Story by Adam Friedman. Originally published May 9, 2019, updated with photos May 17:
Every step of the way the City of Jackson has run into controversy with trying to take better care of the city's pets and solve the pet overpopulation problem. "I've been working on [the animal care issue] since 2009," Director of Community Development at West Tennessee Healthcare Dr. Vicki Lake said. "I was part of a neighborhoods task force where part of it was dealing with how to solve Jackson's animal care problem."
The task force Lake was a part of was asked to help solve the funding problem at the Jackson-Madison County Humane Society. The city took over the shelter in 2017 after complaints from residents about the treatment of the animals.
The city then renamed it the City of Jackson Animal Care Center and planned to build a new facility in the future. The city originally set aside $240,000 for the new animal care center. The West Tennessee Healthcare Foundation would also contribute $150,000 per year toward the new center.
Lake along with West Tennessee Healthcare Foundation President McMeen were then tasked with recommending a proposal for the new animal care center. By the time the recommended proposal came up for a vote at city council the cost of the project was $1.3 million, far exceeding the amount the city set aside.
The city council passed the funding for the new animal care center in October of 2018 and accepted a construction bid for it in April.
As part of the animal care center plan Lake also proposed that the city adopt a spay-neuter ordinance.
Why spay-neuter groups are against the ordinance
The ordinance the city passed on at its May city council meeting requires all pet owners with pets over six-months-old to have it spayed or neutered. If it's discovered that that the pet isn't fixed the city would fine the pet owner $50 per animal.
Both West Tennessee Spay Neuter Coalition and Spay Tennessee oppose the animal care ordinance because they feel it doesn't solve the underlying problem that Jackson doesn't have low-cost spay-neuter available.
"Spay-neuter ordinances don't work," Program Manager for Spay Tennessee Julie Jacobson said. "The results are unintended consequences. The goal is to reduce shelter intake. But people then think they can't afford to spay or neuter their pet so they surrender the pet causing shelter populations rise."
The city wants to adopt the ordinance as an encouragement for people to get their pets fixed while hoping it solves the pet overpopulation problem which caused the animal care center financial issues in the first place.
The groups in opposition to the ordinance are also opposed to the animal care center project as a whole.
"A lot times people think when you build a new facility it will solve the problem," Jacobson said. "But intake at these facilities often skyrocket. A lot of people see a new facility and will just drop off all the stray pets they find off."
"A new facility can be part of the solution but you need more low-cost spay-neuter."
In the past American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has cautioned against mandatory spay-neuter laws.
The statement said the main barriers to spaying and neutering pets is accessibility of services, which is not addressed simply by making spaying and neutering mandatory. Cost is one of the primary barriers in many communities.
"We need to be incentivizing people to spay-neuter but not through a mandatory ordinance," West Tennessee Spay Neuter Coalition Founder Karen Byers said. "We need to target people with lots of stray pets and use volunteers to help them spay-neuter them for a low price."
Those in favor of the ordinance
While the ordinance might be opposed to by local spay-neuter groups in both Mayor Jerry Gist and the city council seemed to be in favor it.
During a discussion about the ordinance at May's city council agenda review meeting Councilman Johnny Lee Dodd said that to him it seemed like the city could adopt the ordinance, build the animal care center and still try to fund low-cost spay-neuter.
The city plans to offer affordable spaying and neutering services at the animal care center, according to Gist.
The city council approved the spay-neuter ordinance 7-2 on its first reading at May's city council meeting. The votes in opposition were Ernest Brooks II (District 3) and Charles Rahm (District 8).
The ordinance will come up again at June's city council meeting on June 4 for a second reading before it is adopted as a ordinance.
The public has learned about the proposed spay/neuter ordinance, thanks to WBBJ News. The Facebook comments are wide-ranging, and many folks are weighing in that they are NOT in favor of the ordinance, for various reasons that you can imagine. Those of us doing spay/neuter argue that it will be ineffective against the backyard breeders but will instead penalize poor people who need access to services. Click on the comments icon below to go to that debate.
There is only one high-volume, low-cost spay/neuter clinic west of the Tennessee River in TN. There is only one spay/neuter ordinance in Tennessee, in Memphis. Areas with clinics are making a difference in reducing the need for sheltering, rescue and euthanasia.
Jackson City Council candidates are being asked in WBBJ interviews: "What would you do to address the animal over-population problem?" This is curious because the current city council and mayor already answered this question when they voted in April to move ahead with construction of a new Animal Care Center building currently costing $1.5 million, and hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to operate. Despite efforts over the last three years to have spay/neuter be part of the discussion (attempts and arguments are documented at westtnspayneuter.org/news), the organizers and approvers of this plan did not avail themselves of public input, nor experts willing to counsel, nor did they seriously consider solutions or ideas from most area rescuers or spay/neuter groups, nor did they appear to consult any data or research. If they had, they might have learned that an expensive scaling-up of the existing Humane Society business model will be ineffective to address the flood of unwanted animals that plague Jackson and west Tennessee.
Experience shows us that we cannot rescue our way out of our pet over-population problem. Rescuing is expensive (in time, money, resources) and inefficient, while accessible and affordable spay/neuter options prevent and correct. In committing the City to be in the animal rescue business for decades to come, our leaders have missed a huge opportunity to do the preventative work that is so desperately needed here, with a business model that can operate in the black - that of low-cost spay and neuter services for area pet owners. A clinic would be an economic generator: while this facility will take in animals from Jackson residents only, a spay/neuter clinic would be a destination and resource for folks from all surrounding counties - pet owners, rescues and s/n assistance volunteers who will avail themselves of shopping, restaurants, and entertainment for the day while they wait for services.
Kennels and cages will fill up whether there are twenty, forty or two hundred. Animals will be turned away at the door to remain in over-burdened homes, un-sterilized and reproducing, or left to run loose to be a hazard, or someone else's stray (or rescue), or will end up in shelters and eventually euthanized. It is disingenuous to call a facility "no kill" when animals are living in cages for weeks and months and the larger animal welfare ecosystem is unhealthy.
During this election there have been calls for transparency, communication and fiscal accountability in our government. Here is an excellent example of what not to do. There are many questions about the plan that are not being answered:
No one has provided numbers of how many animals will be adopted from this larger facility and the per animal cost is unknown. We know that the cost of housing, feeding and vetting animal in a facility is high - my back-of-the napkin figures have each animal in this facility costing at least $300 to rescue. In contrast, providing a low-cost spay neuter option can be done in the equivalent of a storefront for $50 per pet, and these animals already have homes.
Some pets are very attractive to adopters, others are difficult to place. Will the city give area rescues the adoptable puppies and dogs or the less desirable ones that need rehabilitation? How will the city enact trap, neuter, release (TNR) projects that are so needed and necessary to control cat populations? How will they work with Animal Control to do necessary euthanasia for un-adoptable animals? The city has controlled the Animal Care Center facility for two years - Can they tell us how long will animals stay at the facility or what will be done differently to ensure that pets get adopted quickly? How will having a larger facility bring more families to adopt when our region is already saturated with strays and nothing is being done to staunch that flow of homeless animals?
The final folly of this plan is the proposed spay/neuter ordinance, which is set to be voted upon at the next city council meeting on May 7. Had the authors of this plan asked anyone working in spay/neuter they might have learned that we do not support ordinances because they are practically unenforceable, or will be enforced unevenly, penalizing those who can least afford a retail vet experience. Having talked with hundreds of pet owners, I can attest that our clients love their pets dearly and want to be responsible by fixing them. (Those who are willfully allowing their animals to breed are guilty of other offenses that are not being enforced.) The ASPCA has a detailed paper which looks at research and concludes that s/n ordinances are not effective and can have the opposite effect of causing animals to be surrendered to shelters. This is available at https://www.aspca.org/position-statement-mandatory-spayneuter-laws
So, what is the community to do about the pet over-population problem? One councilman I spoke to last year shrugged his shoulders and told me "the City spends money poorly all the time". For those who care about animals and our city's residents (and our neighbors), however, shoulder-shrugging is not an acceptable answer. I hope our electorate will hold elected officials accountable to do what is best for the financial health of the city, physical health and care of the city's companion pets, and the happiness and well-being of its citizens.
I was forwarded this letter written by a representative from PETA in support of the ordinance. In this response I have disputed her conclusion and found common ground as well.
Karen Byers' May 1, 2019 response to letter of endorsement from PETA representative, April 29, 2019
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Dear Mayor Gist and City Council Members -
I have copied the text from Teresa Chagrin in blue, and my response is in yellow. At the end of this letter I have attached data reports from successful spay/neuter groups and clinics that show success in areas without s/n ordinances.
Dear Mayor Gist and City Council Members,
I hope you're well. I'm writing on behalf of PETA and our many members and supporters in Tennessee who were happy to read that you want to take action to address the animal-overpopulation and homelessness crisis in Jackson.
We agree that it is good that the community recognize and respond to the pet over-population problem. However, we believe the plan you are implementing now is not a good one.
Teresa Chagrin's Linkedin profile page shows her living in Norfolk, Virginia. PETA has little presence in west Tennessee. I doubt many west Tennesseans have views that align with PETA, which is on the FBI's eco-terrorism list and is a frequent target of the American political Right.
We hope you'll pass a spay/neuter ordinance to reduce the number of animals who are born only to end up homeless. I'm enclosing information, including examples, about the way spay/neuter ordinances save tax dollars as well as animal lives.
We do not agree that a spay/neuter ordinance is appropriate in our community. I also do not believe she makes the case in her examples.
Your community isn't alone—communities across the country are grappling with the same issues, created by irresponsible animal owners and those who breed animals for profit, despite the deaths of millions of homeless animals on the streets and in shelters every year because there are simply not enough good homes for them.
Agree with this description, but does she know what's happening here? Did she do any research other than the link to the Jackson Sun article that you sent? Does she know that we have no dedicated high-volume, low-cost spay/neuter clinic west of the Tennessee River and east of Memphis, an area which covers twenty counties with a population of over 500,000 people (excluding Shelby)? There are low-cost spay/neuter clinics all over middle and east Tennessee, and none here. (Please see first attachment below for a map of s/n clinics in TN.)
Exasperated with pouring more and more tax dollars into collecting, housing, and transferring or euthanizing the never-ending number of animals born for whom no homes exist,
Precisely. But this is what you voted to do in April.
many communities (including Memphis) have passed laws that require animal owners to spay or neuter their dogs and cats or purchase breeding permits that can help offset the costs of animal control.
Memphis passed this law in 2010. I don't think she can make the case that the ordinance has been effective there. Also, to our knowledge, Memphis is the only city or town with a spay/neuter ordinance in all of Tennessee. These are not popular here for many reasons, practical and ideological. However, there are many TN communities using aggressive and funded spay/neuter to make a difference without ordinances. (Attached are data from TN s/n groups and clinics that are successful while not having s/n ordinances in their community.)
The results are undeniable: After 10 years of enforcing a spay/neuter law in Santa Cruz County, California, a new animal shelter was constructed with one fewer dog kennel than the facility it replaced—in spite of human population growth.
We certainly agree the goal should be to have fewer animals in kennels.
The shelter's intake of strays had dropped by 60%, and it nearly halved the number of animals euthanized. Several communities in Oklahoma that have passed and enforced spay/neuter ordinances report a reduction in the number of stray animals. Claremore's animal control supervisor said that since the city passed an ordinance, "The number of strays taken in goes down every year."
Requiring that dogs and cats be sterilized unless their owners purchase an annual breeding permit—the cost of which would fund low-cost spay/neuter services—saves animals' lives and taxpayer dollars. Purposely bred puppies and kittens usually sell for several hundred dollars each—a permit fee is a reasonable and small price to pay to breed animals when taxpayers are funding the capture, housing, and disposition of others.
This story about Oklahoma says: "most communities have low-income programs that can start at $20" and even the source they quote sites “making (s/n) services available" as the first item to make an ordinance work. He also admits, “You have to enforce it. That’s probably where the biggest downfall is with those types of ordinances.” This buttresses our position that an ordinance in our area would not be effective when we do not have sufficient spay/neuter options available, and reinforces my claim that enforcement will be big obstacle.
A comprehensive spay/neuter ordinance should include the following provisions:
- Required breeding permits for backyard and hobby breeders (costing a suggested minimum of $100per litter)
NOTE: The Humane Society of the United States of TN has lobbied for regulation of backyard breeders in Nashville for years, to no avail.
- Mandatory spaying of mother dogs and cats and surrender of litters to a local shelter in cases of accidental litters or a requirement that guardians purchase a breeding permit and (on a case-by-case basis) pay a penalty fee for failing to buy one prior to breeding
Wow! Nearly a quarter of Jackson residents live in poverty. This would surely cause many pets to be surrendered.
- Mandatory sterilization of animals impounded by the city
- Pre-release sterilization of all animals adopted from shelters (In its Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters, the Association of Shelter Veterinarians states that "[s]urgical sterilization (spaying or neutering) prior to release to adopters, including kittens and puppies as young as 6 weeks old, remains the most reliable and effective means of preventing unwanted reproduction of cats and dogs and decreasing their birthrates.")
We agree that animals should be spayed and neutered prior to release from any animal shelter or rescue. A spay/neuter clinic would help facilitate that.
- Significant differential licensing fees for animals to encourage guardians to have their animals sterilized
- Low-cost spay/neuter programs (Every dollar spent on spaying or neutering an animal reduces government animal control costs. The Minnesota legislature's Animal Population Control Study Commission found "that each dollar spent today on low-cost spay/neuter can lead to future animal control cost savings of approximately $18.72 over a ten-year period.")
She's making our case here again, very strongly. She cites that one dollar spent today on spay neuter saves an eighteen-fold cost over ten years. That's over a 100% return on investment annually. Bottom line: Communities see decreases in shelter intake when they decide to fund and provide aggressive spay/neuter for pet owners. It costs less to subsidize a low-cost spay/neuter surgery for an owned pet than it does to house a shelter pet for a day.
A critical element to any new law is effective enforcement. We suggest requiring enforcement in any legislation drafted.
I do not see any requirement for law enforcement to enforce in the proposed ordinance.
Perhaps you could publish this ordinance for the public to see before taking a vote. Thank you for your communication and consideration of these points.
Karen Byers, 5/1/19
The following map and data are here as well for closer viewing.