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City investigates whether spay/neuter clinics are reaching the people who need them

Tuesday, November 22, 2016 by Cate Malek

The city of Sunset Valley is leading other Austin-area locations in taking advantage of free spay/neuter clinics – a surprise, since these clinics are usually used more heavily in poorer neighborhoods.

City staff is working to better understand who is using spay/neuter clinics in Austin at a neighborhood level, although the numbers are still incomplete. This level of detail became more necessary after City Council passed a proposal to require the spaying and neutering of animals the first time they are picked up by animal services, in order to try to reduce the number of stray pets on the streets and in animal shelters.

“We’re really trying to create social change,” said Lee Ann Shenefiel, deputy chief animal services officer. “We’re really trying to make the process of obtaining spay/neuter services a transformational one.”

Animal Services provides its free spay/neuter services through a nonprofit called Emancipet, which also gives out free and low-cost vaccinations along with other services. The program educates pet owners on the benefits of spaying or neutering dogs and cats, and it attempts to make it as easy and cheap as possible for pet owners to get the surgery done.

The main concern with animals that aren’t spayed or neutered is that they will continue to reproduce, creating a larger stray population. This problem is of particular concern for Austin because it is a no-kill city, meaning that animal services doesn’t euthanize animals, and its shelters can easily get overcrowded.

Another issue may be that dogs that haven’t been spayed or neutered are often more aggressive. At a recent City Council meeting, Council Member Ora Houston brought up concerns that stray animals may be threatening people in her district.

For all of these reasons, Animal Services wants to understand if its efforts to make spaying and neutering as easy as possible are working. In general, city staff said the free spay/neuter clinics are being used most often in neighborhoods with the highest numbers of people living below the poverty line. These include areas like Montopolis, where over 40 percent of residents are living below the poverty line.

But Sunset Valley stood out because it has the highest number of people using the spay/neuter clinics, although only 17 percent of residents are living below the poverty line. Last year, 1,997 surgeries were performed in the Sunset Valley clinic, versus 1,394 in Montopolis.

“There’s certainly something going on in this area,” Shenefiel said.

Animal Services staff stressed the need to collect more data to find out what might be causing these trends. Right now the numbers don’t take into account population size, and there may be other causes for the surprising findings. Animal Services hired a data analyst to help tease out some more meaning from the numbers the city is collecting.

“Right now, it’s really difficult to get at some of the relationships in the data,” Shenefiel said.

Photo by 0x010C made available through a Creative Commons license.

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