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Helping animals actually helps people

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Mayor Ed Lee’s $350 million Public Health and Safety Bond includes $54 million to build a new animal shelter in The City. (Evan Ducharme/2013 S.F. Examiner)

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Gandhi once said you can judge the greatness of a nation by the way it treats its animals. What does it say about San Francisco that its city animal shelter is housed in a building from 1931 that is too small for its needs and likely to collapse in the next big earthquake?

The human-animal bond is strong and enriches our lives. We love our cats, dogs, rabbits, hamsters and birds. The unconditional love of a pet may be the only tenderness a homeless person feels. Pets calm veterans battling PTSD. Search-and-rescue dogs save lives. Many of these amazing animals originally came from city shelters, such as San Francisco’s Animal Care and Control.

No one disputes the fact that we need a new animal shelter; the issue is how to pay for it. And, surprisingly, in the City of St. Francis, there are some who argue we should spend city money exclusively on people, not animals.

Mayor Ed Lee recently announced plans for a Public Health and Safety Bond that will go before voters in June 2016. While the majority of the $350 million bond addresses human needs — San Francisco General Hospital, a health center in Bayview-Hunters Point and Fire Department ambulance dispatch — it also includes $54 million to build a new animal shelter.

Most people know ACC as a place to look for lost dogs or adopt a new pet. Yet a lot of the work they do that directly helps people goes largely unseen unless you happen to be unfortunate enough to need their help. For example, ACC can have a huge impact on victims of domestic violence.

Women often stay in abusive relationships because they fear their abuser will harm their pets if they try to leave. In San Francisco, women fleeing domestic violence can bring their animals to ACC when they finally leave their abuser. ACC will not let the abuser see or reclaim the animals — nor will they confirm to an abuser that the pets are there. Once a woman has found a place to live, she can get all of her animals back.

If fire destroys your home, ACC will take in your animals until you find new housing. If El Niño floods homeless encampments under the freeway, ACC will take in the animals until the immediate crisis passes. After an earthquake, ACC will care for the pets of people who have lost their homes, something they won’t be able to do effectively if their building has also collapsed.

You cannot underestimate the comfort people take knowing their pets will be safe and taken care of during a disaster, whether natural or personal. People died during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans because they refused to save themselves if it meant abandoning their beloved animals to the floodwaters. It’s reassuring to know we won’t face those same choices in San Francisco. ACC will take care of our animals in these extreme cases, allowing us to focus on getting the help we need.

“Our current building is working against us,” ACC Director Virginia Donohue told me. The building can barely handle the 8,500 live animals that pass through its doors every year, with animals held in spaces that are too small and hard to clean.

The proposed new building will have more rooms to house animals, with fewer animals in each room, in keeping with current best practices. It will have an expanded veterinarian area with space to isolate and treat sick animals and several exercise yards. It will also include classrooms so ACC can host training classes and workshops.

“Our animals deserve this new building,” Donohue said. “And so do people.”

Let’s show the world how great San Francisco is. Make sure the new building for ACC stays in the bond and then vote to pass it. We will not only help the animals, but also a lot of people, including many who never thought they’d need the help and may have nowhere else to turn.

Sally Stephens lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.

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