During its first eleven months in existence, the Bakersfield nonprofit Critters Without Litters spayed or neutered more than 5,000 Kern County dogs and cats at reduced prices in its Stine Road clinic.
Founders Joann and Larry Keller, owners of Fortress Self-Storage, researched the proper way to set up a clinic, paid to remodel office space they owned, hired two part-time veterinarians and support staff, and set up shop in October.
Their motivation was frustration.
"They waited for 20 years for somebody to do something," Critters Executive Director Vicky Trasher said of Kern County's failure to develop a low-cost spay neuter program.
"Our mission is to try and keep animals out of the shelter by spaying and neutering pets before they have a chance to make babies that end up in the shelter," she said. "That's us."
Critters is Kern County's first and only dedicated spay and neuter clinic. Based on the experience of Jacksonville, Fla., Critters could -- with some community and government support -- perform the volume and type of surgeries needed to make a dent in the Kern animal shelter's intake problem.
But, so far, that partnership hasn't happened.
A COSTLY, PERSONAL EFFORT
The Kellers are so determined to make a difference that they spent about $500,000 of their own money to set up the clinic. They shell out about $65,000 each year to keep Critters open and don't charge Critters rent for use of their office space.
Spay-and-neuter fees bring in only 68 percent of Critters' $650,000 annual budget. Grants and donations bring in around 22 percent and the Kellers pick up the last 10 percent.
The Kellers have committed the facility to the nonprofit for 10 years and say they have no intention of stopping operations before then.
Currently, the clinic can host two veterinarians working full-time on spay and neuter surgeries alone.
With four tables in the surgery suite, a veterinarian can work on one animal while a registered veterinary tech prepares the next animal for the procedure on a second table.
When the vet finishes a surgery, he or she simply moves to the next animal. The tech cleans up the first animal, puts it in a recovery cage, then preps the next animal.
At that pace, a single veterinarian -- Critters started using two part-time vets to cover its five-day weeks -- can do up to 30 surgeries a day.
But the Kellers weren't satisfied with a single vet. Critters recently hired a second registered vet tech and a full-time veterinarian.
Price tag: about $250,000 a year.
"I don't know if that (will) break even," Larry Keller said.
But he's looking at the end result.
Once the surgery teams get a rhythm down, they'll double the number of surgeries they can perform, Thrasher said.
At twice the pace they've maintained so far, Critters could handle more than 12,000 surgeries a year.
Critters could do even more, Thrasher said, if it had a more reliable stream of animals. Currently it overbooks because many people who make appointments won't come through the door.
SERVING THE UNDERSERVED
It's too soon to judge Critters' impact on Kern County's overall animal problems. But the response to its services has been strong, Thrasher said, and it's altering animals that otherwise would not be fixed.
It appears only 20 to 30 percent of people coming in were already planning to alter their animals butchose Critters only because it offered the cheapest price, she said. That's important because a key to reducing animal overpopulation is altering pets whose owners wouldn't get them fixed without some sort of encouragement.
"Ninety percent of the people who come through the door -- who we ask -- don't have a regular vet," Thrasher said.
Many are on a fixed income and paying full price would be tough for them.
But while Critters has done thousands of surgeries -- it's on pace to do more in its first year than Jacksonville's respected First Coast No More Homeless Pets program did in any of its first four years -- Thrasher acknowledged it could be improved a lot.
Critters can't target the county's communities and neighborhoods that breed the largest number of unwanted animals. It can't afford to provide free services. And people still must drive their animals to southwest Bakersfield for its services.
A government agency partnering with Critters has the potential to create an expanded, First Coast-like spay-neuter program that really makes a dent in Kern County's shelter intake problem.
Would Critters be open to that?
"We're open to anything that makes sense to make a difference for animals," Thrasher said.
In fact, Kern County Supervisors Zack Scrivner and David Couch approached Critters in the past few months about helping with pilot programs in their districts.
The city of Bakersfield has also talked to Critters about a partnership.
Thrasher said she doesn't care about taking sides -- only fixing animals.
"We have no animosity to either organization," she said. "We hope that the decisions that are made by either entity are in the best interest of the animals."