February 23, 2016
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When certain ideas become central to our work, when they seem so obviously true, we often don’t feel a need to think more deeply about what they mean—to us, and to others.
Take spay/neuter. Why is it important?
As someone who is acutely aware of the impact unaltered pets have on shelter intake, you probably have a clear answer. But does the general public know this? Do they understand what you see every day, the experiences and information that have shaped your perspective?
Probably not. How could they?
Here’s another question: Do you understand their perspective?
Through our Pets for Life (PFL) work, we know that most pets in underserved areas are unaltered—in fact, over 90 percent of them. When the national average of altered pets is close to 90 percent but the average in underserved communities is the exact opposite, it makes sense to focus our time, energy and resources on this audience. But to be successful, we need to find out why pets in these communities are unaltered. And that means understanding people’s perspective—on their pets, the realities of their lives and on spay/neuter—is critical.
In order to appreciate someone’s point of view, we must listen, absorb, and be open and genuinely interested in what is shared. To us spay/neuter may be the obvious choice—a no-brainer—but we have to realize that it is not so for everyone.
First off: There are service deserts, areas where there are no veterinarians, no spay/neuter services available, and few groups or individuals letting people know about spay/neuter in a positive way. In these areas, access to information is limited and spay/neuter is often a mystery. If you don’t know something exists or what it is, it’s impossible to participate in it. We encounter this all the time. Rachel Thompson, the manager of PFL in Atlanta, recalls how, after PFL provided spay/neuter for a colony of cats at a gas station, a customer asked the owner how it was possible that he had cats around but never had any kittens. The owner said that he had them spayed and neutered, but the customer didn’t know what that meant. When the owner explained and shared PFL’s contact information, the man reached out on behalf of his sister, who had been feeding neighborhood cats for a while. Every time they had a litter of kittens, she tried so hard to care for them, and was devastated every time one got sick or died. She had no idea there was a procedure that could stop more kittens from being born, and was thrilled when she found out.
Second, when people have never had or known an altered pet, there is no familiarity with spay/neuter, no awareness that it’s safe and healthy. When that is the case, people will rarely seek it out. Jason Schipkowski, a mentorship and training coordinator for PFL, remembers when he was a child living in a trailer in rural Southern Illinois. “I had a black lab named Drew who lived outside, she wasn’t spayed, and she had an accidental litter. If my family and I had seen a billboard about pet overpopulation, that wouldn’t have resonated with us—we had no context for how that applied to us or to Drew. From where we stood, Drew was in a pen and was completely unreachable by any of the male dogs next door. However, if someone had knocked on our door, asked us some questions about our beloved dog, shared information about how spaying would make her healthier and keep her from having puppies, that would have made an impact,” Schipkowski says. “I have a sneaking suspicion that if most of us stopped to reflect on our pasts, we would remember that we haven’t always made flawless decisions. We would also remember that moment when we transitioned from not knowing to knowing. And once my family and I did know, we never again had a dog we didn’t get spayed or neutered. We joined the ranks of others who knew the benefits, and we spread the word to this day. That’s the power that comes with simply meeting people where they are, listening and sharing information.”
Third, some people have misconceptions about spay/neuter. We look at the procedure as quite routine, but when someone has never gone through the experience, surgery of any kind is scary. People don’t want to do anything that could hurt their pet. Their concerns are valid, and we should treat them that way! They may worry: Will my pet be the same when he comes back? Will he have a different personality? Will he be mad at me? Will he be in pain? They may be having those thoughts, even if they don’t feel comfortable sharing them, so if we aren’t patient and open to having a kind, honest conversation when someone is hesitant or even says no to spay/neuter, we miss useful information and the opportunity to dispel myths. Jason remembers a man he met at a community outreach event: When first approached about signing up his male dog to be neutered, the man said he wasn’t interested, but when Jason dug a little deeper he found another story. “I wanted to make the conversation feel safe for him, so I told him I respected his position but that I was interested to hear more about why he felt that way,” Jason says. “He talked and I listened. What I found out was that his dog was all he had. He had no family nearby, and he didn’t get out much. A few years prior he had another dog and had decided to get him neutered. That dog died during surgery. Who knows why that happened, but it was still upsetting to him. I was real with him. We talked about the risks of surgery and about the risks of not having the surgery. He thought it over, talked to a veterinarian about it, and later he neutered the dog. What a huge leap of faith for him to take and to trust we were on his side no matter what his decision.”
And finally, remember there are often tangible barriers to people getting a pet spayed or neutered that are equally challenging—cost and access. When someone lives below the poverty line, or even hovers just above it, veterinary care is financially out of reach. Not because people don’t want and need veterinary services for their pets, but because they literally cannot afford it. And it’s often physically inaccessible as well: Since financial struggle often means not having reliable personal transportation, and animals are rarely allowed on public transportation, it’s a major problem. In our field, we don’t often realize that transportation is a very common obstacle for many pet owners.
The good news is that as the experts and the service providers, we can listen to people’s fears and uncertainties, understand the barriers, and address them with patience and support. How exciting that we have the opportunity to connect an entirely new audience with spay/neuter! Rachel remembers that first time she realized PFL clients trusted her and the information she was sharing. “It was a big deal and not something I took lightly,” she says. None of us should take that trust lightly.
On this World Spay Day, take a moment to reflect on what you can do to connect people with spay/neuter, how you can make them feel comfortable and listened to, and be grateful that somewhere along the way you received good information that you can now pass on to them.
Pets for Life is grateful to the Doris Day Animal Foundation for supporting our work and allowing us to provide spay/neuter services to so many people and pets in honor of World Spay Day.