Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Downside of legislating morality & responsibility; high-volume/low-cost spay and neuter

Responses to recent comments

Margaret wrote in about also loving the new Best Friends commercial regarding spay/neuter. And then tonight, I watched "Bones," which showed the ugly world of dog fighting and which guest-starred Cesar Millan, The Dog Whisperer. It is refreshing to see pitbulls being shown on primetime national networks in a more honest, non-stereotypical way ... the show highlighted the suffering of this breed and others at the hands of people who force them to fight. Another great commercial aired during the hour-long program that featured dogs "talking" about their experiences as forced fighters, using the same realistic animation as the movie "Babe". I sure hope that more animal-welfare issues are featured in primetime shows and that these kind of commercials become more common in the advertising landscape on T.V.

Ed Zimmer wrote in about his foundation's TNR efforts and how they are also fighting similar battles in Michigan as the rest of us. Check out his websie at He is working to save the lives of cats locally and nationally.

Eri wrote to ask if I support the idea of banning backyard breeders. Although I agree that the less backyard breeders we have, the better it is for animals, I am one to be leary of draconian legislation that often leads to more animals being impounded and killed in our shelters and which end up hurting and punishing the wrong people, too. On one hand, the last thing our area needs are more pit and chihuahua puppies, but I think that first our shelters need to try to put these breeders out of business by making shelters the preferred place for people to get their companion animals. For more on my thoughts of why trying to legislate morality is a double-edged sword, see my discussion on the downside of just using law enforcement to try to get where we wish we were. But, don't get me wrong, Eri ... if someone is not a legitimate, responsible breeder, I would hope that with the programs and services that lead to high-volume spay and neuter, we could reach more people and convince them to do the right thing and not breed as many animals as we are breeding now.

Following Eri was an Anonymous comment about the answer to backyard breeding being the passing and enforcement of strict mandatory spay/neuter laws. This person also mentioned that doing this takes money. Unfortunately, even many animal-welfare activists still believe these sort of myths, which is also understandable. In theory, it would seem like these sort of laws would do the trick; it's the practice of them that has proven otherwise. Oftentimes, these laws backfire and end up punishing the wrong people and leading to more animals being impouneded and killed in our sheltering system. See more on this later in my blog.

The second myth this points to is that progressive sheltering takes MORE funding, and this mistake is made because most of us do not know or realize how expensive it is to catch and kill most unwanted animals. I am in the process of gathering some data that proves no kill does not have to be more expensive and that it can often be more cost-effective. More importantly, it can also lead to more wealth as the community rewards you for the good work you are doing with monetary and volunteer support.

A last Anonymous comment pointed to the No Kill Resources link I had listed on the left, which I have since removed. To be honest with everyone, I had not clicked on or followed all the links on this page. At first glance, it seemed like a good resource pointing to legitimate groups. After receiving this comment which said an animal rights link led to the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), I checked each link myself. Of those that were legitimate and that I do support--such as Alley Cat Allies, Maddie's Fund, Best Friends, etc.--I realized I had already linked to these organizations. Then, I saw that half the links did not work, and then there was the link to the ALF, a group whose work I do not personally endorse.

In fact, though I do consider myself to be an animal rights and human rights activist, I do not blindly follow any group that waves these banners ... not even some of the big, rich, "legitimate" ones--such as PETA. I have many issues with PETA's messages and tactics, too. So, in short, the only work that I endorse on this blog is any group that is sincerely working toward the kind of no kill I believe is doable, noble, and within our reach. That's the point of this particular blog -- not the entirety and enormity of animal rights issues. Animal sheltering, to me, is unique in that I think our companion animal-welfare institutions are accountable to the public that funds and supports them through tax dollars and contributions, which is very different from the issues facing other animals that suffer in other types of industries, such as factory farms, etc. The only pressure we can exert on these industries is through our consumer dollars.

And, I wanted to let this Anonymous person know that the erroneous assumption and reference they made to my supposed support of the ALF and their tactics and how this might affect the non-profit status of the local Humane Society of Southern New Mexico (HSSNM) was also incorrect. This blog and the viewpoints I write are mine and mine alone -- as an independent activist and supporter of the no kill philosophy and set of programs. I do not speak on behalf of any group in our area, nor am I an official representative of any organization. I volunteer with many groups, including HSSNM, but I am not on their board of directors nor on their payroll.

Inherent problems in legislating morality & responsibility and the importance of spay/neuter programs and services

For decades, we have been trying to force people to do the right thing by their companion animals through punitive legislation and enforcement, and these laws often backfire in unexpected ways. The people they supposedly target -- hoarders, backyard breeders, neglectful owners -- will not change or become law-abiding just because we pass a law or even after we enforce it. Chances are, these people will do what they have always done and ignore the new laws until they are caught. All you have to do is open the newspaper these days to see the next hoarding case that pops up to see the complexity of that issue and to see that not all of those cases are alike.

Let's take mandatory spay/neuter laws, which many animal-welfare advocates support. If you pass these laws in an area like ours, where there are limited support services for spay/neuter for the public, what ends up happening is that more animals are impounded and put to death, and people who want to do the right thing but cannot afford to do so are punished much more than these "bad" people the laws are meant to target. There are countless examples of this from our recent past in the U.S.

Study after study conducted on this subject have shown that simply providing low-cost options doubles the number of poor people who spay/neuter their animals. Wealthier communities have historically spayed/neutered their pets at four times the rate of their poor counterparts. While these laws try to force people to abide by the law, without providing enough spay/neuter support and options, a community is remiss to pass these kind of laws. In other words, along with these laws should be great efforts made to allow people to comply and provide ways for them to do so--and great compassion shown toward people and their pets and sometimes special circumstances.

Instead of handing out citations and impounding animals for high fees that low-to-median income people cannot pay, which will lead to more killing and more bad blood between the public and our animal-welfare agencies, we need to instead focus our money and efforts to offer multiple incentives, opportunities, and programs for people to spay and neuter their pets. Right now, our shelter is no longer offering low-cost surgeries for the public nor have they done so for going on a year, so the only options are for very low-income families to get vouchers from SNAP or for families to get in line at a FSNP voucher fair to get the chance at one free voucher on a first-come, first-serve basis (with about 50 vouchers handed out per fair). Vets are booked for surgeries weeks at a time, and the average cost for these services are anywhere from $80-$200 per animal. This is very cost-prohibitive, especially in the current economic climate where a tank of gas can cost $60-80 for a V-8 truck or SUV.

I have talked to at least two families in the past few weeks seeking advice and assistance for spay/neuter. They either make a little too much money to qualify for SNAP vouchers or they have multiple animals they need to get fixed. They want to do the right thing, but they can barely afford the rabies vaccinations, and they are already in debt. I look at myself, and I understand their struggles. I used to be in their shoes, and though I now make a very high salary for our area, I still struggle to care for my 6 animals (and, yes, I am aware I am at my pet limit as a county resident!). My animals are aging and in need of many medications and vet services, and I am having a hard time keeping up with the costs. I can't imagine what I would do if I made less than $30K a year, as many people do.

Examples abound of communities thriving with opening low-cost spay/neuter clinics, running mobile vans, and finding other innovative ways to help people get their animals fixed. There are ways to set up day-long MASH units and do high-volume surgeries with the help of local veterinarians, provide shuttle services to and from surgery appointments for people who cannot get away from work to do so, and spend money on PR and advertising to help get the word out about your multiple programs and try to address some of the typical reasons people don't fix their pets. As it is, many people in our community don't seem to know that SNAP or FSNP exist.

Here's a frightening example of legislative backlash. In the 1970s, the City of Los Angeles opened four low-cost spay/neuter clinics that were so successful that within a decade of these services being provided, the LA shelters were killing half the number of animals they had been prior to opening the clinics. Every tax dollar invested in that decade actually saved taypayers tens of billions of dollars in animal control costs due to less impoundments, less handling and care, and less killing. And, despite the balking of veterinarians who sometimes worry these programs will steal their customemrs, the private vets of LA were still performing over 80% of the surgeries in the city. After all, these low-income families are not the average vet's clients because they cannot afford the services at regular costs ... it's people like me that go to the private vets and drop hundreds of dollars at a time!

So, this story of the City of Los Angeles does not end well. After two decades of running the clinics, the doors to all four were closed in a round of budget cuts, and by the year 2000, very strict ordinaces were passed in LA. regarding licensing and mandatory spay/neuter at the urging of their animal control director. Failing to license a pet became on par with weapons possession and domestic violence (up to 6 months in jail is the upper end of the punishment for this crime). Animal control officers were empowered to go door-to-door to fine owners hundreds of dollars or confiscate and subsequently kill their pets. Passing the mandatory spay/neuter laws while taking away the clinics that had helped people for decades has dramatically increased the killing of animals once again in LA shelters, erasing the good that was done previously without the laws in place.

This is why I will not support the legislation of responsible pet ownership in our community until our animal control departments and entire animal-welfare system provides incentives, opportunities, and support for people to comply with the laws. Instead of waste our tax dollars on enforcing laws which lead to more death (isn't killing ~17,000 a year enough?), we'd do better to spend that money on the high-volume, low-cost spay and neuter programs that have been proven to reduce the number of animals being born and subsequently killed. Until we have more options in place than two voucher programs that are having a hard time keeping up with this community's demands and needs, we have no business passing any such laws.

No Kill is about saving lives ... not supporting ways to lead to more death. No Kill is about allocating the funds we do have in ways that help people become more responsible owners, not trying to force "bad" or mentally ill people that will never comply or care to do the right thing. No Kill is about compassion for humans and animals and fostering open and honest communication with people and finding solutions to sometimes complex issues and situations.

In this sense, it is not noble to think this is possible. It is possible if you re-think the way things have always been done and move your money around to doing things new ways. It does not take millions of dollars to start working in this direction either. I hope to have proof of this for you very soon on this blog and in our No Kill Study Group.

Lastly, there is no doubt that high-volume, low-cost spay and neuter programs and services are very important to No Kill efforts. We cannot achieve No Kill without this very important part of the whole equation.


mute witness said...


Great entry.

We have faced issues in my state due to the passing of a mandatory feline spay/neuter law. I have heard it suggested by reliable inside sources that the main reason the bill was pushed through was purely because our legislators wanted to get the "crazy cat people" off their backs. Our state government is in a half billion dollar defecit (much bigger legislative fish to fry) and yet still, many of them were being innundated with phonecalls about the cat bill and they just wanted it to end. There was no substantial low cost spay/neuter infrastructure in place, however...and it's not like all our humane/rescue/animal welfare/veterinary factions have historically played nice together in the first place. It hasn't seemed to make a dent in feline overpopulation...kitten season has been just as bad in the two years since, though I notice that strangely (*scratch chin in puzzlement*) more of the turn-in litters we get are "found on the side of the road." Ha. Imagine that.
When the law passage hit the media in 06 (mainly scaring every li'l ol' stray cat feeding lady in the state into thinking she was going to be arrested any day), we got many frantic phone calls from citizens...people wanting to relinquish their adult cats because they couldn't afford a spay OR a fine. Enforcement lies in the hands of the ACOs, who are stretched too thin as it is. That's died off now, the buzz and reaction. Things seem no different to me, pre and post law, numberswise....though I don't have stats.

Thankfully, things are turning around for our state, though....I guess the horse is finally showing up to pull the cart. An alliance has formed with the help of/in the model of the Humane Alliance of Asheville, NC. I assume you know about them?
Things are moving forward and should get underway in 2009. How marvellous it will be!

But from what I have seen firsthand, legislation itself is definitely not the answer.


Anonymous said...

So pleased to see the link to ALF gone. It's also good to see you do not support PETA. As for mandatory spay/neuter laws, according to the no kill advocacy website, these laws have never worked anywhere under any circumstances. You are on the right track wanting resources going to low cost spay/neuter and helping people care for their pets. Supporting mandatory spay/neuter laws is a waste of time, effort and money. It's bothersome to see local volunteers writing letters to the editor demanding these laws. One of them works with HSSNM and one with SNAP. This draws opposition and undermines the good work that these organizations are trying to do.