The Humane Society of Hall County hit a milestone last week. Its spay-neuter clinic, which opened in May 2005, performed surgery on its 10,000th animal.
That sounds like an impressive number. But Humane Society president Rick Aiken wants to do better.
"Our mission is to have fewer animals coming in (to the shelter), so we don’t have to euthanize as many," he said.
Last year, the shelter euthanized 7,154 animals — 64 percent of the total brought in.
"That’s a disgusting number," Aiken said.
Several years ago, he and the Humane Society board decided killing thousands of animals was not the solution to the pet overpopulation problem. They looked at programs such as the Humane Alliance in Asheville, N.C., which was able to reduce the local euthanasia rate by about 50 percent by offering affordable spay-neuter services for low-income clients.
When Hall’s clinic first opened, it concentrated on sterilizing every animal adopted from the Humane Society. Once that was achieved, the service was opened to the public.A typical surgery at the clinic costs $50, compared to two or three times that amount at a private veterinarian.
To qualify, clients must be on some type of assistance for low-income people, such as food stamps or Medicaid.
"We get a lot of families whose kids are on PeachCare," said Frankie Grant, coordinator of the spay-neuter program. "We also get a lot of senior citizens. So many of them have said, ‘You are our last resort. There’s no way we could have afforded this anywhere else.’"
But many residents still don’t know the program exists. "At first, we were struggling. It took a while to get the word out," Aiken said. "But in the last six months, it’s really picked up."
Of more than 10,000 surgeries performed so far, 2,235 were done on animals brought in by the public. Aiken expects that percentage to increase soon, as the Humane Society launches a new marketing campaign for the service.
"We’ve already got a billboard on Queen City Parkway with our mascot, ‘Snips,’ and our slogan, ‘Fix your critter, don’t litter,’" he said.
Aiken said his goal is to have the clinic perform a minimum of 30 surgeries a day, and to eventually be so busy that a second veterinarian is needed. Currently, Dr. Kate McDuffee does all the surgeries, with assistance from two vet technicians.
A high volume of surgeries is necessary, because as long as there are fertile animals running around loose, unwanted litters of puppies and kittens will continue to end up at the shelter, where most will have to be killed.
"Last year we were excited because we saw a decrease (in euthanasia)," Aiken said. "But this year we saw an increase, which is frustrating."
The percentage of animals euthanized is about the same, he said, but the total being brought into the shelter is higher.
Even though the spay-neuter clinic has reduced the number of animals that are capable of breeding, so far those gains seem to have been canceled out by the overall growth of Hall’s human population. More people keep moving in, bringing more animals with them.
But Aiken believes the program will eventually achieve its goal. Convinced by the reduction in euthanasia seen in Asheville and other communities, shelters throughout the country are looking to establish their own spay-neuter clinics.
"It’s going to take a long time (to see results)," Aiken said. "Education is going to be a key part of it."
People need to understand, he said, that spaying and neutering are very safe procedures, and they usually result in a healthier, better behaved pet.
"The great thing about spaying and neutering is, it’s a one-time expense," he said. "And we have some grant funds to help out people who absolutely cannot afford it."