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  • Aubrie Kavanaugh

Revisiting the Subject of Mandatory Spay and Neuter

We have spoken in the past about something called Mandatory Spay Neuter (often referred to as MSN) and our opposition to MSN. We had a panel discussion about it last summer which is on our Youtube channel at this link.


The issue came up in Huntsville, Alabama, recently which is the location where Aubrie Kavanaugh of No Kill Huntsville and Paws4Change has functioned as an animal shelter reform advocate for more than 15 years. Aubrie blogged about this subject recently and shares her blog here for the benefit of others who either live in a community that is contemplating MSN or already has MSN and to benefit those who just want to learn more about this subject. The bottom line? MSN does not work and it can actually be harmful.


No, Mandatory Spay/Neuter is Not the Answer


Not a month goes by when I don't hear someone talking about or read something on social media supporting the concept of Mandatory Spay/Neuter as the solution to "pet overpopulation" related to the destruction of healthy and treatable animals in animal shelters. The argument is that if we just punish people for failing to have pets sterilized, it will serve as an incentive for them to comply. That approach always reminded of a phrase from my Army days that goes, "the beatings will continue until morale improves." I understand the allure of the "there ought to be a law approach." It would be wonderful if making a single law in a city, county or state would magically resolve numerous issues at one time. The problem is simple: Mandatory Spay/Neuter just does not work.

Most states have laws which say that animals adopted from animal shelters and from rescue groups must be sterilized. Laws like this are vital. Those animals adopted out are the end of the line and will produce no offspring to add to local pet populations. On the flip side, it makes no sense at all to adopt out unsterilized animals who will then create offspring which may then end up in the shelter or with a rescue group, thereby creating a never-ending cycle of adoption, birth and destruction (in most shelters). That would be the animal shelter/rescue version of Sisyphus.

To be clear, when people talk about Mandatory Spay/Neuter (often called MSN for short), they are not talking about laws related to shelter and rescue animals. They are talking about laws that require ALL animals in a given geographic area be spayed and neutered to include owned animals. (People often lament that animals are considered property under the law. When it comes to MSN, that is a good thing. People have a right to determine what happens to their own property, making room for an argument that MSN is actually unconstitutional).

I learned last week that a person in my area had written an ordinance for the city in which I work to enact MSN. I presume that person was well-intentioned and just did not realize that what seems good on paper doesn't translate to practical application. In the process of researching the issues with MSN, it occurred to me I had not seen any recent blogs on the topic. This is why I wrote this blog. Much of the discussion is dated to a degree because this is actually a fairly well-settled issue in animal sheltering. The world is not flat, Elvis has left the building, we went to the moon and MSN does not work. I'm sharing my research here to make my argument in opposition to MSN, to help educate some folks along the way and to provide an example of what one community has done related to spay and neuter which makes MSN irrelevant.


These Organizations Oppose Mandatory Spay Neuter

The following organizations all oppose MSN. There are more, but I consider this my go-to list when I engage with people about this subject. Click on the name for each organization to learn more about opposition to MSN.

American Veterinary Medical Association

American College of Theriongenologsists

Humane Society of the United States MSN Position

Humane Society of the United States (regarding veterinary positions on spay/neuter generally)

ASPCA

Best Friends Animal Society

No Kill Advocacy Center

National Animal Interest Alliance

No Kill Learning (explaining the difference between "pet overpopulation" and "shelter overpopulation) related to MSN

I would be remiss if I did not mention an article written by Brent Toellner about MSN which I have shared too many times to count and shared as recently as last week. He wrote it as KC Dog Blog prior to being named the National Programs Director for the Best Friends Animal Society.

The American Kennel Club also opposes Mandatory Spay/Neuter. I do not support the AKC and will not link to their information here. You can find their position using a Google search.

They Oppose it Because Mandatory Spay Neuter Does Not Work

The reasons why organizations oppose MSN are vast. These are what I consider the highlights. I have paraphrased some of the position statements of the organizations below and some of the information was provided by Nathan Winograd of the No Kill Advocacy Center.

  • There is no credible evidence to show that MSN applied to all owned animals in a community has led to a significant reduction of shelter intake or euthanasia.

  • 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.

  • Mandatory spay neuter laws fail to target the true cause of killing (failure of a shelter to implement lifesaving alternatives) and they don't succeed in forcing the behavior they exist to encourage.

  • It is impossible to determine the effect of an MSN law without comparing a community's trends in shelter intake and euthanasia for several years before and after the law was enacted to trends in adjacent, similar communities without MSN legislation.

  • Actual enforcement of MSN laws varies widely, making comparisons between MSN laws or predictions about their impact very difficult; most jurisdictions do not have the animal control resources to enforce the laws.

  • Mandatory spay neuter fails to allow for individual freedoms and rights of those who demonstrate responsible pet ownership and care. Pets are property even if we don't like to think of them that way. People have the right to determine what happens to their own property.

  • The greatest obstacles to widespread spay/neuter have been found to be cost and education, not an outright opposition to the procedure. Mandating something people either do not understand, or cannot afford, doesn't address the root problem

  • Studies show that people who do not sterilize dog and cat companions are at the lowest rungs of the economic ladder and that the vast majority would do so if it was affordable.

  • Mandatory sterilization laws take money away from programs that save lives and give animal control authorities the ability to cite people for non-compliance, often leading to those people surrendering animals because they can't afford to pay for spay/neuter.

  • Although spaying and neutering helps control dog and cat populations, mandatory approaches may cause people to "go underground" so they no longer seek vaccinations or veterinary care for their pets to avoid detection.

  • When the City of Los Angeles passed MSN, the impound rate and killing rate rose dramatically for the first time in a decade. Private veterinarians also raised prices in an effort to profit off of the mandatory law which made spay/neuter even harder for many people to afford.

  • MSN does not impact backyard breeders who stay below the radar of the law.

  • A more positive approach, where incentives for sterilization are provided (reduced licensing fees, tax incentives, etc.) in conjunction with accessible and affordable sterilization programs, will be more effective.

Enforcement Issues With a Mandatory Spay Neuter Ordinance

All tax-funded animal shelters serve a finite geographic area. Some are led by a single jurisdiction within that area. Such is the case in the city where I work, Huntsville, Alabama. Huntsville Animal Services provides service to the City of Huntsville and Madison County (excluding the City of Madison); animals enter the shelter from the entire county (minus Madison which does its own animal control functions). Ordinances enacted in the city are only enforceable in the city and not the county. Madison County lacks home rule which means it cannot enact its own animal laws absent a bill being filed in Montgomery and passed through the state legislature. (There are some other ways to enact laws in counties which are complicated and not worth discussing here). The reality is that the county cannot just pass a resolution and change how it functions whether that has to do with spay/neuter, chained dogs or some other animal issue.


There are essentially four groups of animal owners related to any attempt to enforce MSN: 1) those owners whose animals would be exempt (i.e. because they are registered with some organization like the AKC and participate in shows); 2) those owners who would seek exemption for their animals due to opposition to spay/neuter of their pets based on advice from their veterinarian; 3) those owners who have already had animals sterilized or will do it voluntarily; and 4) those owners who cannot afford to have their pets sterilized (or believe they cannot because the fees ordinarily charged by many full-service veterinarians and lack of knowledge of low-cost alternatives).


It can be extremely difficult for even a veterinary professional to visually determine if an animal, particularly a female, has been sterilized; it would be virtually impossible for an animal control officer to make those determinations in the field.


The only way people would be "discovered" to be in violation would be if their animal was picked up running at large, encountered as a result of a complaint or if they were reported by a veterinarian or some other person.


Most, if not all, cities lack the ability to devote resources just to enforcement of MSN which, in most cases, would affect people who lack the ability to pay a fine. If a city did choose to divert resources to MSN enforcement, that would mean taking resources away from public safety functions or shelter functions to get lost animals back home, to rescues or into new homes.


The resources used for enforcement include time and money. If a municipality is prepared to use time and money to enforce a punitive law, it does better to use those same resources to help people instead - which is what Huntsville is already doing.



The Huntsville Story

I have written before about my animal shelter reform efforts in Huntsville because it has been the focus of my advocacy for more than 15 years. While there are more steps which can be taken by the city to be more progressive regarding the operation of the tax-funded animal shelter, I must give credit where it is due related to the community making spay and neuter both accessible and affordable. The only short-coming of which I am aware is a lack of effective marketing and community outreach wwe people know about the resources available to help them.of wh The City of Huntsville created a spay/neuter program for low-income residents in 2009 called Fixin' Alabama. The city originally invested 20k a year into the program and now invests 100k a year wom. This, combined with other factors, has reduced intake at Huntsville Animal Services from approximately 10k a year (in 2009) to around 5k a year (since 2015) even though the city has grown and is now the largest city in the state (having been recently named the Best Place to Live by U.S. News and World Report).

We know it can take years for programs related to spay/neuter to show results. These results for the City of Huntsville speak for themselves. Making it easier for low-income residents to have animals sterilized removes the judgment, helps them do the right thing and keeps animals out of the tax-funded shelter and other local shelters.

Huntsville is home to the North Alabama Spay & Neuter Clinic which is one of only four such clinics in the state. It is open to anyone regardless of income or where they live. This makes it easy for people who may not qualify for Fixin' Alabama to get a pet sterilized. It is also convenient for people who live and work in Huntsville, regardless of income. The clinic has a 2-3 week waiting list. Demand is high and prices are low. The clinic has performed more than 36,000 surgeries since it opened in 2010 - in spite of some time periods during which the state veterinary board was determined to close all non-profit spay/neuter clinics in the state.

There are several nonprofit organizations that help people with spay/neuter. SNAP (Spay Neuter Action Project) receives 39k a year from the Madison County Commission to have pets spayed/neutered. Another example is HAWS - Helping Animals Without Shelter. This is a judgement-free organization that helps people keep dogs contained, helps with dog houses and food and helps with spay/neuter. There are also several rescue groups in the area who will spay/neuter animals for free or help offset costs for sterilization on a case-by-case basis.

All of this means that Huntsville has numerous spay/neuter resources which negate the need for a mandatory ordinance even if one worked.

The City revised the city code related to animals in the fall of 2018. It enacted MSN internal to the shelter which states that any animal impounded can be sterilized. I am not entirely certain about the legality of this local law; my advocacy group in Huntsville questioned it prior to it being enacted. Time will tell if it is challenged through litigation. I am told by the shelter director that if a family cannot pay to redeem their pet or pay for the sterilization surgery, the fees are waived.

(As a related subject, there is already a state law requiring animals adopted from shelters and rescues be sterilized. It is not consistently followed in the state. That issue is separate from requiring sterilization of owned animals.)


What You Can Do

If you live in a community that is considering Mandatory Spay/Neuter in an attempt to reduce pet populations, I hope you will share this information and consider what it is you really hope to accomplish. I would argue that while it sounds like a good idea, it just is not. If you live in a community which already has MSN on the books, I hope you will take steps to try to repeal that law by working with your shelter director and local elected officials. It is likely the law was enacted with good intentions by people who just did not realize the unintended consequences that come with MSN. I would not be surprised to learn that the law is either not being enforced or is being enforced only as a secondary offense.

As an unapologetic supporter of the No Kill Equation, I also hope you will learn about the 11 programs and services of the Equation, one of which is access to high-volume/low-cost spay neuter services. Let's stop punishing people and instead make it easier for them to make good choices which affect their companion animals, their families and their communities.