A Mandatory Spay/Neuter Law is not the Answer to Houston’s Animal Issues by Mia Bendixen.

The recent poll results by KHOU showing that a majority of Houstonians support mandatory spay-neuter laws points to the growing concern and awareness Houston’s citizens have regarding Houston’s pet overpopulation issue. It is likely that most every Houstonian who voted “yes” on that poll has encountered a stray dog or cat in the last few months, and most likely more than just one animal. It is also likely that the Houstonians in favor of mandatory spay neuter ordinance are also highly concerned about Houston’s urgent pet welfare issues, including dog fighting, tethering, back yard breeding, cruelty, lack of emergency shelter for pets during disasters, and other critical issues, and that there is a desire on the part of these citizens to solve these problems. The support shown in this poll should not be taken lightly or disregarded by city officials. However, Houston’s pressing issue of pet overpopulation is not easily solved by simply passing a mandatory spay neuter ordinance, and a mandatory law without more thought behind it could even make the problem worse.

It should not take a big mental leap to think that stray animal populations can be greatly reduced by a mandatory spay neuter law, or that this type of law would have a significant effect on reducing the number of animals that end up in our cities shelters. It would be wonderful if it were that simple. But sadly, it is just not that easy or simple to solve pet overpopulation.

While live release rates (the numbers of animals adopted out, fostered, or transported to rescues out of state, compared to the number of animals taken in by shelters every year) have improved greatly over recent years, especially at the 2 largest Houston city shelters, BARC and HCAS, there is still great room for improvement in many of the cities public and private shelters. These shelters are often very overcrowded, despite best efforts by the shelters themselves to push free or reduced fee adoptions, the many local and national animal rescue groups that pull from Texas shelters, as well as the shelters own volunteer groups. Just a few days ago HCAS sent out an appeal for homes for their overcrowded shelter and are offering free adoptions in an effort to not euthanize these animals. (https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/offbeat/nearly-400-animals-at-harris-county-animal-shelter-need-homes-now/ar-AAy46xB).

The No Kill movement (a “no-kill” shelter is an animal shelter that does not kill healthy or treatable animals even when the shelter is full, reserving euthanasia for terminally ill animals or those considered dangerous to public safety) 1 started about 30 years ago in response to the high numbers of unadopted healthy and trainable animals being put to death, largely for lack of space in shelters. The No Kill philosophy advocates that there is far more needed than a punitive law to end the cycle of pet overpopulation. Should people fix their pets if they want to? Of course. Is it good to fix your animal barring health reasons? Of course. Does spay neuter work to reduce the pet population? Of course. But there are some very solid reasons why passing a mandatory spay neuter law is an overly simplified solution to a far more complicated issue. Spay neuter is only a piece of pet population control.

Mandatory spay neuter laws do not do as much to promote responsible pet ownership as we would hope, but they can and do punish pet owners who want to fix their pets and are financially unable to. Most pet owners are not against fixing their pets, but it is the lack of available and accessible spay neuter clinics along with the lack of affordability and lack of outreach (knowledge of where these services are located) which makes this prospect difficult. If a spay neuter law is enacted without also planning for a significant amount of funding and outreach along with it, it will not succeed. People need access to free or very low cost spay neuter surgeries, and if those clinics are not easily accessible across the city and especially in areas where people have less access to transportation (usually seniors or lower income areas), an ordinance like this will only serve to punish pet owners who cannot easily access spay neuter services. Statistics show that more people will turn in their pets to kill shelters or simply abandon them when they find they cannot afford to fix their pets as they do not want to risk being punished or fined. 2

Best Friends (www.Bestfriends.org) is a national leader and authority on No-Kill policy. They state that “3 well-funded and critical conditions need to be met before mandatory spay neuter laws should be enacted in a community:

1. Affordability of surgery, up to and including free options (for low income pet owners).
2. Surgery centers that are easily accessible for all residents.
3. Appropriate communication about the available options for surgeries before any ordinance enforcement takes place.”3

The ASPCA has also taken a similar position to Best Friends on mandatory spay neuter laws. Their website states “However, the ASPCA is not aware of any credible evidence demonstrating a statistically significant enhancement in the reduction of shelter intake or euthanasia as a result of the implementation of a mandatory spay/neuter law of general application to all owned animals within a community. Indeed, mandating spay and neuter for owned pets can have the unintended consequences of increasing shelter intake and impeding the return of strays to their owners when the costs associated with spay and neuter are prohibitive.” 4

The ASPCA further states there are 7 conditions needed for spay neuter laws to be successful. 5 “In order to assure the efficacy of any spay/neuter program designed to reduce shelter intake and euthanasia, the ASPCA believes that each community must conduct credible research into the particular causes of relinquishment and abandonment and the sources of animals in its shelters, including the barriers to spay/neuter services that are faced by those populations contributing disproportionately to the problem. Each community must address these issues with a tailored, multifaceted approach as described below:

1. The community should have in place an adequately funded, readily accessible, safe, efficient, affordable spay/neuter program.
2. Community research should identify the particular segments of the population that are contributing disproportionately to shelter intake and euthanasia, and the community should produce programs that are targeted to those populations.
3. The community should strive to maximize the accessibility of spay/neuter services and provide compelling incentives to have the surgery performed.
4. The spay/neuter program should be developed with the guidance of veterinary professionals who are committed to delivering high quality spay/neuter services to all patients (Looney et al., 2008).
5. The program must adequately address the contribution that feral and stray animals make to overpopulation.
6. The program must be adequately supported in terms of financing, staffing and infrastructure.
7. The efficacy of all aspects of the program must be monitored and revisions made as necessary to achieve its goals.”

In Houston a considerable number of animals are already abandoned or turned into kill shelters because people cannot take care of them. Programs called PASS (Positive Alternatives to Animal Shelters) are more frequently being set up at shelters during times of crisis or when shelters are full, and more shelters are using PASS programs to help people keep pets in their homes. PASS is a series of steps designed to try to keep pets in people’s homes versus being turned into a shelter.6  The usage of the PASS methodology is supported by the Pets Alive movement, Maddie’s Fund, and many other animal advocacy groups and shelters across the country in an effort to stem the influx of pets being relinquished. The usage of PASS and other programs like Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) (which humanely helps reduce the stray cat population) have been effective in communities when used consistently and properly.7  However, if even more roadblocks to affordable pet ownership are put into place, then we will only see the numbers of pets turned into shelters or let loose on the city streets grow. There are many good pet owners who might even lose their pets unwillingly – the seniors and the disadvantaged – as they will be the people who are less able to pay for these surgeries. Some pet owners may even delay getting their pets vaccines if they are fearful of their pet being confiscated.

Many other communities/cities across the country have tried to use mandatory spay neuter laws to reduce the number of animals on the streets or in the shelters, but they have not had the results they had hoped for. In most cases there has been an increase in animals turned in or let loose when these ordinances are passed, and other supporting measures not put into place. No Kill Houston has a list of 18 articles on Mandatory Spay Neuter which provides good material on this issue. 8

In summary, if we are serious about passing a spay-neuter law in Houston, then we must also be serious about providing the other necessary ingredients needed for a spay neuter ordinance to be successful and fair – we must offer the services for free and in the most accessible way possible, and provide the outreach needed so pet owners in all of Houston’s communities become aware of the services available. Lastly, spay neuter can have successful results when applied correctly, but there also must soon be a much bigger discussion between Houston’s officials and the animal welfare community regarding laws which are desperately needed to protect our pets and a much greater effort to enact those laws protecting and supporting our animals.

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_kill_movement
2 https://www.aspca.org/position-statement-mandatory-spayneuter-laws
3 https://bestfriends.org/about-best-friends/policies-and-position-statements#mandatoryspayneuter
4 https://www.aspca.org/position-statement-mandatory-spayneuter-laws
5 https://www.aspca.org/position-statement-mandatory-spayneuter-laws
6 http://www.maddiesfund.org/positive-alternatives-to-shelter-surrenders.htm
http://americanpetsalive.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/pass.pdf
7 https://bestfriends.org/resources/trap-neuter-return-success-stories-what-research-tells-us
8 https://www.nokillhouston.org/legislation/mandatory-spay-neuter-laws/

Mia Bendixsen
Mia has 17 years’ experience in non-profit fundraising and management, political fundraising, political communications, and real estate. Along with having raised over 18 million dollars throughout her career, she has developed numerous winning direct mail strategies for political campaigns and independent expenditure campaigns. In 2012, Mia became a top producing realtor in Texas and earned her Texas Real Estate Brokers License in 2017. She is an avid dog rescuer and has worked for HSUS, Farm Sanctuary, and other animal advocacy groups.

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