Litters of tiny puppies and kittens may be cute, but overpopulation of pets in the U.S. is a major problem that many animal rights activists are working hard to correct.
Ruth Steinberger is one such
“Most animals that are victims of intentional cruelty are intact (not spayed or neutered), roaming strays,” she said. “Standing up against cruelty is a huge step, but I think it's tragic that we're not preventing a whole lot more than we are.”
She recalls a disturbing, yet vivid example of how preventing an unwanted litter can prevent animal cruelty.
In March, a puppy was beaten to death in Bristow by a person with a baseball bat. A man who heard about the incident called Steinberger before he even called the police.
Steinberger is known in Bristow and across Oklahoma as a no-
Steinberger went to the scene of the crime — a low-income housing addition, she said — and found the lifeless dog. Neighbors and their children surrounding the scene looked on in horror — “It was so terrifying to the kids that this animal was killed like this,” she said.
Neighbors came forward as witnesses, Steinberger said, and the alleged perpetrator is in jail.
Unfortunately, this type of cruelty to animals is all too common, Seinberger said, and a big reason for the cruelty is pet overpopulation, a problem for which there is a simple solution — permanent birth control in the form of spaying or neutering.
Saving lives by preventing them
Finding ways to keep unwanted litters of puppies and kittens from being born is atop Steinberger's agenda.
That's why she created Spay First!, a national nonprofit organization at the front lines of educating the public about the crisis of pet overpopulation and preventing animal cruelty by establishing affordable spay/neuter programs in underserved areas.
For each spay or neuter surgery performed, Steinberger says at least one litter or about six unwanted animals won't be born.
But for many low-income Oklahomans, altering their pets is very low on their lists of financial priorities, Steinberger said. As part of her mission to see as many pets spayed and neutered as possible, Steinberger set up the Oklahoma Spay Network, which started as a small rural shelter in Durant and grew into a group of nonprofit providers in Oklahoma who provide more than 25,000 spay and neuter procedures for low income family pets each year. Fees are determined by a sliding scale based on clients' incomes. These providers can be found online at Okspaynetwork.org.
By reducing the unwanted animal population, Steinberger hopes to lessen the number of animals euthanized in shelters. So much of her goal depends on the willingness of veterinarians to volunteer their time and resources to provide the services. Due to the relationships she's made with Oklahoma veterinarians, Steinberger was recently made an honorary member of Oklahoma Veterinary Medical Association.
According to Spay First!, less than 50 percent of homes in Oklahoma earning under $35,000 per year have their pets spayed or neutered. Nearly half of Americans earn under $35,000 and the number of homes living in poverty increased
The good news is that Oklahoma is ahead of the curve, in terms of the number of spay/neuter clinics available to rural pet owners. The state is on par with fewer than 10 states with programs for reduced-cost spay and neuter procedures that are easily accessible to rural residents.
In New York City, the first high-volume low cost spay/neuter clinic opened in 2011. In most states, rural pet owners have to drive more than 50 miles for access to a low-cost clinic.
“People in chronic poverty want to be able to be compassionate and act on compassion. We absolutely know that when people are empowered to care, they do care,” Steinberger said. “Compassion comes naturally to people.”
City ordinances make a difference
Steinberger cited several cities in Oklahoma that have successfully enacted spay and neuter ordinances. Tulsa, Lawton and Claremore, among others, have reduced shelter overpopulation, seen fewer animals dropped off at shelters and have had to euthanize fewer healthy, adoptable pets since enacting spay/neuter ordinances.
Rose Wilson, manager of animal control in Lawton, said that when the ordinance was first enacted, many people objected to the new law. However, most people didn't understand that it was not a mandatory spay/neuter ordinance but rather a breeding ordinance in which a permit is required for intentional or accidental breeding.
For private individuals in Lawton, animals must be spayed or neutered to be given away, sold or transferred. And for pet shops, a permit is required to sell a set number of animals per year that are not spayed or neutered, but the shops must provide the city shelter with certain information including the name of the breeder and buyers.
The ordinances are working well, both Steinberger and Wilson agree. Before the law, in 2006, the number of animals euthanized in Lawton was 4,193, Wilson said. The ordinance went into effect in 2007 and by 2011, the number of animals put to sleep dropped to 2,765.
“The thing that I've really noticed is the animals that we get now, the majority fall in the category of ‘unadoptable,'” Wilson said. Unadoptable animals include those with problems with health, temperament or aggression. In other words, fewer animals that were adoptable had to be euthanized in 2011 than before the ordinance took effect. In 2006 1,283 adoptable animals had to be euthanized. In 2011, only 278 adoptable animals had to be euthanized.
“With the numbers that we've had since 2007, I think it's proven its worth,” Wilson said, referring to the city ordinance. “Now we need to start centering on education and helping people to keep the pets they have.”
Network of providers, information
At Okspaynetwork.com, you can learn about MASH (mobile animal surgical hospital) programs and how to set up a similar program in your community.
MASH programs are often set up in churches or other community buildings in rural communities. MASH units create local sites where low income individuals can bring their pets to be spayed and neutered at reduced costs, by volunteer veterinarians and staff. Through a grant from Lockhart Foundation, Steinberger will film an instructional video on how to set up MASH programs.
“One of the most important things about the video is that we will have the transcripts for people in every country,” Steinberger said.
The video should be ready for distribution by July, she said.
People in chronic poverty want to be able to be compassionate and act on compassion. We absolutely know that when people are empowered to care, they do care.”