The Evolution of City Shelters


Many of us look back at the 1980s and remember bad hairdos and what-were-we-thinking shoulder pads. I recall my own questionable style choices during that time, but what I remember most is Bay Area animal welfare organizations opening their eyes to the world beyond their front doors. What has followed has been nothing short of amazing.

Bay Area animal shelters started the eighties facing crisis population levels in out-of-date and undersized facilities, and those of us doing this work were mostly focused on saving the lives of animals in our facilities, always bracing ourselves for the next emergency. Still, we were determined to do more to prevent the tragedy of animal overpopulation.

To further this goal, animal welfare groups began educating the community about the value of spaying or neutering pets and adopting animals from shelters rather than buying from breeders. There were countless public service announcements, ad campaigns, and even school programs, but the problem prevailed despite our best efforts.

Thanks to several forward-thinking leaders who took charge during the 1980s, things soon began to improve. Bay Area humane organizations started thinking more about targeting the needs of our urban-dwelling human clients.

Living in the San Francisco Bay Area had become increasingly expensive and households were often headed by one or two full-time workers on tight budgets. It seemed that everyone was incredibly busy. Many people relied on public transportation, and English was a second language for more and more households. All of these factors presented new challenges and called for innovative approaches, which were put in place and soon paid off.

Animal shelters also began to more carefully assess the effectiveness of their programs, and the results were often startling. One of the earliest discoveries was that many litters entering Bay Area shelters were coming from the unaltered animals we had placed in homes through our adoption programs. People bringing in these “oops” puppies and kittens understood that spaying/neutering was the right thing to do, but their hectic lives had gotten in the way of scheduling the surgeries. It was clearly up to us to “fix” this problem by spaying and neutering animals before placement. 

The idea was simple enough, but finding the financial resources, space, and veterinary staff to spay/neuter thousands of animals each year was no small undertaking. I’m very proud to say that the East Bay SPCA was among the first organizations in the country to incorporate the practice of spaying and neutering every adoptable dog and cat prior to placement. Today, every Bay Area shelter does the same. 

Urban shelters also developed other programs that could help stem the tide of unwanted animals. Behavior hotlines and dog training courses sprouted up in the late 1980s, helping urban families find solutions to problems that might otherwise lead them to surrender their pets to local shelters. The public responded well and we soon developed specialized courses and training programs – intended to deepen the human/animal bond and keep pets with their human families. 

In the nineties, animal welfare organizations took stock of what was working and built on that foundation. We set our sights on bigger programs even higher, initiating higher-volume and lower-cost spay/neuter programs. Many organizations, including the East Bay SPCA, also began focusing on the needs of specific segments of our community, such as low-income households with pets. Free vaccination fairs in poorer neighborhoods and targeted spay/neuter campaigns have been especially well received. 

Becoming more aware of the urban dweller’s needs has made a life-saving impact. The number of animals entering East Bay animal shelters, including public animal services agencies, has decreased by over 60 percent in the past decade, even though the region’s human population has exploded. As a result, the East Bay SPCA and many other shelters and rescue groups are now able to house adoptable dogs and cats for as long as it takes to find forever homes.

While we want to celebrate our collective successes, everyone dedicated to this work understands that we need to continue to look beyond our front doors, asking ourselves how we can make an even greater impact on the well-being of animals and their families living in our urban community. 

Considering how far we’ve come, I know the answers are out there.

Eliza Fried has spent 11 years in the animal welfare field and is currently Director of Development and Marketing for The East Bay SPCA. The organization has been providing shelter, health care, and adoption services for unwanted animals since 1874. Learn more by visiting


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