Editorial: Wanted: vets on wheels at combat pay

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 1994:

Just over two years ago ANIMAL PEOPLE publisher Kim Bartlett disregarded
warnings that she was taking her life in her hands and took an experimental neuter/release
project into inner city Bridgeport, Connecticut––the city with the highest per capita murder
rate and greatest rate of drug-related violence of any in North America. Among the burned-
out, abandoned shells of factories and tenements where families lived six or eight people to
a room on welfare, Kim found a community who for the most part already knew about pet
overpopulation, were worried about the homeless animals they fed at their doorsteps, and
were readily receptive to her help in obtaining neutering and vaccination. Bridgeport had
and probably still has a high density of feral cats not primarily because anyone was ignorant
or indifferent, nor because even the poorest of the poor were unwilling to pay for neutering
their pets––albeit that most couldn’t afford to pay anything close to the going veterinary
rates. On the contrary, Kim was welcomed as “the cat lady” where even police feared to
walk. Children ran up and down the shabby side streets knocking on doors, asking neigh-
bors to bring out their animals. Elderly women without even a warm coat and third genera-
tion welfare mothers produced tattered and painstakingly preserved ten-dollar bills to make
the most generous contribution they could to assist the effort. The nun whose tiny convent
school was among the last outposts of hope in the inner city gave Kim her full support.

The real problem in inner Bridgeport was and is simply that most of the residents
have no access to affordable veterinary care, of any kind. Veterinarians long since left the
inner city because of the high crime rate and the lack of clientele who could pay the cost of
providing care in neighborhoods where insurance premiums run higher than rent. The near-
est vets who did discount neutering were ten miles away. None of the cat feeders Kim
assisted had a car. Pets are not allowed on public transportation, and even if they were,
people who can’t afford vehicles don’t tend to have proper pet-carriers, either.
The bad attitudes Kim encountered during her seven-month cat project were most-
ly in the wealthy suburbs, where people with split-level houses and three cars denied
responsibility for cats they’d been feeding for years––though they were usually willing to
help catch and transport the cats when someone else paid for the neutering. There were also
a handful of men who apparently equated the sexuality of their cats with either their own
virility or the otherwise missing female presence in their lives, some of whom could be
talked into allowing the cats to be neutered while others resisted. Irresponsible attitudes
were a problem, but the basic problem, Kim found, the one most implicated in the growth
of the feral cat population, was lack of access to neutering clinics.
Between Kim’s analysis of the situations of the pet keepers and cat-feeders whose
animals she helped and her gradual appreciation that neutering pet cats is more cost-efficient
than neutering short-lived ferals, described at greater length in our June 1993 issue, she
reached the conclusion that eliminating pet overpopulation and the feral cat surplus will
require practical hands-on outreach. As Kim wrapped up her cat project, the Editor simul-
taneously completed an extensive review of the efficacy of legislative approaches to pet
overpopulation, summarized in our May 1993 issue. Together we concluded that public
education and regulatory approaches have for the most part already done everything they
can do. Now it’s time to outfit mobile veterinary units that can go where they’re needed, do
the work necessary, and get out before dark. It’s time to hire veterinarians and veterinary
technicians to staff such mobile units––at combat wages, if need be, with drivers who dou-
ble as armed security guards. In most cases, however, combat pay won’t be necessary.
The high degree of veterinary support and sympathy Kim received suggests that while vet-
erinarians are justifiably concerned about competition for the middle-class neutering and
vaccination dollar, most are quite willing to do whatever they can to extend affordable care
to homeless animals and the pets of people who are in genuinely dire straits.
Now the National Pet Alliance has produced a remarkably comprehensive Survey
Report on Santa Clara County’s Pet Population, which reaches almost the same conclu-
sions based on more than 7,200 calls to randomly selected households by a professional
polling firm. The survey focused upon cats because nationally up to 80% of the animals
euthanized for population control are cats.
Summarized authors Karen Johnson and Laura and John Lewellen:
“The v a s t majority of owned cats,
86%, are already altered. Another 6% of
owned cats are too young to be altered. Only
4% of the owned cat population is female,
unspayed and old enough to have kittens.
Education as to the importance of altering pet
animals has obviously been effective…We
did find that 16% of the currently spayed
females did have a litter of kittens prior to
their being altered. Most of these were acci-
dents, often because the owner was not
aware young cats can become pregnant.
Also, half the females who had a litter
before they were spayed were cats who were
adopted as strays off the street, and often
they were already pregnant…Over 65% of the
households obtained their cats either as gifts
from family, friends, neighbors, etc., or
one day they opened their front door to find a
cat.” In fact, approximately 32% of all
owned cats were found as strays, and about
20% of all cats who reproduced were found pregnant. “Unowned cats constitute a whop-
ping 41% (minimum) of the known cat population,” the report continues. “Ten percent of
all Santa Clara County households feed stray cats. Only 0.58% of owned cats disappear
with no indication as to their fate.”
Only 8.5% of the animals handled by local animal control agencies during the sur-
vey period appeared to have ever been owned. The number of animals euthanized in Santa
Clara Valley shelters has remained close to 32,000 a year for the past eight years, while the
human population of the county grew at one of the fastest rates of any county in the United
States. Simultaneously, the number of animals surrendered for euthanasia by their owners
increased by 300%. “If the total number of animals euthanized has remained constant, but
the portion of owner-surrendered animals is dramatically increasing,” the report explained,
“then the number of animals euthanized for other reasons must be decreasing.”
The National Pet Alliance concluded that humane education is effective and must
continue; that breeding regulation would be largely irrelevant; and that hands-on outreach,
especially neuter/release, holds the best hope of further reducing population control
The Santa Clara Valley, at the southern end of San Francisco Bay, is more than
3,000 miles from the old mill towns of northern Fairfield County, Connecticut, and histori-
cally and culturally could scarcely be more different. Likewise the Santa Clara Valley dif-
fers hugely in many ways from suburban Massachusetts, where separate surveys of a simi-
lar nature undertaken by the Massachusetts SPCA and the Tufts University Center for
Animals and Public Policy have also found that more than 80% of owned cats are already
neutered, along with a similar pattern of cat acquisition. Such a confluence of findings is no
accident. Further, the confluent findings have been recorded by three very different organi-
zations: the National Pet Alliance represents breed fanciers, the MSPCA is of course a
humane society, and the Center for Animals and Public Policy is part of a major veterinary
school. Whatever axes they may have to grind are certainly not ground in the same direc-
ANIMAL PEOPLE has produced additional confirming evidence as to the nature
of cat overpopulation through the national survey of cat rescuers we published in November
1992, and as to the incidence of pet disappearance into the stray population, as part of a
national study of pet theft the Editor published elsewhere in April 1992. Our December
1992 and July/August 1993 profiles of mobile veterinary neutering specialists Jeff Young
(Colorado) and Peggy Larson (Vermont) provided additional insight into the need for vets
on wheels to provide access to essential services, both to inner cities and remote rural areas.
We are pleased to note that the North Shore Animal League, the national leader in funding
projects to fight pet overpopulations, is making improved access to neutering via transport a
priority, either taking vets to the problem areas or providing wheels to get pets from the
problem areas to existing veterinary clinics, as is most appropriate to each situation. At the
grassroots, growing numbers of small groups with virtually no budget are discovering that
providing humane cat-catching and transport to veterinarians in affordable neutering pro-
grams is perhaps the most cost-effective activity they can undertake. For further informa-
tion, cull your back issues of ANIMAL PEOPLE, or send us $1.00 apiece for each of the
important articles mentioned above that you’ve missed.
(The National Pet Alliance may be reached at POB 53385, San Jose, CA 95153.)
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