Gina Knepp of Front Street Animal Shelter

Luis Gael Jimenez

The Front Street Animal Shelter’s annual gala, Paws to Party, takes place on October 13, 6 p.m. at the California Automobile Museum.

Gina Knepp took over the Front Street Animal Shelter in 2011. She was given three months to close down the books and prepare the transition of the city’s animal control department to a private corporation.

Even though Knepp had more than 25 years of law enforcement training and management under her belt, she had no idea what she was walking into. “I couldn’t even tell you a Shih Tzu from a Pomeranian,” she says.

The three months hadn’t even elapsed before Knepp put in a call to the city manager asking if she could have one year to try and turn the facility around.

It’s been six years since that phone call. And in those six years, Knepp has gotten the center from a 27 percent “live release” rate in 2011 to 84 percent in 2016. According to Front Street’s self-reported records, Knepp and her staff have saved the lives of 38,798 dogs and cats in the past six years and raised over $2.8 million from donations and fundraisers.

So you’ve saved a lot of puppy and kitty lives, it looks like.

That’s not just what we do here. We create love affairs between people and animals. That’s what we do. We just had a story where an older woman walked in, and wanted to meet the oldest, most unadoptable dog we had. Her husband had just died, and then her dog of 15 years died. She got her dog, and that’s what we do: We lift up hearts here.

How bad was the shelter before you got here?

It was in pretty bad shape. My boss called and said, “We’re going to get out of the sheltering business because we’re not good at it.” I got here and my motivation was, well, 31 people were going to lose their jobs, and that bothered me. And then, I just kind of lost my mind. I love a good challenge. I love to win.

So did you ever see yourself running an animal shelter?

No, no, God no. Growing up, we didn’t have pets. But I fell in love with this place. I knew we could turn it around. And I hate to brag, but I have to brag, we have been no. 1 [in live-release rate] in Sacramento for several years now. And it’s not a competition between centers. A lot of Sacramento shelters are doing much better—but I think when you switch up the game and start doing things differently, it makes other organizations take notice and [up] their game.

I read that one of your goals was to switch the reputation this shelter had as a killhouse into a place people actually hoped their lost pets would end up. Do you think you’ve done that?

I think I’ve come a long way. Do I think I’m done, no. We’re close but we’re not there yet. There are still people out there that call us the “pound” or that think we kill everything that comes in through the door.

What are you doing that’s different than other shelters with higher kill rates?

We’re very fortunate that we have a nonprofit. We are able to fundraise, which allows us to do more than our budget allows … When I first got here, we were spaying and neutering in a trailer. Thanks to donations, we now have an entire medical building.

So what’s your biggest goal then?

Well, I’m at the end of my career. I’m in what they call “The Three Day Club.” Three bad days, and I’ll just retire. (Laughs.) My goals are too big to say I just have one. But my big hairy audacious goal is to get a new shelter for the city of Sacramento in a new location. I mean, look at where we are. You’ve got to come down here on purpose. We’ve done a great job drawing crowds here, but shelters need to be out in places where there are high levels of traffic.

The shelter of today needs to be a retail space, it needs to be fun, it needs to be beautiful. It doesn’t need to look like a pound. Look—and I don’t like the word pound, but call it whatever you want, just support it. If the word pound makes you happy, fine, but still give me a donation, still volunteer, still adopt. Maybe I need to work on making “pound” sexy. (Laughs.)

What’s something you think is important for the public to know about how ‘the pound” operates?

Well people don’t realize that some of the dogs I have are guard dogs from backyard marijuana grows. There’s this expectation by the no-kill community that I save them all, but there’s a real challenge sometimes in saving an animal that’s completely unsocialized.

The fact that we’re saving 84 percent of the dogs that come in here regardless of how we got them, and what lives they had before they got here, is pretty damn amazing. Also, I don’t report my data the same as most agencies. The numbers [we publish], those are cats and dogs that came in and cats and dogs that came out, regardless of why I got them or the condition they were in.

What does that mean exactly?

Let’s say an owner brings in an 18-year-old cat that can’t walk and isn’t eating anymore and needs to be euthanized. I count that against me. I am not pulling anything out. I don’t want to be accused of cooking my numbers. I wish other agencies would do the same.