Ready to SNAP
The need for Grant County's Spay & Neuter Awareness Program (SNAP) is as great as ever. But SNAP may be running out of time.
Story and photos by Harry Williamson
After more than eight years of success, Grant County's volunteer Spay & Neuter Awareness Program (SNAP) is treading in difficult waters due to a serious lack of volunteers and money. Help may be in the offing, spearheaded by Silver City Councilman Jamie Thomson, who is rewriting the town's animal ordinance. But as it stands now SNAP's problems locally come at a time when the number of unwanted dogs and cats being euthanized in the nation's animal shelters remains appalling.
1- The Silver City Animal Control and Shelter staff, from the left, are Heather Carr, Ed Hollaway, Buddy Howard, Scott Rotherham, Billy Dominquez and Gigi Shoaf.
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) estimates that in 2011, 6 million to 8 million dogs and cats will be placed into the nation's shelters. Of this number, HSUS estimates 3 million to 4 million will be euthanized.
But regardless — sooner or later — the final number always comes down to one. One dog or cat being lifted onto a table and softly petted while a sedative is administered, followed by a second needle to stop its heart.
This happens simply because there are not enough homes out there for all the pets roaming around. A 2003 Desert Exposure article ("Raining Cats and Dogs") on SNAP and its effort to help lower-income people spay and neuter their pets graphically compared this exploding dog and cat population to a giant meat grinder: "The inexorable pressure from behind of newly born pets pushes the pets at the grinder end to their deaths."
And how is the decision made about which one animal is placed at the grinder's end?
"Some animals just shut down and start hiding in the corner or they get nasty," says Gigi Shoaf, office administrator at the Silver City Animal Control and Shelter. The High Desert Humane Society operates the shelter for Silver City and Grant County.
Shoaf says at other times there simply isn't enough room at the shelter for all of the dogs and cats.
"It's the hardest part of the job," she adds. "You go through the pens and say, 'I'm sorry, dog. You've been here for six months, and I just can't get anybody to look at you. We've used newspaper ads, volunteers take you for walks, and I just have to give somebody else a chance.' There's always somebody on the stray side waiting for a chance."
Buddy Howard, easy to talk to and a sympathetic listener, has been the Grant County animal control officer for the past 20 years. It is his job to transport many of the dogs and cats to the shelter. He is also often involved in administering the double shots.
"There are some really nice dogs we find homes for," he says. "But it sure hurts when you have to make some room for some different ones."
Shoaf, who has been at the shelter 10 years this August, says she believes they are doing a good job of finding adoptive homes for the animals: "The national average a year or two ago for a facility like this was 12% or 13%. We always run higher than that, usually over 20%."
In 1998, the shelter took in 2,692 dogs and cats, adopted 346, returned 294 to their owners — for a total 23% rate — and euthanized 2,096. In 2004, 2,352 animals came in, 675 were adopted and 219 returned for an overall 38%, with 1,434 euthanized. In 2009, 2,224 came in, 707 were adopted and 188 returned home, for a 42% rate; 1,126 were euthanized.
"Our adoption numbers are going up," Shoaf says. "It's a bigger issue now because of national TV exposure. There are more of those little, sad commercials of dogs and cats behind cages. But we will never be able to adopt our way out of the problem. The answer is to spay and neuter. Stop it before it starts."
I spent two days at the shelter doing interviews and taking photos, and was impressed by how it operated. The six-person staff is friendly and competent, albeit with a tough and demanding job. The pens are cleaned daily, scrubbed from top to bottom. Drain caps are removed and cleaned, and blankets and linens are washed.
"This is just like a hospital," Shoaf says. "You always have new infections coming in, so you clean and clean and clean."
One of the many dogs at the Silver City Animal Shelter recently looking for new homes.
Grant County has a contract to obtain animal control services from the shelter for an annual fee of $57,500, plus $10 per dog and $5 per cat picked up in the county. The total can't exceed $66,000. The town of Silver City this year pays $34,850, plus $20 for dogs and $10 for cats picked up in the town above the average for the previous three years.
A Silver City ordinance requires that all adopted pets be spayed or neutered before being sent to their new homes. The cost to adopt a dog, including the spay/neuter charge and all vaccinations, ranges from $75 for a less than 20-pound male, up to $105 for a female weighing more than 80 pounds. Puppies cost $55 to adopt. This includes a reduced-rate coupon to get the dog spayed or neutered when old enough.
Nationally, HSUS estimates that 75% of owned pets are neutered or spayed, compared to only 10% of the animals that go into shelters. Local numbers are likely similar.
Shoaf says, "People in our area probably do as well as any that is rural, kind of depressed and is essentially a poor county. It's just one thing that poorer people don't do. They often don't have enough money to pay the gas bill, much less spay the dog."
She adds that it stands to reason that programs like HALT and SNAP are very important. HALT stands for Halt a Litter Today, and is operated by the High Desert Humane Society. Coupons, ranging in value from $25 to $55, depending on the size of the animal being spayed or neutered, are given out at no charge. Owners can take the coupon to their veterinarian. Shoaf says an owner could receive up to three coupons a year.
Grant County's Spay & Neuter Awareness Program — SNAP for short — has an illustrious record since it was started in June 2002 by Mary Jane and Jerry Friedler, Lynn Janes and Kris Wamsley, after receiving $1,500 in seed money from the Las Cruces SNAP. This small band of volunteers has raised at least $20,000 a year, providing for the neutering or spaying of more than 2,000 dogs and cats.
"If we had the money and the volunteers, we could have doubled that number," Mary Jane Friedler says. She adds that in the first month after they started distributing flyers she received more than 200 phone calls.
Silver City Councilman Jamie Thomson and Mary Jane Friedler, secretary and founding board member of the Silver City SNAP group, discuss some of the issues of pet overpopulation.
The group is a 501(c)3, paying the balance of spaying and neutering costs for low-income people in Grant, Catron and Hidalgo counties who provide a small co-pay. It is one of approximately 25 groups in New Mexico that help people with lower incomes spay and neuter their pets, including a handful of groups that pay the entire cost.
Taking a more no-nonsense view of the pet overpopulation problem, Albuquerque requires all pet owners to "fix" their pets, providing assistance for low-income families, and exempting breeders. The law also requires all pets to be microchipped for easier identification. Los Angeles County, Dallas and Las Vegas have similar laws. Twenty-eight states, including New Mexico, require pets adopted from shelters to be sterilized.
Friedler says that while her group's fundraising efforts have been hit by the economic downturn, several local firms and organizations continue to provide assistance. "The Kiwanis Club of Silver City and the Town and Country Garden Club have been absolutely tremendous, along with several others," she says.
These supporters include Vicki's Eatery, Yankie Creek Coffee House, Sunrise Espresso, Hacienda Realty, Silver City Food Co-op, Alotta Gelato, Pet Food Annex, Spoiled Rotten Animal Health Spa and Toy Town.
She expects SNAP's future fundraising efforts to be more successful, but the biggest hurdle today for its continued operation is more volunteers.
"We're down to about five people, including myself, and we're all getting burnt-out," Friedler says. "We need some new blood, especially an experienced grant-writer, and some dedicated people who can just sit down and give us their time and ideas."
For a short-term answer, Jamie Thomson of the Town Council has been meeting with town and county officials to try to match the spay/neuter funds raised by SNAP, HALT and other local groups. For the longer-term and for the ordinance re-write he is working on, the basic premise is that spaying and neutering is a cost-effective investment.
As one example of this, a publication of the International City County Management Association says, "A City that impounds and euthanizes 4,000 animals in 2001, but does not promote spaying and neutering will probably still euthanize 4,000 animals in 2010. A City that institutes a subsidized spay/neuter program will likely euthanize significantly fewer animals in 2010 and save on a host of other animal-related costs as well."
The Association also says that cities that work closely with volunteer groups "transfer the costs from taxpayers to private individuals, and also yield revenue in the form on increased adoptions."
So just how much does it cost to kill an unwanted dog or cat?
Thomson says the only number he has been able to find that comprehensively covers the total cost of euthanizing an animal is about $170.
"We are willing to pay the full cost of $170 for killing peoples' animals, but we won't pay anything for preventing the killing of animals. That's crazy. We have to change that," Thomson says.
He adds that looking at the supply and demand of dogs and cats in Grant County, "the supply is so overwhelming, due to the biological potential of the animals, that the value of the animals is zero. The replacement cost is zero."
Thomson goes on, "So you have to figure out a reasonable way to lower that supply, or we'll always have this same problem. The very best way is ongoing spaying and neutering."
Concerning a short-term agreement with SNAP and the other groups, Thomson compares it to when the city or the county gets a federal grant with a 50% matching co-pay.
"We just jump on that, because it's like for every dollar we put out, we get three back," Thomson says. "So here's SNAP. They come up with $20,000 or $25,000 a year, and that doesn't include the legwork and the paperwork. That's $40,000 of work embedded in every $20,000.
"What I would like is for us to go to these groups and ask, 'What do you guys need? How can we remove some of your frustrations? What we have is capital, and what you have is your energy and your commitment to this important thing.' But the community is going to have to get on board," he says.
Friedler says she and the other members are committed to seeing SNAP continue.
"I just don't want to see it end, period," she says. "We've taken so much for granted with all these animals, allowed so much cruelty to go on. That has got to stop."
To become a member of SNAP in Silver City, or to get more information, call Mary Jane Friedler at (575) 534-1296. To make a donation, make checks payable to SNAP and send to PO Box 1958, Silver City, NM 88061. Except for the cost of the mailbox, all monies go for spay and neuter costs. Donations are tax-deductible.
Harry Williamson moved to Grant County almost two years ago after reporting and editing for newspapers in New York, Oklahoma, Colorado and Texas. Feel free to contact him with comments and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org