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Shelby Mack / The Californian

Vicky Thrasher and Joann Keller check on dogs in the kennel at Critters Without Litters, a spay/neuter clinic that recently opened on Stine Road.

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Cindy Stodola picks up her 7 and a half month old dog Makita after he was neutered at Critters Without Litters in this file photo.

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Shelby Mack / The Californian

Joann and Larry Keller pose for a portrait in the sugery room at Critters Without Litters. The Kellers recently opened the high colume, low cost spay and neuter clinic to make an attempt to do something about the pet overpopulation problem in Bakersfield.

This is the absolute best news I've heard in a long time.Bakersfield now has its own low-cost, high-volume spay/neuter clinic.

YAY!

It's called Critters Without Litters and it's on Stine Road just south of White Lane. It opened Oct. 1 and the staff is raring to go.

Tell a friend. Tell 20!

Anyone can use Critters' services regardless of their income level.

Dogs cost between $65 and $80 depending on sex and size. Cats are $40 for males, $50 for females. (Vouchers from local organizations can bring down costs even more.)

For those not familiar with what it costs to fix a dog at regular vet offices, let me tell you, Critters' prices are far lower, in some cases less than half the going rate.

That's because they use a combination of grants and community donations, and they focus on one thing only -- animal sterilizations.

Using state-of-the-art equipment and techniques, their vets can work on a large number of animals.

At full throttle, they hope to do about 35 animals a day, said Larry Keller, who along with is wife, Joann, brought the clinic from a dream to a reality.

The Kellers' goal is to fix 8,400 Kern County cats and dogs in their first 12 months.

These people are very goal-oriented, so I have no doubt they will meet or exceed that number.

The Kellers, involved in animal issues for many years, started the "Fix Your Pit" voucher program a few years ago and ultimately gave out 2,000 vouchers.

They subsidized the vouchers through their business, Fortress Self Storage.

But working with veterinarians was complicated, it was getting expensive and they both realized the program was a drop in the bucket compared to the need, Larry Keller told me.

They decided late last year to simplify their lives and discontinue the program.

But then the county's euthanasia rates came out in the paper. It was depressing, as usual. Kern was forced to kill 19,797 animals in 2011. So far this year, the number is 15,202.

Joann and Larry went to a meeting of the county Animal Control Commission and asked about a low-cost spay neuter clinic.

"We were told, 'Great idea, next topic,'" Larry recalled.

Many animal advocates have longed for a low-cost clinic as the best option for reducing our animal population in order to keep cats and dogs from going to the shelter in the first place.

The county and several organizations have started voucher programs (see info box) but those have been the equivalent of a Band-Aid on sucking chest wound.

For a while, we also had HOPE, Fresno's low-cost, high volume spay/neuter clinic, which made two trips a month to truck Kern animals north. But, again, it just wasn't enough.

Larry and Joann talked about the possibility of opening their own low-cost, high-volume clinic. They decided to think on it.

But then things started to happen. Larry got in touch with Marvin Mackie of Long Beach, the grandfather of fast, safe, spay/neuter techniques and who has been helping start similar clinics up and down the state.

It so happened, a national veterinarian show was coming up in Las Vegas and Mackie, who owns a time-share there, persuaded Larry to go.

By the time Larry drove home a few days later, Joann knew they were no longer "considering" the clinic. It was a go.

From there, things moved fast.

The Kellers already owned the 2,600-square-foot building on Stine. It had been vacant awhile. Then they went after grants through Petsmart charities and training through Humane Alliance of South Carolina, which specializes in helping establish spay/neuter clinics.

I first wrote about Humane Alliance back in 2008 when I was trying to convince our board of supervisors to look at a mandatory spay/neuter law. The big obstacle, I was told, is that fixing animals is too expensive for many families. I researched Humane Alliance and felt it would be the perfect resource for our county to change direction.

My enthusiasm thudded up against the usual wall of governmental silence. So many others had hit that barrier over the years, we all thought maybe it just couldn't happen here.

But the Kellers don't understand the words "can't be done."

"I'm the kind of guy who just jumps off a cliff," Larry said, with his signature ear-to-ear grin.

Meanwhile, Joann did the paperwork, the logistics and the fretting.

By the end of summer, they were Humane Alliance's 111th approved clinic.

So far, they have one vet, Cattrina Lucas, and hope to get a second vet a couple of days a week.

"I'm hooked," Lucas said of the operation and its mission. She said the training at Humane Alliance was incredible.

"This is not a 'chop shop,'" she said.

For Kern's animal advocates, Critters is somewhat of a miracle.

"It's amazing!" gushed Marilyn Stewart, director of Alpha Canine. "Thank God!"

Now we have to do our part.

Get your animals over there and get them fixed.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com.