didn’t invent his field of endeavor, but through innovation he took it to a completely new level.

In 1976, Rich took the helm of a highly dysfunctional and much-reviled San Francisco SPCA and transformed it into a beacon of the no-kill movement. In 1984, he advised the city of San Francisco that his organization would no longer be the city’s animal control contractors. Then, in 1989, after having helped the city establish a new department of animal care and control, Rich formally ended the contract with the city and the SF SPCA became a no-kill operation.

In 1994, with Rich’s leadership, San Francisco passed the Adoption Act and effectively became the first (and for many years the only) large no-kill city in the United States. Then, after transforming the whole concept of municipal animal sheltering, Rich became the first president of Maddie’s Fund, the no-kill grant-making foundation established and endowed in 1999 by PeopleSoft founder Dave Duffield. He continued to drive our movement by promoting professionalism, standards of achievement, collaboration and mutual respect.

Rich created the template for achieving a no-kill community by implementing a set of thinking-outside-the-box programs and policies that prioritized lifesaving. His approach included high-volume adoptions, targeted spay/neuter programs, volunteer and community engagement, a foster home network, quality medical care and more. It has been repackaged and rebranded, but he is the undeniable father of no-kill for urban communities.

In addition, Rich was the first person to use the media to keep the cause in the public eye — putting out a press release virtually every week, and using catchy promotions like the SF SPCA’s Bucks for Balls, in which people were actually paid $5 to have their male cats fixed.

Recently, Rich announced his plans to retire this summer. It’s too early to say that he will be missed, because I hope that he will continue to be a powerful voice for the animals. But such a comment would only trivialize the great impact that his leadership has had on the no-kill movement and on me personally.

I first met Rich in 1999, and shortly thereafter worked closely with him and the Maddie’s Fund team in my role as president of the No More Homeless Pets in Utah statewide coalition and campaign.

No More Homeless Pets in Utah was one of the first Maddie’s Fund grant recipients, and I think we served as something of a living laboratory and field trial for a new approach to transforming business as usual in animal welfare. Rich, for all his wit and charm, is a no-nonsense guy and a firm believer in accountability. He really put us through our paces to continue to qualify for Maddie’s Fund support.

I had always been goal oriented and brought a business sensibility to my work for Best Friends, but Maddie’s Fund required a new level of detailed record-keeping, clear and meaningful metrics and, above all, accountability. The entire state of Utah would not be on the brink of no-kill status today if not for the template laid out and promoted by Rich Avanzino. Best Friends later transplanted that model to Los Angeles, where it is known as the No-Kill Los Angeles (NKLA) Coalition, which is on track to make Los Angeles the nation’s largest no-kill city by 2017.

Above all, Rich is an optimist and a believer in the ultimate good to be found and trusted in people. Contrary to the notion held by so many who work to address the suffering of animals, he has always preached the idea that the public is not the problem, but rather the solution to the tragedy that has been taking place in our nation’s shelters. Instead of walling off shelter animals from the public, Rich has always sought to transform the entire community into a shelter and safe haven for our animal companions.

Rich Avanzino’s retirement has been hard-earned and is well-deserved, and I know I speak for many in wishing him a rich and rewarding next act in his remarkable and inspiring journey.

Charismatic and engaging, he has become much more than a friend. For me, he is the embodiment of the belief that together, we can and will Save Them All.

No-Kill 2025