Letter: A spay/neuter success story

Here's how spay/neuter has worked in Santa Cruz County, Calif. See www.santacruzspca.org/santa_cruz_statistics.html. In recent years, the idea of implementing spay/neuter laws to control pet overpopulation has received increasing attention. This is because, after a decade of declining shelter intakes in the 1980s and 1990s - due to better outreach and education, and more widespread availability of low-cost spay/neuter services - the trend has slowed or even reversed in many communities. Animal lovers and responsible taxpayers want a fair, reasonable way to move forward to the next level of reducing the number of unwanted dogs and cats in their communities.

Santa Cruz has been the focus of much interest because we are among the earliest adopters of a spay/neuter law. (San Mateo County, with which we are sometimes confused, adopted their ordinance a few years before we did, but theirs only covers a small portion of their county.) In the hope of helping communities to understand what we did and why, and how our experiment has worked, we offer this account of our experience:

History: In the early 1990s, the Santa Cruz SPCA was the contracting agency for animal control in Santa Cruz County. Concerned about intake and euthanasia numbers (30 percent of dogs were being euthanized, more than 60 percent of cats), the SPCA went to the community to solicit input about ways to help save animals' lives and taxpayer dollars.

After several public forums, there was widespread agreement: The best approach was a spay/neuter ordinance that would address the problem at its source, preventing the birth of unwanted animals, in effect closing the barn door before the horse had left.

In 1995, we began implementation of our ordinance. Its chief features are: spay/neuter of dogs and cats at six months of age; exemptions for police, search and rescue, service, and herding/livestock dogs (and breeding stock for all these), as well as for animals with health concerns and dogs in boarding kennels; and the option of purchasing an "unaltered certificate" allowing one litter per year for a single dog or cat, for a fee.

To qualify for an unaltered certificate, the owner must not have been convicted of crimes related to animal cruelty or misuse, and the certificate imposes certain requirements regarding veterinary care, number of litters (multiple offenses) allowed, age of sale and the like. Our goal with the unaltered certificate was to ensure that any breeding that took place was done with care and forethought, not accidentally or without due responsibility for the care of the animal and its offspring.

Enforcement: As with any new law, there was a hue and cry: "It's unenforceable," along with, "Animal Control will be at every door, invading our privacy!" Of course, it's impossible for both to be true, and in fact, neither has been. Enforcement was folded into the Animal Control officers' existing duties: If a dog or cat is cited for some other cause (failure to license, at large, etc.), or came into the shelter, we applied the law.

We did not, and do not, have the personnel to go door to door, nor did we ever think it was necessary to do so for our law to be effective; there was never an intention or a need to increase our staff or budget in relation to this ordinance. The goal instead was to educate our community and change the culture to be more aware of, and responsible about, pets and reproduction.

Outcomes: The statistics tell our story best. In 1994, the year before we began implementation of the new ordinance, Santa Cruz County shelters took in 3,309 dogs and 5,016 cats, with 30 percent of dogs and 60 percent of cats euthanized. Those numbers were roughly similar for 1992 and 1993.

In the years following passage of our ordinance, the numbers went as we had hoped: Within two years, at the end of 1997, the number of dogs coming in had dropped to 2,817, and the euthanasia rate to 20 percent, while the number of cats dropped to 3,451, and the euthanasia rate to 48 percent. Five years after passage, the number of incoming dogs was 2,359, and the euthanasia rate was down to 19 percent; the number of cats had dropped to 2,830, and the euthanasia rate was 36 percent. By 2003, our numbers were as good as we could ever have hoped to see: 1,403 dogs impounded (less than half the number from 1994) and 1,805 cats impounded - a 64-percent drop!

When the Santa Cruz Animal Services Authority began design of a new shelter to replace our aging facility, we were able to go for fewer cages because of the reduced number of animals needing our care. Such a downsizing of shelter facilities is unheard of in communities that don't have aggressive pet overpopulation reduction programs.

We hit a snag in 2004: the Animal Services Authority (now in charge of animal control services for the County) annexed the City of Watsonville, which had not had a spay/neuter ordinance, and its shelter. Suddenly, we had an increased population of people (20 percent more), none of them had been required to alter their pets, or had accepted the importance of doing so. Our numbers reflect that, with a rise in both dog and cat intakes and euthanasia rates since; we've been able to hold at roughly 2005 numbers for dogs, and reduce numbers for cats, but it will take us a while to bring Watsonville fully into the fold and restore our downward trend.

The reality is, we will never eliminate pet overpopulation altogether. Spay/neuter ordinances are not intended as a single solution to a multi-faceted problem, but as one tool among many to address the problem at its source. In Santa Cruz County, we are more than confident that our ordinance has helped us cut our intake and euthanasia numbers far more than communities without such an ordinance, and to keep those numbers at a more tolerable level than they were in 1994. In Santa Cruz County, we no longer euthanize for space. Please spay or neuter your animals. Kingman is horrible for strays. Let's correct this.

Jerry Burch

Santa Cruz County, Calif.