The Spay/Neuter Solution Has a North Carolina Problem

350,000 spay/neuter surgeries later, the killing continues:


Let me state and state emphatically, lest I be accused of being anti-sterilization or pro-breeding that I am neither. I do not support breeding and I do in fact encourage sterilization. As to breeding, as long as animals are being killed, regardless of why they are being killed, rescue and adoption are ethical imperatives. Nor do I care one bit about ensuring perpetuation of breeds. If all dogs became all mutts, that would be fine by me. As to sterilization, it is a core program of the No Kill Equation I champion, and when I ran shelters, we performed a lot of it. In one of those shelters, we did 10,000 surgeries a year, over 80% of which were free.

My purpose here is narrow: to end the disservice we do to shelter animals when we oversimplify what sterilization can do and ignore what it can’t. In other words, sterilization is not the silver bullet to shelter killing that some suggest it is and pretending that it is allows animals to continue being killed and regressive shelter directors to continue getting away with murder.

The Humane Alliance of North Carolina, for example, states that, “Spay/neuter is a simple solution to the complex problem of the euthanasia epidemic, which destroys 4-6 million animals each year and is a direct result of animals left unaltered in communities.” But is it? For one, the statement is internally contradictory. If spay/neuter is a simple solution, than the problem of shelter killing should also be simple: failure to spay/neuter. It isn’t. Since 1994 and until 2015, the group performed 350,000 “low cost” surgeries in North Carolina. It even partnered with local counties to provide transport services to and from the clinic, removing yet another barrier to sterilization. Yet, neither the county in which it is located, any of the contiguous counties, nor any of the counties in which transport to the clinic are available are No Kill. Indeed, some of them are killing in excess of 50% of the dogs and 90% of the cats and many have per capita intake rates that remain high. More telling, the best performing participating county is Avery, North Carolina which saved 91% of the dogs and 80% of the cats. It also had one of the highest intake rates relative to the others: 51 dogs and cats per 1,000 residents. Caldwell, by contrast, had an intake rate of 39, but killed 94% of the cats and 56% of the dogs. Ironically, Caldwell’s intake rate was 53 dogs and cats per 1,000 people in 2001, higher than it is now, but it had a lower rate of killing: 81% of the cats and 41% of dogs. In other words, intake has been reduced, but killing has increased.

Buncombe County, by contrast, is the county where the clinic is located. It has seen improvements in both intake and save rates. In 2001, it was killing 81% of the cats and 55% of dogs, compared to 18% of the cats and 27% of dogs today. At the same time, intake rates have declined from 38 dogs and cats per 1,000 people to 25. The mere difference in intake rates, however, is not significant enough to account for the decline in killing given that there are communities with intake rates over two times that of Buncombe which are saving over 90% of dogs and cats. Moreover, Buncombe has remained at 25 dogs/cats per 1,000 people for many years, including past years where the shelter, despite identical intake rates, killed almost twice the rate of animals. The best we can say is that sterilization reduces intake rates, but not necessarily rates of killing. Indeed, communities with high per capita intake rates, and without comprehensive sterilization programs, have been able to achieve save rates well in excess of 90%. In our zeal to promote sterilization, we should never lose sight of this fact. Otherwise, we are promoting the medicine at the expense of the cure.

What, then, will reduce rates of shelter killing? Sterilization in conjunction with a whole host of programs to increase adoptions and keep animals with their responsible caretakers.  In fact, a comparative study of North Carolina shelters found that the primary factors accounting for decline in death rates were partnerships with rescue groups, increased emphasis on adoptions including offsite adoptions, quality of the staff, marketing and public relations including use of social media, and improved operating procedures. In other words, the programs and services of the No Kill Equation, of which high volume sterilization is but one part, albeit an important one.

For example, in a number of contexts–such as community cats and community dogs–sterilization is the functional equivalent of adoption. It can reduce intakes to create the conditions for easier shelter success when a regressive shelter director is replaced with a progressive one. As it relates to (particularly male) dogs, it can also help reduce aggression which protects both dogs (from being killed) and people (from being bit). It can resolve conflicts between people and their animals, thus increasing retention rates and spare animals from losing their home and, if they enter a typical shelter, of losing their lives. It can increase the demand for animals by eliminating behaviors associated with sexual reproduction that humans may find frustrating, such as temperament issues, roaming, spraying, and howling. More people adopting animals means less animals being killed at those same regressive shelters. It can increase both the quality and quantity of the lives of the animals. That’s what sterilization can do. But neither the problem of, nor the solution to, shelter killing is as simple as “spay/neuter.”

To do that, we need to replace shelter directors and their staffs who kill animals in the face of cost-effective readily available lifesaving alternatives they simply refuse to implement. We need to force these directors to embrace programs that provide alternatives to killing for the animals that are in their care now–today–and not merely those efforts that are designed to address the yet-to-be-born. In short, we need comprehensive shelter reform.

We pretend otherwise to the animals’ mortal peril.


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