It's raining cats and dogs

Lori Buchowicz teams up with State Sen. Don Harmon to stem the tide of unwanted pets

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By SUSAN E. ROSS

"I want people to understand that they can make a difference," said Lori Buchowicz, who for several years has been working to make a difference for dogs and cats in Illinois.

Buchowicz is a seemingly tireless advocate of a statewide low-cost spay/neuter program for low-income pet owners. She lives in Forest Park, but her ideas have put in motion a vision for the entire state of Illinois.

As a volunteer at the recently closed Noah's Ark animal shelter, Buchowicz saw animals arrive and leave. Many went to new homes, but many others were put down. In response to what she was witnessing, Buchowicz was galvanized into action after she was handed a copy of "Best Friends," a publication from Utah's Best Friends animal sanctuary. An article in the publication described a program launched in New Hampshire that has reduced the number of shelter animals by 37,210 since its inception.

The New Hampshire plan

Seven years ago, Buchowicz learned, New Hampshire decided to approach the issue of stray and abandoned animals at the start of the stream by offering a low-cost spay/neuter service to low-income pet owners.

Buchowicz found out that a pair of un-neutered cats could produce over 10,000,000 cats in 10 years and a pair of un-neutered dogs produces 67,000 more dogs in six years.

As in New Hampshire, Buchowicz would have Illinois deal with the first pair of animals before they produce a statewide problem. She believes the animals, our cities, and our pocketbooks would benefit from finding a way for the first pair of cats or dogs to have no offspring.

About a year and a half ago, Buchowicz was introduced to State Senator Don Harmon, an Oak Park resident, who has a history of working on animal issues. Harmon listened to her concerns and helped craft and introduce legislation last session. It didn't pass.

Pros and cons

While the outcomeâ€"fewer strays, fewer abandoned cats and dogs, and fewer animals being put downâ€"is roundly supported, there's much debate about how to do it and how to finance it.

There are significant differences in the way New Hampshire and Illinois approach pet ownership. New Hampshire requires that all dogs be registered, so a $2 surcharge on dog licensing raises a great deal of money without putting much burden on anyone.

In Illinois, however, only some municipalities require registration. As a result, a different modality is required. Here, rabies shots are the most consistent point of contact with pet owners, and a surcharge on the shot is how Buchowicz proposes to pay for the spay/neuter program.

Those in favor of the legislation see this as a relatively painless way to redress a large and growing problem. Those opposed ask why responsible pet owners should underwrite the medical care of other people's pets.

Buchowicz, however, points out that the "public good"â€"schools, police and fire protection for exampleâ€"are often financed through fees and taxes.

Harmon intends to introduce another bill when more support for it is in place.

The Illinois proposal

The Illinois plan, as described by Buchowicz, would increase the cost of a rabies shot by $3 to underwrite a spay/neuter program for low-income pet owners, who would pay only a $15 co-pay to receive standard pet vaccinations and altering.

Currently costs for spaying/neutering and vaccinations vary with vets and locations, but the average is $100 for altering and $50 for shots. Veterinarians who choose to be part of the program would be reimbursed up to 80 percent, in addition to receiving the $15 co-pay. In New Hampshire, 75 percent of vets have chosen to participate.

There are two low-cost spay/neuter programs in Chicago, at the Anti-Cruelty Society, 510 N. LaSalle St., and PAWS, 3516 W. 26th St. But Buchowicz believes these locations are not viable options for many low-income people because transportation, especially with pets, is often a barrier.

Healthier pets

Buchowicz points out that there are 30 diseases shared by pets and people, and she's concerned that low-income pet owners may not be getting their pets vaccinated. Rabies is a main focus, but Buchowicz says there's been an increase in distemper. This is why the spay/neuter program has vaccinations rolled into its $15 fee.

The public pocketbook is another concern for Buchowicz. Nationwide, every animal impounded costs about $105. With its program in place, New Hampshire saved $3.15 in animal control costs for every $1 put into the low-cost spay/neuter program.

It's not clear when this legislation will come up in committee again, but there's no question that Buchowicz will be in Springfield, lending her voice to the debate as she's done so many times already.

"Lori is a terrific champion of the issue," Harmon said. There's no doubt she'll be at the table for the next round.

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