June 29, 1998 12:00 PM

Until recently, Henry wasn’t a very appealing fellow. Boisterous by nature, he came on too strong and rarely bathed or paid attention to his appearance. But after a few days at a new spa-like facility in San Francisco—where guests receive free behavior therapy, high-protein cuisine, grooming services and workouts with a trainer—Henry looked, and smelled, better. He had also calmed down enough to make new friends. Good friends. A month after he arrived, Henry even went home with one of them.

Ready to sign up? You can’t—unless the magnetism you want is the animal kind. Henry is a dog, and his transformation took place at Maddie’s Pet Adoption Center, San Francisco’s swank answer to the city’s homeless pet problem. “There’s nothing like this in the world,” boasts the city’s ASPCA president Richard Avanzino, 56, founder of the facility. Built with $7 million in donations (and named after the most generous donor’s schnauzer), the 37,000-square-foot shelter accommodates 140 cats and dogs in unprecedented style. Canines get their own small, human-style beds in private, furnished rooms with art on the walls, a ventilation system to eliminate odors and TVs programmed with Kin Tin Tin and Lassie videotapes. The 70 sun-drenched “kitty condos” come with climbing trees and fish-filled aquariums (for viewing, not chewing).

“Getting animals out of cages, which traumatize them, is wonderful,” says Linda Drake, executive director of Pets Unlimited, Inc., another Bay Area adoption group. Explains Avanzino: “We wanted a home-style setting—they’ll be going into homes, after all.”

Which is more than can be said for many of their two-legged counterparts. In December, Avanzino suggested that the city’s homeless people come for sleepovers with the animals. The idea was later scrapped because of logistical problems, but not before some advocates for the homeless took offense. “The best we come up with for humans is a warehouse with all these people sleeping together—and to have all that for animals?” asks Mara Raider of the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness. Suggesting the homeless sleep at the center “is insulting.”

For Avanzino, who has university degrees in pharmacology and law, the center is the realization of a dream. Wild about animals since growing up in Alameda, Calif. (his dad, August, a housing insulator, and mom Frances, a homemaker, got him a succession of dogs and cats), he has spent 22 years at the helm of the city’s ASPCA. He came up with his unorthodox approach to shelters—which traditionally house animals in cramped, dingy quarters—because he felt no beast should bear the burden. “Ninety-three percent of owners consider pets family members,” he says. “You wouldn’t put family in a cage, would you?”

To prepare the center’s pets for family life, a rotating staff of 950 (50 paid, the rest volunteer) labors from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. “Socializers” like volunteer Loretta Padilla, 60, “sit and talk with the cats to make them more comfortable with people,” she says. Dogs shuttle from play dates in the yard to a grate-covered pit, where they relieve themselves, to classes where trainers perfect their manners and obedience. Says Avanzino: “The animals that come to us are mostly the old, the uglies, the poorly behaved—the ones most shelters wouldn’t give a second chance to.” Happiness at the center is so crucial, in fact, that canines even have the right to refuse prospective owners: if a dog barks when assessing a person’s scent through his “sniff window,” the person isn’t allowed to enter his room.

Since the center opened last February, it has placed some 1,450 animals in homes. Avanzino now hopes to open more pet-friendly shelters around the country. There’s only one drawback: some guests may not want to leave. As one Maddie’s visitor, student Lilian Ventocilla, put it: “They look happy—like they don’t mind if they get adopted or not.”

Kim Hubbard

Gabrielle Saveri in San Francisco