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Veterinarian Cattrina Lucas works on a cat at Critters Without Litters in this July 2013 photo.

Fewer animals are coming into city and county shelters. That means fewer are being killed.

The numbers aren’t huge, but the dip is noticeable and appears to be sustained.

There may be other explanations for that small, shiny scrap of good news. But most in the animal welfare community credit the numerous spay/neuter efforts that began ramping up in 2012.

While all those efforts are vital for continued success, I personally give the most credit to Critters Without Litters.

•••

Critters is a private, nonprofit, low-cost spay/neuter clinic.

Prices run from $40 for a male cat up to $80 — max — for fixing a large female dog. Private vets’ prices can easily run $100, $200 or more depending on the size of the animal.

Critters not only brings the price of fixing a pet in range for Kern residents who couldn’t otherwise afford it, it also stretches the reach of the many voucher programs that have sprung up in recent years.

For instance, a $30 voucher from Friends of the Kern County Animal Shelters Foundation brings the cost of fixing a male dog less than 61 pounds down to $35 at Critters. Combine that with a $20 voucher from Kern County Humane Society and you’re only paying $15.

That’s doable for almost anyone.

Indeed, Critters’ numbers show people are doing it. Since opening in October 2012, Critters has performed 23,032 surgeries on local cats and dogs.

That’s more than 23,000 animals not having litters, which have more litters and so on, that local shelters have to scoop up and...well you know the outcome.

So hats off to Critters, absolutely.

But wait, don’t answer yet.

About 35 percent of Critters clients use local vouchers. That means about 8,000 of the total 23,000 animals fixed by Critters probably wouldn’t have been fixed without the added help of a voucher.

We have several voucher programs locally. The Friends and Humane Society programs are completely privately funded and have been underway for years.

•••

Kern County Animal Services had a pretty anemic spay/neuter effort that got a serious shot in the arm in 2013-2014 when the Board of Supervisors agreed to spend $250,000 on spay/neuter.

Use of those county vouchers has exploded since about May 2014 after interim Director Nick Cullen enacted a few simple changes.

“We hadn’t been making it easy for people to get the vouchers,” Cullen said. They had to come to the shelter on Wednesdays during clinic hours or go to vaccination clinics in outlying areas once a month.

The department has since thrown open the voucher doors, so to speak, so people can get a voucher at any of the county’s three shelters during business hours.

“That alone created an explosion in use,” he said.

Cullen also created a network from Frazier Park to Buttonwillow so people can get vouchers at community centers. And the department has stepped up its mobile spay/neuter clinics in outlying areas.

Combined, the vouchers and mobile clinics have resulted in nearly 4,000 alterations over the past year, he said.

That doesn’t include the number of surgeries paid for by the other $70,000 of that $250K from supervisors.

That money went to Marley’s Mutts Dog Rescue to fix dogs in specific zip codes where there’s the biggest stray problems.

•••

So far, Marley’s has helped to fix 1,287 dogs for county residents in those zip codes, according to coordinator Kim Cordero.

Marley’s has used a combination of mobile clinics and vouchers and is embarking on a Zeuterin clinic in Lamont in the next few weeks, Cordero said. Zeuterin is a shot that sterilizes male dogs.

The Board of Supervisors re-upped its $250,000 commitment to spay/neuter this fiscal year and Marley’s is expecting to get another $70,000 to continue its work.

“We’ll be doing a lot more door-to-door canvassing and educating this year,” Cordero said. “We had a huge influx of people at first but that’s seemed to dry up. We need to get into the neighborhoods and get the word out.”

Those efforts may be why the Kern shelter saw 12 percent fewer animals come through its doors from those targeted zip codes this June compared to last, Cullen said.

“That’s historically one of our highest intake months,” he said. “It sure seems like that’s a number that isn’t anecdotal.”

•••

The city, meanwhile, has also gotten into the spay/neuter voucher game starting with $20,000 last year and committing the same this year. Its vouchers, only for dogs, were snapped up so quickly over the last year Councilman Chris Parlier asked at a recent committee meeting if the obviously popular program could be expanded.

City Manager Alan Tandy quickly jumped in with dire predictions of tax revenue shortfalls, etc.

Harrumph. Harrumph.

I would argue that the more you spend to fix animals before they have litters that end up in the shelter, the less you spend on care, feeding and the psychic damage from having to kill them later on. Just something to think about, Mr. Tandy. (But kudos to the city for moving in the right direction.)

•••

I still have one more important spay/neuter kudo to hand out, to Dr. Tom Willis and the staff at his San Joaquin Veterinary Hospital.

Willis was dismayed by the awful numbers of animal euthanasias reported every year by The Californian and wondered what he could do.

“It was a bad reflection on Kern County and on the Kern veterinary community as well,” he said.

He talked with Supervisor David Couch and Critters founder Larry Keller and got together with his staff to design a “little hospital on wheels.”

“In six months, boom, we had it going,” he said.

For about the past year and a half he’s been taking the hospital all over Kern and even up into Tulare County helping to fix animals in needy rural communities.

He works with nonprofit organizations that pay enough to cover his staff and equipment costs. One of his most regular partners has been Marley’s Mutts, which also sends dogs to his offices.

Since embarking on his spay/neuter efforts in April 2014, Willis and his staff have helped fix more than 3,400 animals (80 percent through the mobile unit), about 1,000 of those with Marley’s.

“All of these organizations together are doing a fantastic job of getting at the heart of the problem,” he said. “I believe that’s why we’re not taking in as many animals into the shelters.

“At least I sure hope so.”

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry. Her column runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or email lhenry@bakersfield.com

LISTEN UP

Lois Henry appears on “First Look with Scott Cox” every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM and 96.1 FM from 9 to 10 a.m. The show is also broadcast live on www.bakersfield.com. You can get your 2 cents in by calling 842-KERN.

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