By Lindsay Toler
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The Humane Society of Missouri does not perform spay/neuter until an animal is at least 4 months old and allows new owners to take puppies and kittens home with their reproductive systems intact as long as the owners promise to spay/neuter the animals later. Surgery is included in the adoption fees ($60 for cats, $75 for dogs).
As a result of the organization's reluctance to spay/neuter sooner, about 3,700 -- or 37 percent -- animals leave the shelter each year without being spayed or neutered.
If a single dog owner fails to follow through and that animal becomes pregnant, the pyramid effect can be staggering. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) estimates that one female dog and her offspring could spawn 67,000 puppies over a six-year-period; an unspayed cat and her offspring could produce 420,000 kittens in a seven-year-period.
"Most animals are spayed or neutered before they leave, except for puppies and kittens," says the Humane Society of Missouri's McGowan. "They are supposed to come back. If it comes to our attention that they haven't done that, we will send a letter reminding them of the importance of spaying and neutering."
Many humane organizations nationwide advocate early spay/neuter, in which puppies and kittens undergo the surgery as early as 8 to 10 weeks of age. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, a national organization, endorses early spay/neuter at 2 months of age and 2 pounds. The HSUS supports early spay/ neuter at 8-16 weeks of age, finding that "existing clinical studies indicate that the known advantages of early-age spay/neuter outweigh the potential disadvantages."
"From my perspective, we are not working on behalf of animal welfare if we do not spay and neuter everything that goes out," says the APA's executive director, Claudia Shugert. "I do not want to allow people the opportunity for mistakes.... We've been doing this since the '80s, and it seems to be a slow catch in this particular community."
Even the St. Louis city pound changed its policy about a year ago. It had allowed adoptive parents to leave with a pet and a list of vets who would perform the surgery; the cost was already paid for in the adoption fee. But everyone wasn't following through. "We found they didn't have the staff to follow up, nor did we have the staff to follow up," says Rich Stevson, program manager of the pound on Gasconade Street, called the Animal Regulation Center. "Now we transport it to the vet and you pick it up from the vet."
The Humane Society of Missouri is still determining whether early spay/neuter "is in the best interest of the animal," McGowan says. "We're not confident it is the best thing to do for the animals at this time."
The Humane Society's spaying and neutering services cost $55-$75, depending on the size and gender of the animal. Its Spay/Neuter Assistance Program (SNAP) offers a 60 percent discount to low-income pet owners. But in 1999, of the 8,500 surgeries performed, only 62 pets surgeries were covered under the SNAP discount.
By comparison, the nonprofit Pound Pals, a volunteer organization that helps find adoptive homes for pets at the city's pound, provided $12 spay/neuter services -- plus vaccinations for one year -- to 176 cats and dogs with a tiny annual budget of just $2,900.
About four years ago, not long after St. Louis Mayor Clarence Harmon took office, a group of representatives from the city and Pound Pals approached the Humane Society about selling its old building across the street on Macklind Avenue. The city's pound on Gasconade is housed in a 1940s building with a number of problems and a poor location off Interstate 55 -- and the old Humane Society building would have been a dramatic improvement. But it was not to be.
Stevson says the city's pound really needed better facilities. Walk into the pound and you find it old and dark and rather depressing. There are no skylights, no atrium. Several dogs share each kennel; there is no isolation ward, no way to separate dogs suspected of having parvo or some other communicable disease. Dogs and cats share the same room; though the kitten cages are lined up in a single row facing a far wall so they can't see the dogs, they can certainly hear them. The euthanasia equipment sits out in the open, a mini-gas chamber housed in the same room as the adult kennels.
"Basically we have outlived the building, as far as I'm concerned," Stevson says. "We need housing for animals that have bitten someone. We need isolation. We are an open-air facility, and that can contribute to some airborne disease. One of our biggest concerns is having air-conditioning in the kennel area. It becomes very warm in the summer months due to the humidity we have here in St. Louis. It is a problem not only for the animals but for the employees." The pound handled 6,500 animals in 1999, adopting or returning 1,600 on a budget of $670,000. Stevson has requested another $600,000 in funding for the past two years to air-condition the kennel area, create an additional 1,200 square feet for an isolation area and to move the euthanasia chamber out of the public eye. The city has yet to approve his request.