Cuts to pet population control programs worry advocates

Animal welfare advocates were stunned when Jackson County recently defunded an aggressive, five-year effort to spay and neuter dogs and cats belonging to low-income pet owners.

County legislators’ main rationale: At a time of austerity, they were duty-bound to put the needs of people ahead of pets when spending tax dollars.

Yet critics call the move pennywise and pound foolish when the point of the program was to reduce the number of puppies and kittens born to pets belonging to the very people least likely to have their pets fixed without financial help. And where do those unwanted litters wind up but in animal shelters funded by city and county taxpayers?

“It’s a whole lot cheaper for the public to spay and neuter than it is to keep and take care of them,” said Jennifer Polston, supervisor of the Independence Animal Shelter.

How much cheaper?

Costs vary from shelter to shelter. But in Independence, Polston said, the cost to take care of a cat awaiting adoption is $10 a day and $15 for a dog. The average stay: 25 days, or about $375 for a dog.

Compare that to the roughly $50 Jackson County taxpayers were charged for each one of the thousands of dogs and cats sterilized by the program between 2006 and 2011.

“I think we demonstrated for sure that we got measurable results,” said Michelle Dormady Rivera, head of Spay Neuter Kansas City, which provided the service through mid-2010.

Her agency’s gains, as well as steps taken in the past year by another nonprofit group the county funded in 2011, now known as Heartland SPCA, have been part of a successful campaign to reduce the number of animals filling local shelters the past several years.

No one disputes the gains. But during budget deliberations in December, when both groups were competing for funding — Spay Neuter Kansas City had asked for $100,000, while Heartland SPCA requested $80,000 — both were shut out. People programs like Harvesters got the money instead.

It was hard to justify spending money on animal welfare programs, freshman legislator Crystal Williams said, “when there are hungry kids in this county and people without health care.”

“If we were more flush with cash, if revenues were better, I’d be able to revisit the issue.”

Williams and six other members of the county legislature voted to deny this year’s requests.

Casting the lone vote in favor of continuing the program was Dennis Waits, who still hopes funding can be restored sooner than that; surely the money can be found somewhere in the county’s $300 million-plus budget to continue with an effort that he sees as a wise use of tax dollars.

“I think they are very, very cost effective,” Waits said of Heartland SPCA’s proposal to provide spay and neuter procedures, as well as other animal health efforts. “I certainly believe that they are important programs.”

Waits is passionate about animal welfare. He led the effort that saw the county providing nearly $475,000 over five years for spay and neuter services. He also pushed hard for construction of a new animal shelter for eastern Jackson County.

County taxpayers are footing the bill for the $4.9 million facility, but the city of Independence will pay to run it. Among the services offered will be low-cost or free spay and neuter services for the pets of people who meet income guidelines.

That’s how legislator Theresa Garza Ruiz justified her vote denying funding to outside agencies providing those services.

“My thought is we’d be bringing it in-house,” she said.

While significant, county funding is not critical to the mission of either Heartland SPCA or Spay Neuter Kansas City. Both continue to operate with the support of private donors, grants and from fees for services.

They wish the legislature would reconsider and fund the program, allowing them to do more. But either way, they’ll continue to literally knock on doors in the inner city with offers to help pet owners.

It’s done wonders, according to Kim Slaton, the new manager of the Kansas City Animal Shelter, and she has the statistics to back that up.

Around 2005, before the big push to provide area pet owners with low- and no-cost spay and neuter services, some 13,000 strays and unwanted pets would turn up at the Kansas City Animal Shelter year in and year out.

Now the number is a little more than half that.

“I think spay/neuter is the single biggest factor,” Slaton said. “I think the low-cost programs are really what tipped the scales.”

During the recession, most shelters saw an increase in the intake of adult dogs and cats. Many were dropped off by owners who could no longer afford to keep them.

That’s certainly been the case at Heartland SPCA, which runs the shelter in Merriam formerly known as Animal Haven.

“But we’re seeing fewer and fewer puppies and kittens entering shelters,” says Heartland SPCA executive director Courtney Thomas. “Which indicates to us that spay and neuter is working.”