State’s spay/neuter program tapped out

Buncombe County has made striking progress recently in tackling the perennial problem of animal overpopulation and homelessness. Last year, the county passed an ordinance requiring that all dogs and cats be spayed or neutered (with exceptions for service animals and those whose owners obtain a $100 unaltered-animal permit). And the highly successful Humane Alliance Spay/Neuter Clinic in Asheville offers subsidized, low-cost surgeries. The county has also been an active participant in the state’s 4-year-old voucher program, which funds spay/neuter services for low-income pet owners.

But the funding for the popular voucher program has dried up, and local service providers are concerned. Both Shelly Moore (director of the Asheville Humane Society) and Quita Mazzina (director of the Spay/Neuter Clinic) say the program has helped reduce the number of animals put to death at shelters. And both support a proposed bill in the state Senate that would provide a more stable funding source for the voucher program.

“Buncombe County is very active in spay/neuter,” says Moore, whose group contracts with both the city and county to provide animal care and animal-control services. “Since we started the free spay/neuter voucher program … we have issued 1,090 vouchers.”

For several years now, the county has been advancing the money to pay for these procedures on behalf of pet owners who are in serious financial need, County Manager Wanda Greene reports. The county has then been reimbursed by the state, drawing on the proceeds from the sale of special “I Care” license plates and rabies-vaccination tags. Participating veterinarians pay a voluntary 50-cent surcharge for the special tags, which the vets then offer to their clients. But the program’s growing popularity statewide, together with a substantial shortfall in the rabies-tag revenues, has caused the voucher program to fall on hard times.

To date, the state has paid out about $162,000, according to Dr. Lee Hunter of the Department of Health and Human Services, who administers the spay/neuter fund. Buncombe County alone has received about $26,000, says Hunter. And though it’s normal for the fund’s income to fluctuate, he explains, the proceeds from the rabies-tag surcharge have been decreasing every year, and the fund is now almost out of money. Accordingly, Hunter has notified the state’s 100 counties that his office can no longer guarantee full reimbursement of the spay/neuter vouchers.

“I’m hoping good things happen soon. We did use some of the state’s [money],” says Mazzina, whose clinic has served Western North Carolina for 11 years, neutering more than 22,000 animals last year alone. Since the clinic was established, the number of unwanted animals killed at the county animal shelter has decreased by 60 percent, she notes. And when the Buncombe County commissioners approved the mandatory spay/neuter ordinance last year, the clinic’s phones “rang off the hooks,” Mazzina recalls, resulting in “probably double the number [of procedures] we booked the year before” during January, February and March.

Shelly Moore says she’s also seen a big difference. “We’ve seen over 1,300 less animals [come] into shelter and 968 less euthanized since the ordinance,” she says, adding, “That’s made a huge impact.”

The increased demand for spay/neuter services has continued, albeit less dramatically, says Mazzina. And the loss of the vouchers hurts.

But help may be on the way, in the form of SB 511 — proposed legislation in the state Senate that would make the 50-cent surcharge mandatory as a way to start replenishing the spay/neuter fund.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Eleanor Kinnaird (D-Orange/Person), first proposed such legislation nine years ago “to cut down on the number of animals in shelter that are slaughtered,” she says, explaining that she’d hoped to reach those pet owners who can’t afford to pay for such services.

“For nine years,” says Kinnaird, “the veterinarians fought it.” So as a compromise, the state created the special “I Care” tags and made the surcharge voluntary. But the veterinarians haven’t participated as promised, she says, leaving the spay/neuter fund depleted.

“What they had agreed to do was put up posters that we provided for them and put out brochures asking people to participate.” But that, says Kinnaird, hasn’t happened. “It’s very discouraging to me,” she says, “to see a group of people who are supposed to be [for] animal welfare … working against it.”

Molly Rasor, executive director of the North Carolina Veterinary Medical Association, sees the situation a little differently, however. “There’s no question that the euthanasia rate is horrendous, and something needs to be done,” she concedes. But her group is concerned about how the money would be raised.

Veterinarians now pay the state 7 cents apiece for standard rabies tags; the proposed legislation would raise that price to 57 cents each. Most vets buy their tags from supply houses, Rasor explains, paying 12 cents apiece for tags that have the name of their business on them. “But the biggest issue is, they have to pass the cost on to the client,” says Rasor. Instead, some veterinarians have chosen to absorb the cost themselves.

Cost aside, “Rabies is a public-health issue,” she points out, and that’s not the place to find the money for a spay/neuter program.

As for broken promises, “I was not on the study commission for this,” notes Rasor, who was not with the Veterinary Medical Association at the time. “I don’t know that any promises were made.” But when the “I Care” tags first came out, says Rasor, she herself mailed out posters to veterinary offices around the state. She also emphasizes that her group has been trying to find grant money to help support the spay/neuter fund.

Both women note that an alternative funding source recommended by a legislative study commission last year — taxing pet food — was quickly killed in the face of fierce opposition from the pet-food industry. So Kinnaird is trying the rabies-tag route once again, with support from many animal-welfare workers.

“Some [counties] don’t even have a humane organization,” points out Gloria Eskridge, who launched the local Find-A-Pet program here. Find-A-Pet operates a Prevent-A-Mother project that helps fund spaying and neutering of homeless animals. Eskridge also helped found Justice for Animals, a statewide group that backs Kinnaird’s legislation. “Some [counties] … have no support; some of them don’t even have an animal-control facility. There’s money that needs to be spent for this,”she says.

And though Greene, the Buncombe County manager, says she hasn’t read the bill yet, she agrees in principle that “spaying and neutering is the way to go.”

Moore, too, supports the legislation’s intent. “I think it’s a good thing,” she says. “The more funding that’s available, the more [the counties] can help. … The key is getting the assistance out there, making them [people] aware.”

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