Gary Weitzman may be the best thing – since Noah – to happen to animals. The CEO of the San Diego Humane Society (SDHS) has broadened the Society’s outreach, to partner or cooperate with numerous like-missioned organizations and we, the public – all intended, he says, to “put ourselves out of business,” via the care and concern for every animal in the county.
Weitzman is a licensed veterinarian; he’s been in the animal welfare game for over two decades. Animated, articulate and passionate, he walks the talk. In his comfortable offices in Old Town, we were accompanied by Jake, his rescue, three-legged German Shepherd, who had plenty to “say” about our meeting, and Betty, his pit bull. (“We shower together every week,” he says.) (Oh, my!)
LW: Let’s begin with “Getting to Zero.” I admire this “no kill” program – but pragmatists will ask: what’s the alternative for perennially unwanted pets? What should we do with pets too aggressive, say, to place? Is the shelter in danger of being overwhelmed?
GW: As of July 1, there will be zero euthanasia of healthy or treatable animals in S. D. Animal Welfare Coalition shelters. Here, several programs address these concerns. In our Behavior Center, for example, aggressive or overly fearful animals receive personal attention from our trainers to work through those behaviors. We’ve seen a 90 percent success rate with rehabilitating, versus euthanizing.
Also, just in the last year, the number of animals we’ve taken in grew by over 60 percent, and we expect that growth to continue. The key to reach “getting to zero” is to increase our network of volunteers. Every animal we can place in a foster home opens up space in our shelters, and enables the animal to live in a home environment while awaiting a more permanent family. We’re relying on the community to open their hearts and homes to an animal more now than ever.
And, we hope to decrease the numbers of unwanted animals via our vigorous spay/neuter program – at low cost or even free surgeries. To date, we’ve spayed or neutered more than 13,000 animals.
“Utopia” for animal sheltering would be that we no longer need to take in homeless animals, but instead, help people keep their pets in their homes when they fall onto hard times, exactly why we merged with PAWS San Diego last year.
Yet, no one organization can accomplish this alone! The entire Coalition* unites for the benefit of the animals. Annually, 45,000 animals enter our shelters, and together, we are dedicated to care for every single one.
(* Chula Vista Animal Care Facility, Coronado Animal Care Facility, El Cajon Animal Shelter, Friends of Cats, Rancho Coastal Humane Society, County of San Diego Department of Animal Services, San Diego Humane Society)
LW: Are we making any progress on changing the public’s attitude towards Pit Bulls and Chihuahuas? Except for over-licking and over-loving, our family’s pit could not be smarter, sweeter!
GW: The sad reality is, about 30 percent of our animals are pit bulls. People do want to adopt the breed, but the problems are, particularly, rental restrictions that make it almost impossible to find a place that accepts pits. Then, many insurance companies won’t write policies for those with a pit bull, because of the liability issue. In the face of these dilemmas, the owner may have to relinquish to a shelter. We’re working to get these restrictions eliminated.
Yet, the root of the problem is that there simply aren’t enough homes for the number of homeless animals, and here, pit bulls, chihuahuas and cats are the most overpopulated. That’s why we have a spay/neuter clinic offering affordable options.
LW: Organizationally, what is the difference between a ‘Pound’ and San Diego Humane Society? And, how is the Humane Society related to the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA)?
GW: We share a campus with the County of S. D. Dept. of Animal Services (DAS) – the term pound is outdated – and work together to save every adoptable animal in the County. We are, however, independent organizations. DAS is publicly funded; we are privately funded. SPCA is simply a part of our legal name since we were founded to protect animals in 1880. Today, animal shelters such as ours are modern, rehabilitation centers.
LW: We first encountered you on PBS’ “The Animal House.” Do you think the program made a dent in animal care? Is there any chance of its revival?
GW: People will always have questions, and need answers, about their pets! “Animal House” provided a valuable service. But, in that interest, we have here a Behavior Helpline so any owner can seek advice directly from our trainers. I’ve also written three books, published by National Geographic, “Everything Dog,” “How to Speak Dog” and “How to Speak Cat” to help with decoding some common pet language.
We’re looking at opportunities to do a similar program – fingers crossed!
LW: When did your interet in animal welfare begin? Some of my family’s most memorable experiences have been about our pets. How about yours?
GW: I think my passion for animals began at birth. Seriously! From my earliest memories, I wanted to be with animals. The luckiest day of my life was when I was accepted into Vet school and I knew I could devote my life to this work. But, I actually didn’t get my first dog until I was 16. That was when my campaign to wear down my parents finally succeeded (we did have 20 gerbils, two parakeets, two hamsters, and three guinea pigs, plus all the small animals I could bring home from school during weekends and holidays). Finally, we went to the shelter and found a shepherd mix named Cocoa. And now, my two dogs, Jake and Betty, keep me grounded in what’s really important—in their opinions, only them.
LW: Is there any hope of ending animal mills?
GW: We’re getting there. Puppy Mills are nothing short of commercially sanctioned animal cruelty. In 2013 we worked with the city to prohibit the sale of puppies, dogs, kittens and cats in pet stores, retail businesses or other commercial establishments. A handful of other local cities have also enacted legislation similar to the San Diego ordinance, and now we’re among more than 80 cities nationwide to ban such sales in retail stores. It’s a good step, but there’s still a long way to go.
LW: When we talk pets, we’re so focused on dogs and cats, but the Humane Society takes in other residents…?
GW: Animals in all forms come through our doors. Rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, birds, and horses. We’ve even had peacocks and bearded dragons. They all need homes, and we’re dedicated to finding them the right ones.
LW: For unwanted animals, let’s help our readers: whom do we call?
GW: We make every effort to be a resource for owners throughout their pet’s entire lifespan. So whether it’s adopting, training, spaying or neutering, or even grieving for your pets after they’re gone – call us. If you find an injured or abandoned wild animal, bring it to us. We’re here for everyone.
LW: Volunteers and donations? You want both!
GW: YES! It takes community support to provide second chances for our animals. Contributions are the only way we can continue to care for animals in need in San Diego.
www.sdhumane.org or phone, 619-299-7012, for donations, Information on all programs, services and events (next up: the August 22 — Fur Ball).