There’s something very special about the San Diego Humane Society and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal’s back parking lot, an area the animal shelter on Gaines Street shares with its next-door neighbor, the San Diego Department of Animal Services.
One specific parking space in that lot filled with numbered spaces is saved for someone who has to do the most difficult thing anyone who’s ever loved an animal often has to do — euthanize.
The parking spot is located directly behind the Humane Society and SPCA’s “Serenity Room,” an area with a relaxing outdoor fountain, greenery and flowers, with a scenic mural painted on the wall inside.
The room is where San Diego Humane Society veterinarians take great care in ending an animal’s life in a safe, compassionate and kind way. The parking space behind the Serenity Room is only for the people who face the heart-wrenching task of bringing an animal in for that specific purpose.
The parking space for Serenity Room visitors is numbered “18,” a very important numeral in Judaism — the one that stands for chai, or “life.” And that didn’t happen by coincidence.
The parking space numbering system came to be because of SDHS President Dr. Mark Goldstein.
Dr. Goldstein, who holds a doctorate of veterinary medicine from Cornell and was on the senior staff at the Massachusetts SPCA’s prestigious Angell Memorial Animal Hospital in Boston, had the parking spaces in the lot rearranged so that 18 would be in place where it is. And that’s where it will always remain.
It’s a small thing, perhaps, but it has great meaning. It would seem that Dr. Goldstein — who was raised with two brothers in an observant Jewish family on Long Island, N.Y. — and his staff are in some way giving life at a time where there has to be death.
“We (at the SDHS) believe deeply in the human-animal bond,” says Dr. Goldstein, who shares his Carmel Valley home with his wife of 31 years (they have two grown daughters) and Ren, a 10-year-old beagle/Jack Russell mix.
“We believe that if you take in another life to care for, you owe him respect,” says Dr. Goldstein of the SDHS staff of 200 plus 1,200 volunteers. “The law says you owe him food, water and shelter. We also say that you owe him healthcare and love.
“The way we feel, the ethic for all of us, is why should a homeless animal get less care or love than an owned animal? It is the guiding light of what our organization does.”
Goldstein has always had an interest in animals, animal welfare and in helping others. He was the West Coast director of the Los Angeles Zoo for three years and was vice president of the San Francisco SPCA from 1999-2001 before coming to the SDHS in 2001.
“My first dog was Blackie, a Belgian sheepdog that I asked for at my bar mitzvah,” Dr. Goldstein recalls. “My mom, who was not a ‘dog person,’ not at first, used to give Blackie a ‘shissel’ of ice cream. My Dad would throw the dog a piece of bagel and my Mother would say, ‘How could you give that to him without some butter or cream cheese!?’”
Dawn Danielson, director of the San Diego County Department of Animal Services, and Dr. Goldstein take a coffee break with one another each morning and have lunch together once a week
The two have been colleagues and friends since they met in 1999, but they became closer when the nonprofit, private San Diego Humane Society merged with the North County Humane Society last January.
“Mark is an extremely ethical and caring individual,” Danielson says. “He’s very sincere, very passionate in what he does. He does his job well and is compassionate and passionate. He comes across as very sincere, and he is….I always kid him that his agency is Birkenstocks, ours is flip flops.”
Whereas the SDHS was once solely involved with adopting out animals and running programs at its Gaines Street facility, it now has an animal control contract in Oceanside and Vista at what is called the San Diego Humane Society’s North Campus.
That means that in the North County, it now does what its San Diego County Department of Animal Services neighbor is contracted to do in the city of San Diego (as well as in Carlsbad, Solana Beach, Encinitas, Del Mar and Santee), and that is taking strays and relinquished animals, making behavior assessments, working with adoption groups and rescue partners and spaying and neutering.
Dr. Goldstein is humble, but he speaks with pride when he says of the SDHS, “We have not euthanized a healthy or treatable animal. We work with low-cost spay and neuter programs so we can stop the euthanization.”
Since the merger through July of this year, 336 fewer animals were euthanized at the north campus than for the same period a year ago when the humane societies were independent operations. He also saw to it in 2009 that the SDHS opened a cat nursery that has already saved 540 kittens that would have been euthanized in the past.
At Gaines Street, the DAS and San Diego Humane Society and SPCA work closer together than ever to care for the animals of San Diego County as part of the San Diego Campus for Animal Care, which Dr. Goldstein was instrumental in having created.
“As president, my job is taking credit for what everyone else does,” Dr. Goldstein says, laughing. “But truly, it’s the support from everyone here (at the SDHS) and the support from the community that allows us to do what we do…Ninety percent of our revenue comes from donors.”
There’s a quote painted across the top of the wall inside the San Diego Humane Society’s spacious waiting room that leads to its fun “Muttique” store and rooms to visit adoptable animals and other offices.
The quote is from one of Dr. Goldstein’s main mentors, animal advocate Dr. Gus W. Thornton, who died last January and who once said, “There’s no end to what can be accomplished if it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.”
The quote reads: “The human-animal relationship is one of the cornerstones of a just and compassionate society” and it’s a credo Dr. Goldstein says he believes tenfold.
Relationships with colleagues are just as important to him.
“I would trust him with anything, a professional question, a personal problem…” Danielson says. “He doesn’t have an agenda and when you’re his friend; he’s always got your back.”
Author and humorist Richard Lederer has been friends with Dr. Goldstein since the 1980s, when Lederer worked at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire at the same time as Dr. Goldstein’s cousin, the school’s master dance teacher Richard Rein.
Lederer, who lives in Scripps Ranch with his wife, has been to 10 Passover Seders at Dr. Goldstein’s home over the years.
“Mark is a good, observant Jew doing the mitzvah thing,” Lederer says. “He feels the calling to speak for the animals, who cannot speak for themselves. He is their voice. His heart is absolutely with the animals, and he’ll do anything for them. He is an extremely loyal friend, as loyal to friends as he is to his causes, and he is extremely respectful of learning. He is just full of joy and light, and I believe he represents the best of our religion. He is Judaism in action.”
Lederer had Dr. Goldstein proofread manuscripts that led to two of his recent books, “A Treasury for Dog Lovers” and “A Treasury for Cat Lovers.”
“Mark did a vetting,” Lederer says. “When we came to a part in one section, a humorous part, about why it’s better to have cats than to have children, I had something in there that said, ‘Another advantage is if cats get pregnant, you can sell their children.’ I tell that to audiences when I speak and they go nuts.
“But Mark asked me to take that out…he said that line makes light of a serious issue. Because of the paucity of spay and neuter laws, one result is that cats breed indiscriminately. One cat linearly can have 500 offspring by the time it’s 10. Twice as many cats as dogs go into shelters, and half as many cats as dogs go out of shelters. So even though I wanted that (item) in there, out of respect for Mark, I took it out of my book.”
When Dr. Goldstein was at the L.A. Zoo, he once held a post-Shabbat Havdalah service there.
“I was talking to a rabbi about doing that,” he recalls. “One Saturday night I got all the temples in the (Los Angeles-area) valley together in our stadium at the zoo, and every person in the stadium held a candle. There were 300 candles burning, and I did a presentation about animal welfare and Judaism.”
Dr. Goldstein and the San Diego Humane Society will be holding the 24th annual black-tie optional Fur Ball Aug. 14 at its campus at 5500 Gaines St. The event will celebrate the Ellen Browning Scripps Foundation for its outstanding investment in the SDHS over the last 13 years and for its inspirational countywide philanthropy.
The gala’s dinner will be prepared by Jeffrey Strauss, owner of Pamplemousse Grille, and will include raffle and auction items and entertainment. Well-mannered, on-leash dogs are also invited. For information, call (619) 243-3401 or visit www.sdhumane.org.