Foot the bill that will save lives

Opinion

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By KATHY CAPONE, One View

Forest Park resident Lori Buchowicz has never met a dog she doesn't like. It was while she was helping with the dogs at the late Forest Park Ark animal control/shelter facility that another volunteer there passed along to her a copy of Best Friends magazine, which is published by the Best Friends animal sanctuary in Utah. She took it home and read an article that set her life in a different direction. The article described how New Hampshire had added $2 to the charge for a dog license, used the money to finance a low-cost spay/neuter program for low income pet owners, and in seven years reduced the number of cats and dogs entering New Hampshire shelters by 37,210.

Lori says reading that article caused the earth to shift beneath her feet. Like everyone else who worked or helped at the Ark, a little bit of her heart was broken every day. The inflow was constant as new stray, unwanted and abandoned cats and dogs arrived daily. No animal got enough attention because employees and volunteers alike were simply overwhelmed by the sheer number of animals. There were never nearly as many adopters as there were animals. And as prolonged life in a cage for a companion animal is no life at all, animals would spend miserable time behind bars, sometimes deteriorating beyond adoptability while awaiting a family. The resulting sadness and frustration among the human contingent at the Ark was an accepted part of helping at an animal control/shelter facility. But what Lori was reading in Best Friends magazine told her that maybe she was helping at the shelter in entirely the wrong way. She was reacting to the results of the problem rather than addressing the problem itself.

The problem is pet overpopulation. Let me give you the worst-case scenario, with every animal reproducing at capacity. In ten years, two un-neutered cats can turn into over 10 million cats. In six years, two un-neutered dogs can turn into 67,000 dogs. Those numbers translate into overburdened animal shelters and well over 5 million euthanasias annually in the United States. Beyond being a disaster from a humane perspective, it is also expensive, as it costs taxpayers about $105 every time an animal is impounded.

New Hampshire decided to turn pro-active and deal with those first two cats and dogs rather than react to their millions of offspring generations down the line. And it is working. They began their program in 1994, and they are reaping the benefits today. Tens of thousands fewer impoundments and euthanasias, add an unexpected benefit: For every $1 spent on the low cost spay/neuter program, the state saved $3.15 in animal control costs. Neighboring Maine took notice and recently instituted its own state-wide low cost spay/neuter program. "Why aren't we doing this in Illinois?" thought Lori. If the grim reality of what she saw daily could be reversed, she was willing to do whatever it took. She got to work.

First she called attorney Peter Marsh, the man behind the legislation in New Hampshire. She left a message and he called back almost immediately. He was a treasure chest full of encouragement and good advice. He provided the names and numbers of people in other states who were working on instituting similar programs. Lori talked to everyone who could help. Then she did her homework, calling every county in Illinois, getting facts and figures about animal control, animal shelters, and the numbers of animals being euthanized. She made contacts at the ASPCA and humane societies all over the state. And then Lori got very lucky. She was introduced to Illinois State Senator Don Harmon, a resident of Oak Park. Senator Harmon was accessible and interested, and he had worked on animal issues before. He listened to Lori, reviewed the information she had amassed, and agreed that helping low-income residents of Illinois to spay and neuter their pets would go a long way towards reducing shelter populations, animal control costs, and euthanasias. And there would be additional benefits to communities: more animals vaccinated against rabies, fewer stray dog attacks, and fewer car accidents caused by stray animals. He agreed to sponsor legislation toward these goals in Springfield.

Animal Control professionals have long known that low income areas produce the highest percentages of stray and abandoned animals. When people are struggling with the necessities of daily life, getting the dog or cat fixed is often last on a very long list of expensive responsibilities. The pending legislation, now being referred to as the Illinois Public Health and Safety Animal Population Control Act, is designed to provide these pet owners with spay/neuter services for their pets, as well as vaccinations, all at a cost of only $15. In New Hampshire, those services are provided by veterinarians who voluntarily participate in the program, and they are reimbursed by the state 80 percent of their customary charges, and about 75 percent of New Hampshire's veterinarians have chosen to participate in the program.

Virtually everyone involved in the care of stray and abandoned animals believes that providing low cost spay/neuter services is crucial if we are ever going to see the end of killing massive numbers of cats and dogs simply because there is nowhere for them to go. However, there is disagreement on how to raise the money, and how to spend it once it is raised. While New Hampshire funded its program by increasing the fee for a dog license, that would not work in Illinois, as many communities do not license dogs. Adding $3 to the cost of a rabies shot is currently on the table to fund the Illinois legislation, but some animal advocates are concerned that people will be less likely to get their pets vaccinated against rabies if the cost is increased. And while New Hampshire utilized the services of individual veterinary offices, some Illinois constituencies believe that spay/neuter centers, stationary or mobile, would be a more effective use of the money available.

There currently are low-cost spay/neuter programs available. The Anti-Cruelty Society at 510 N. LaSalle, and PAWS at 3516 W. 26th in Chicago, are two stellar programs in our area, yet there are still thousands of people in this area who do not neuter their pets. The facts have demonstrated that people who do not have enough money to get their pets fixed often don't have enough money for a car either, and they need to get their pets over to LaSalle and Grand or the Little Village neighborhood to take advantage of those programs. Depending on what form the bill finally takes, this legislation could address that issue by enabling pet owners to go to a neighborhood vet, a mobile spay/neuter facility, or by equipping spay/neuter centers with transportation for clients.

The question has also been raised whether the cost of the surgery is always the reason that people fail to neuter their pets. Sadly, there are plenty of people who still believe that sterilization will make their pets fat and lazy (No!), or that reproducing is just what Fido or Tabby needs to stay healthy (pets are healthier when they're neutered). Education to dispel these myths would be a welcome part of any effort to make sterilization of pets part of our national culture.

Senator Harmon is listening to all interested and knowledgeable parties in the field of animal care, and he is looking at what has worked in other states. He is working towards building a consensus that will get the bill passed, thus taking a big step toward "turning off the faucet" that is flooding Illinois animal control facilities, shelters, and humane societies.

Early in the campaign for spay/neuter legislation in New Hampshire, a local newspaper there published a picture of a kitten's silhouette against the open door of a shelter's cremation furnace, and there was a public outcry regarding the newspaper's lack of sensitivity to its readers. No outcry about the deaths of thousands of animals, just complaints about seeing the reality of it. A more tolerable picture of reality was needed. In response to that need, animal activists made a paper collar for each animal that had been euthanized in New Hampshire during the previous seven months. They strung the collars together, and the chain of collars was almost a mile long. This visual demonstration was what finally spurred action.

I'm hoping for legislative success for Senator Harmon and Lori Buchowicz, or we're going to have to get started on Illinois' chain of collars. That will be a problem, as New Hampshire's mile-long chain represented 10,000 animals. Illinois, with at least 250,000 animals euthanized last year, will need a chain 25 miles long. Speaking for myself, I'd much rather pay the extra $3 the next time one of my dogs needs a rabies shot, or participate in whatever other method is chosen to fund low-cost spay/neuter legislation.

If you agree, it's time to let your veterinarian and Illinois state politicians know.

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