The SpayJax program, a targeted, aggressive spay and neuter effort, is the seed from which a coalition of animal control and welfare groups grew success in Jacksonville, Fla.
Since 2002, the program has been run by the First Coast No More Homeless Pets nonprofit and partially funded by the city of Jacksonville.
It has been enhanced over the past 10 years by a host of other programs funded with millions of dollars from a variety of sources.
But SpayJax started it all.
Rick DuCharme was a northeast Florida salesman with a soft spot for animals when his penchant for dabbling in animal rescue launched his life into an unexpected direction.
He stumbled upon the work of New Hampshire attorney Peter Marsh, who had used data analysis and passionate marketing strategies to turn around that state's animal intake problem.
Marsh's idea was simple: figure out where most of the dogs and cats going into a shelter are coming from, go there and spay or neuter the animals by the truckload.
DuCharme was sold.
So when Jacksonville's mayor convened a taskforce on the animal issue in 2001, DuCharme signed up.
HOW PROGRAM TOOK HOLD
Talking about the issue turned into authoring a report about spay and neuter programs. The report turned into a city contract proposal. And DuCharme ended up creating First Coast No More Homeless Pets to take the contract.
Now, First Coast has a budget of more than $3 million, does more than 25,000 spay and neuter surgeries a year and has earned national recognition and support.
DuCharme has teamed with Marsh to start the Target Zero Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to helping other communities duplicate Jacksonville and New Hampshire's success.
When DuCharme heard from a reporter about the size of Kern County Animal Control's budget -- more than $7 million -- he laughed.
"You guys should be solving this problem," he said.
SpayJax started modestly, with 2,910 surgeries in the 2002-2003 fiscal year, a city of Jacksonville contribution of only $250,000 and one goal on DuCharme's mind: "Help those who do want to have their pet fixed, but can't afford it."
The years haven't changed the program much. The goal is to do about 4,000 free surgeries a year using around $440,000 in city funds pulled completely from pet license fees.
Dog and cat owners in Duval County and the city of Jacksonville pay license fees of $20 a year per animal. Half of that goes to pay for SpayJax.
First Coast analyzes what parts of the county are dumping the largest number of unwanted animals into the Jacksonville Animal Care & Protective Services shelter.
"We'll target zip codes who have the highest shelter intake," DuCharme said.
Then he markets his services -- aggressively -- to animal owners in those areas. Mailers with the word FREE in big letters go out.
When the calls start coming in -- people like free things -- First Coast staff sets up appointments and doesn't take "no" for an answer.
DuCharme said his staffers work to get as much money as possible out of the pet owner -- even if it is only a few dollars. They say things like, "Our normal price is X. Can you afford that?"
People who prove they can't afford that face only a small out-of-pocket cost -- the $20 city of Jacksonville pet licensing fee.
First Coast makes getting the pet to that spay or neuter appointment easy. Workers arrange meeting locations then drive vans and trucks anywhere within 90 miles of the First Coast Spay and Neuter clinic, pick up the pet, alter it and then return it to the owner at the meeting spot the very same day.
First Coast does this all with two veterinarians and support staff doing back-to-back alterations six days a week in a surgery suite with six operation tables at a clinic in suburban Jacksonville.
PROACTIVE PROGRAM FIXES CATS, TOO
The idea works because, unlike reactive programs such as rescues and adoptions that take unwanted pets out of shelters one-by-one, spaying one animal prevents hundreds from ever being born.
SpayJax also works better than voucher systems and other low-cost spay-neuter programs -- which often just drop the cost pet owners pay for fixing an animal they already planned to alter -- because nearly every surgery fixes a pet that wouldn't be spayed or neutered otherwise.
But SpayJax has been only the seed of First Coast No More Homeless Pets' success.
Everyone loves to back a winner, said Scott Trebatoski, Jacksonville's division chief of Animal Care and Protective Services. As, year-by-year, his agency's intake and euthanasia numbers dropped, people that care about animals took notice and rallied around Jacksonville's joint effort.
More money poured in.
Between 2006 and 2010, according to the nonprofit's annual report to the Internal Revenue Service, public support for First Coast No More Homeless Pets increased from $713,792 to $2.3 million.
DuCharme's team launched a thrift shop, adoption program, spay and neuter clinic, and more spay and neuter programs aimed at specific breeds, neighborhoods and zip codes.
Then, in 2008, First Coast teamed up with the city again and developed something called Feral Freedom.
They got tired of trying to convince cat owners that letting their unaltered felines run around outside was a bad idea, Trebatoski said.
The city labeled all outdoors cats "community" cats -- even the ones that had owners -- and stopped accepting them into the shelter.
Those cats -- a massive source of shelter intake and euthanasia -- went instead to First Coast.
"We immediately went away from what's feral and what's not feral," Trebatoski said. "If they came from outside, then we take them, sterilize them and return them."
Once each cat is fixed, a notch is cut from its ear and it's put back into the neighborhoods it came from.
Cat owners sometimes complain.
"The easy answer back to them is, 'It probably would have been euthanized and you wouldn't have your cat back,'" Trebatoski said.
The Feral Freedom program has helped power the most drastic drop in the city shelter's intake and kill rates -- a 70 percent reduction in euthanizations between the 2007-2008 and 2011-2012 fiscal years.
And complaints about roaming cats have gone down, Trebatoski said, because spaying and neutering them often stops their yowling, spraying and other objectionable behaviors.
Feral Freedom is funded by First Coast, which by 2008 had developed the capacity to handle the program's costs on its own.
And, with the support of First Coast, animal lovers in the Jacksonville community have the resources to help round up unaltered animals and care for the colonies of cats that have been released back into the "wild."
Blanca Franco, a civil engineer in Jacksonville, is one of a network of self-appointed volunteers who both tend the colonies of community cats and work to trap and alter them.
"I feed 50 cats every night," she said. "I've gotten 30 of them fixed."
Sometimes the task is daunting.
"Sometimes I wish I had never started," she said. "I couldn't do this if I had to pay $150 a piece to fix these cats."
But First Coast handles the alterations and Franco feels a responsibility to help fix a situation humans helped create.
"To me I just feel like this is a problem that is caused by people, people not spaying and neutering their pets," she said.
But she knows the problem can be solved.
"It's an overwhelming challenge when you start out. How can you possibly solve this problem?" she said.
But just having a resource like First Coast No More Homeless Pets helps the community focus on solutions and make them happen, she said.
"The problem can be resolved," Franco said.