SPCA tries to save pit bull spay program

A pit bull waits to be evaluated at the Front Street Animal Shelter in Sacramento in October.
A pit bull waits to be evaluated at the Front Street Animal Shelter in Sacramento in October.

Sacramento’s animal shelters have a pit bull problem.

At least 40 percent of dogs that wind up in area shelters are pit bull terriers or mixes, and every day they keep coming: litters dropped off in boxes, strays picked up by animal control officers, pets surrendered by their owners.

For 14 years, the Sacramento SPCA has worked to keep Sacramento County’s pit bull population in check by offering owners of the breed free spaying and neutering surgeries, no strings attached. But the program may have booked its final operation.

Budget problems are threatening the We Pay To Spay program, which over the years has altered more than 11,000 pit bulls and prevented the births of untold numbers of puppies, said SPCA executive director Rick Johnson. The agency, which typically performs 15 surgeries a week, will perform scheduled operations through January but is not booking further appointments, Johnson said.

“We’re hoping we can find a way to continue it, but budget challenges are forcing us to look at all of our programs,” he said. “We’re examining the cost, merits and value of each of them, including this one.”

Johnson said he is asking administrators of surrounding communities whose shelters benefit from the program to contribute to keep We Pay To Spay running through 2015. The program costs about $60,000 annually, he said.

The SPCA’s $7 million annual budget has been affected by a significant drop in the number of paying customers using its low-cost spay and neuter clinic, Johnson said. The clinic offers surgeries for as low as $50 for small dogs.

“It’s had a big impact on our overall budget,” which will be discussed by the agency’s board next week, Johnson said. He said private donations also are slightly down.

Animal advocates said losing the program would have a broad impact on animals, shelters and the community at large. Female pit bulls, they said, are prolific breeders, producing 10 or more puppies per litter. Many of those dogs end up in shelters.

Well-trained pit bulls can be good pets, but because of their strength and their reputation as bullies, “it’s not always easy to place them” in adoptive homes, Johnson said.

About 38 percent of dogs taken in by the city of Sacramento’s Front Street Animal Shelter are pit bulls or mixes, compared to more than 60 percent before the program started, director Gina Knepp said.

“I’m not sure what else could explain that kind of a drop,” she said. “I really don’t want to lose this program. We’ve got to save it.”

Knepp said the city has offered to kick in $10,000 to support We Pay to Spay, and challenged the county and smaller communities that operate animal shelters to do the same.

“We need to work on this together, as a region,” she said. “It’s a community problem and a taxpayer problem. Do you, as a taxpayer, want us to spend public money trying to manage hundreds and hundreds of pit bulls coming to us instead of doing other things, like investigating animal cruelty?”

Johnson said the SPCA, which relies almost strictly on private donations, is exploring a variety of options in an effort to spare the program, including performing fewer surgeries or charging a nominal fee for them. Knepp is contemplating a community fundraiser.

Patty Letawsky, an animal advocate who helped found We Pay To Spay in October 2000, said she got involved in the effort “because I love the breed and care for the breed, and I was so tired of them ending up in shelters,” with too many of them being put to death.

The demise of the spay program, she said, would set the stage for a new explosion of pit bulls in shelters across the region.

“There are solutions,” Letawsky said. “We need to find one. The value of this program is so high, you would think we could come up with $60,000 to save it.”

Call The Bee’s Cynthia Hubert, (916) 321-1082. Follow her on Twitter @Cynthia_Hubert.

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