With a name like Katz, she was born to the job

Name: Rebecca Katz

Age: 43­

City: San Francisco

Title: Director of Oakland Animal Services

J.: Were you a lawyer before going into animal welfare?

Rebecca Katz: I was a deputy city attorney in San Francisco representing public protection agencies, which included the Department of Animal Care and Control. The longtime director, who was Jewish, by the way, was retiring, and he said “I think you should take over.” He knew how much I loved animals.

J.: Did you always love them?

RK: Yes. I grew up in a house with three dogs, four cats, a rabbit, a duck, hamsters and tropical fish. I’m pretty sure we were violating some Berkeley ordinance. Now I have two dogs, Tucker and Digby, and two cats, Frankie and Lexie. I also have shared custody of my former foster dog, and in my office, I have adopted and take responsibility for Pineapple, our shelter’s umbrella cockatoo.

Rebecca Katz

J.: When you got forced out of your job last year as San Francisco’s director of Animal Care and Control,  — after six years on that job and 14 years with the city — there was a lot of media coverage, as the city rarely ousts a department head. How was that for you?

RK: It was awkward, of course, but I am proud of my advocacy. I’m not ashamed that I was outspoken about [needing more resources]. It was the right thing to do ethically even if I had to fall on the sword. It benefited the agency in the long run because there was a 20 percent increase in staffing.

J.: In November, you took the same position across the bay at Oakland Animal Services. Are the challenges the same?

RK: They’re significantly greater. When I started in San Francisco, people had to give up their animals due to losing their homes and jobs in the economic downturn, but there’s definitely much more affluence in San Francisco. The intake in Oakland is double per capita than what it was in San Francisco. It means we haven’t done enough in Oakland to educate people about spay and neuter services and ways to keep their pets.

J.: You started the WOOF (Wonderful Opportunities for Occupants and Fidos) program. What is it?

RK: That’s what I’m most proud of in my career. We placed dogs that had failed behavior with formerly homeless people in subsidized housing to foster them. We knew the dogs would come around, but watching the people blossom was really moving and incredible and validating.

J.: You also spearheaded Operation Chihuahua. What’s that?

RK: We discovered that Chihuahuas were about a third of the population in shelters in California. We called a press conference, hoping someone would show up, and everyone in the national media showed up. Shelters on the East Coast started asking if we wanted to transport them, so we asked Virgin America [headquartered in Burlingame] if they would help us. They were excited to do it, so they transported many dogs on quite a few flights. People were lining up waiting for these dogs on the East Coast because they’re not as common there.

J.: What’s your Jewish background?

RK: I was raised in a Conservative kosher home, where tikkun olam and giving back were big. My dad was an attorney, too, advocating for those who needed it, so I think it comports with my Judaism in a big way. As much as I love animals, I also want to help people, and this work allows me to do both. People often think this is just about animals, but it’s much more. We are also a public safety agency, and a health and human services agency. The human-animal bond is incredibly strong and we frequently deal with people in very difficult circumstances where we’re their safety net.

J.: Do you feel that your last name preordained your love of animals?

RK: I get that question all the time, and I usually answer that I’m pretty sure it’s the reason I got the job, and that I’ll hire anyone named Robin, Kitty or Ali [cats], or with the last name Barker, etc., regardless of qualifications.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."