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Pay Up or Spay Up

When an Oregon shelter began charging owners $500 for the return of unsterilized, unidentified animals, licensing rates quadrupled and many animals in the community saw a veterinarian for the first time

When an Oregon shelter began charging owners $500 for the return of unsterilized, unidentified animals, licensing rates quadrupled and many animals in the community saw a veterinarian for the first time

During the past year, the cost of irresponsible pet-keeping in two Oregon communities has risen by at least 300 percent.

And it's not just the animals who are paying the price this time. It's the pet owners themselves—the people who allow their unsterilized, unidentified animals to run at large so often that they constantly fill the kennels of the Greenhill Humane Society in Eugene. 

Employees at Greenhill, which shelters strays for the cities of Springfield and Veneta, were tired of seeing these so-called "repeat customers"—and tired having little power to change the ways of people who didn't even care enough to put collars and tags on their pets. About 95 percent of the "repeat" at-large dogs were unsterilized. "I had heard [Springfield ACO Linda Gallacher] casually remarking, 'I'm so sick of seeing these dogs over and over and over again,' " says Laura Brounsten, Greenhill's executive director. "And I said, 'Let's sit down and do something about it.' "

So last April, after extensive research and conversations with other shelters around the country, Brounsten and her operations director instituted a new redemption policy: If an unidentified, unsterilized stray animal is brought to the shelter—and if the owner does not contact the shelter within 24 hours—the owner can get his pet back only by paying for a sterilization surgery or giving the shelter $500 for the return of the animal.

Because widespread publicity preceded the launch of the new policy, its effects were almost immediate. Within 11 days of the policy's implementation, licensing in Springfield rose by 411 percent; more licenses were purchased in the span of 1½ weeks than are usually bought in an entire year. Between April and October 2000, the number of strays brought to the shelter was down by 29 percent compared to the total number for the same period the previous year.

"We used to see Linda sometimes a couple of times a day. She'd bring us four to eight dogs," says Brounsten. "For a while [after the policy was implemented], we were all joking, 'Where's Linda? Does she still have a job?' And now, we'll ask her how it's going, and she'll say, 'Oh, it's great. I spend all my time taking dogs home because I know where they live. I can look up their licenses.' … With all of these animals who are newly licensed and still running at large, now she has a way of returning them home and talking to people about fixing their fences."

It's My Shelter and I'll Do What I Want

The ACO wasn't always so enamored of the policy, though. Like others in the area, she worried that public backlash might outweigh the benefits of the new redemption rules. "You never know these days whether somebody's going to file a lawsuit or something, but it's been really good," Gallacher says. "We have a real controversial radio talk program where the host was quite adamant that … this was absolutely wrong, and he stirred up quite a bit of resentment toward the Humane Society about this whole thing. But it passed over. Everything was crazy for a couple of weeks, and then [the frenzy] was gone, and everything went according to how [the shelter] was hoping it would."

By distributing fliers and talking to the media about the changes, Gallacher helped Greenhill prepare the public for the new policy. The advance planning worked; Gallacher, who is the only ACO in Springfield, has received no complaints. And the policy has added leverage to her ability to enforce local laws. Before the new redemption rules took effect, owners had to pay the shelter a $10 impound fee, a $10-a-day boarding fee, and a small licensing fee; in addition, they were slapped with an $85 citation from animal control. But, says Gallacher, those fees were not a sufficient deterrent.

"You know, sometimes just citations for the dog running at large just don't seem to be enough," she says. "A person has to figure out that you're really serious and it's going to cost them a lot before they decide to take responsibility. And with those who didn't want to reclaim their dogs, the dogs were adopted out to someone after having been sterilized. So it's been great."

When Springfield's city attorney learned about the new policy, he panicked, entertaining visions of people with stray show dogs suing over property rights, says Gallacher. But the lawyer for the Greenhill Humane Society had thoroughly examined the policy prior to its implementation and had decided that the shelter was well within its limits in setting the ground rules for redemption; like other private enterprises such as car impound lots, the shelter can set fees however it wants to, the attorney said. And even though Greenhill's new policy does not violate the shelter's contracts with Springfield and Veneta, shelter managers took the time to meet with the two cities' councils to make sure local officials understood the new procedures.

"We have had several people trying to take it to court, and I've encouraged them to do so because we'd love to have it tested," says Brounsten. "But once these people have contacted their attorneys, [the attorneys] tell them they're out of luck."

Besides, it's not the responsible owners whom the shelter is targeting—it's the owners like those who had turned their female rottweiler into a "one-dog puppy mill," says Brounsten. By the time she was picked up by animal control while running at large, the rotty had already had five litters. But when her owners faced the prospect of dealing with Greenhill's new spay-or-pay policy, they decided to leave the dog at the shelter. Five hundred dollars was too high a price to pay, they believed, and a spay surgery would render her valueless in their eyes. So the old mama dog is now in a good home—with an adopter who loves her so much that she takes her with her wherever she goes, says Brounsten.

It's Just a Buck

Other shelters in the country have instituted similar policies, and some municipalities and states have even written into law the stipulation that roaming animals must be sterilized. On the island of Oahu, Hawaii, a cat protection law requires the identification of all owned cats and the sterilization of all cats at least six months old who are allowed to roam unsupervised. To reclaim an intact cat from the shelter, an owner must agree to have him sterilized within 30 days, leave the cat at the shelter temporariliy for a free spay/neuter surgery, or pay a $100 fine. In other areas of the country, some shelters or cities require owners to have their animals spayed or neutered when they're impounded a second or third time.

The fees associated with such policies and ordinances are usually a bit lower than those of Greenhill, but to those who protest that Greenhill has gone too far, Brounsten has a simple answer: Spend a buck on a license tag. "One dollar will keep you from being subjected to these policies," she says. "And … we're not saying that having intact animals is bad. All that we're saying is that you have to act responsibly. … It's not a real arbitrary type of policy. Basically the only animals affected are animals who do not have any identification whatsoever, and whose owners don't contact us looking for their animal within 24 hours."

Even local hunters, who were initially upset by the policy, are somewhat sympathetic now. At first, they feared they'd be penalized because of a phenomenon that sometimes occurs when they are hunting with their dogs: the dogs get too far away from the hunters, and local citizens opposed to hunting pick the animals up, remove their radio collars, and bring them to the humane society as strays. When a representative of one hunting group called Brounsten to protest that this situation would unfairly subject hunters to exorbitant fees, again, Brounsten had a simple answer: "I said, 'Either spend the $35 and get the dog microchipped, or call us. That's all you have to do.' They were shocked. They had thought it was an automatic thing. … I told them, 'All we want is that you act responsibly, and if you're looking for your animal, that shows responsibility. … And you're not going to be subjected to this.' And they actually became fairly supportive of us."

If an owner does come forward after 24 hours, the most common response, says Brounsten, is one that derives from good, albeit delinquent, intentions: "Oh yeah, I knew I had to get [the surgery] done. I just hadn't gotten around to it." In these cases, when owners agree to the surgery, the shelter obtains a pre-payment from them, schedules the surgery, and holds on to the animal until the day of the appointment. Owners pick up their pets from the vet once they've been sterilized. By last December, 15 dogs had been sterilized under the redemption policy, says Greenhill Operations Director Russ Bankel. Although the policy applies to cats as well, no cats have been reclaimed under the new rules because so few people come to reclaim their cats in the first place, Bankel says.

So far, four owners have opted to pay the $500 fee to redeem their animals intact; the money goes directly into a fund that pays for the sterilization of some strays taken into the shelter or of pets whose owners otherwise couldn't afford the surgeries. Occasionally, a pet owner opts to leave his dog at the shelter. "We do get people who say, 'I'm not paying anything to get my dog out, and you can just keep him.' … And we're able to get that dog into a lot better home," says Brounsten. "And because of the amount of space that we have now, all of those dogs stay here until they're adopted out."

Seeing the Doctor for the First Time

Increased sterilization and licensing are not the only benefits of the new redemption rules; the policy has also been responsible —sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly—for first-time veterinary visits. Among the dogs going to the vet for their spay/neuter surgeries, at least one was found to have a painful medical condition and is living in greater comfort now because he is receiving veterinary care. And all those animals whose owners are licensing them in order to avoid the redemption fees are also seeing veterinarians, many of them for the first time; in Oregon, the rabies vaccination, a licensing prerequisite, must be administered by a veterinarian. "So there's this huge population of dogs that had never had a rabies shot and had never been into the vet who went and got seen and … had other issues addressed," says Brounsten.

The policy has improved the quality of life in the kennels of the Greenhill Humane Society as well, says Brounsten. Before last April, not a week went by where dogs weren't doubled up in all the shelter's kennel runs. In the incoming area, which was intended to be a short-period holding space, dogs had to wait a couple of days before moving into a regular kennel. "There were dogs that maybe weren't immediately adoptable, but that—given a couple of days to kind of acclimate or to get a skin condition looked at, or something else fairly minor—we would have been able to hold and adopt out," says Brounsten. "And we didn't have that option at all. And today … we have some dogs doubled if they come with a buddy … but it's by choice, not by necessity."

"What is so amazing to me is that our constant challenge is that we don't have enough money, and a lot of times we feel like our hands are tied, that we can't make an impact because we don't have any money," says Brounsten. "And this cost us nothing, and has the single greatest impact of anything that we've done. … I think it is a case where we were able to really clearly identify who the troublesome owners are … and say without a doubt that that was a group that education wasn't doing anything for."

 

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