When I was a youngster growing up in Napa, California, I begged my parents to let me have a puppy. They finally gave in, and Ginger joined our family. In our part of town, nobody had fenced yards and our dogs happily joined together to play . . . and create puppies. Ginger had two litters before it occurred to my parents to have her spayed. On the one hand, my “Free love, puppy love that is!” ad was my first published piece of writing.
On the other hand, we added 12 more dogs to the community and who knows how many more they produced.
Ginger also found herself in doggy lock-up a couple of times when animal control officers found her off our property. Ultimately, her wandering and car-chasing habits led to her death. In short, we were negligent dog owners and didn’t even realize it.
That was the early 1970s when people were laxer about how they cared for pets. Today, pet laws are stricter and most pet owners are more careful, considering their pets part of the family rather than an alarm system that lives in the backyard. However, Doña Ana County has a serious pet overpopulation problem. Fortunately, people are working hard to address it — but it can’t be done without help from the community.
The Scope of the Problem
I visited with Clint Thacker, executive director of the Animal Services Center of the Mesilla Valley (ASCMV) to get a better idea of what’s going on. The center is the only intake facility for lost and relinquished domestic animals for all of Doña Ana County, which is a whopping 3,814 square miles. He and his staff come face-to-face with the reality of the animal overpopulation issue daily.
During an average year, 9,000 to 10,000 lost and unwanted animals are brought to ASCMV by city and county Animal Control and members of the public — usually 20 to 30 each and every day. On one day in June 2022, 68 were brought in. On another day, 20 dogs were brought in . . . before 9:30 a.m.
The center houses more than 400 animals at any given time and sometimes as many as 500. Let that sink in for a moment: 500 dogs and cats, and the occasional chickens, ducks, rabbits, guinea pigs, and even pet birds and reptiles that are lost (or dumped) or have been relinquished by their owners. Five hundred. Half a thousand.
Every day, the ASCMV team feeds them, cleans their kennels, tends to their medical needs, socializes them, and tries to find them a foster or, even better, a permanent home. Most days, more animals come into the center than leave. Many that do leave go to animal rescue groups that then work to find them forever homes. Some lucky pets are even transported by van or plane to animal rescue groups in communities out of state that want more pets than are available to adopt.
The unlucky are euthanized because they are sick, aren’t suitable for adoption due to safety reasons, and, worst of all, because there’s no place to put them. This happens when an animal has a medical issue for which it needs to be quarantined to prevent the spread of the disease and allow treatment; however, this is not always possible. There is a finite number of kennels and simply not enough space to always be able to quarantine contagious animals.
Pet overpopulation isn’t the only problem, Clint explained. Parts of the county are hotspots for distemper, a potentially fatal and quickly spread disease that is easily prevented by vaccination. Dogs that come in with distemper need to be isolated to keep the disease from spreading to other dogs. To help alleviate the problem, ASCMV operates low-cost vaccination clinics several times a year at Field of Dreams in Las Cruces. Clint says they vaccinate “hundreds and hundreds” of pets at the clinic and that they are seeking grant funding to be able to hold the clinics in other parts of the county.
The root cause of the overpopulation problem is too many dogs and cats have not been spayed or neutered. “Neuter” usually refers to sterilizing a male animal (although it’s a general term as well), and “spay” refers to sterilizing a female animal. Let’s consider a female cat that isn’t spayed. She can have up to three litters per year, with each litter averaging four to six kittens. If none of these cats are sterilized, within their lifetimes the original cat and her offspring can produce up to 40,000 more cats. With a simple surgery, that pattern can change.
One problem is feral or community cats, living free and having kittens.
A solution is TNR, Trap-Neuter-Return, which the City of Las Cruces recently authorized with a revision of the Animals ordinance. With TNR, feral or community cats are trapped, brought to ASCMV, sterilized, microchipped, vaccinated, and then returned to their original location for release. Sterilized cats have their ears “tipped” to make it easy to identify those that have had surgery.
ASCMV is planning a series of community days during which feral or community cats can be brought in and sterilized for only $40 each. For each of these days, up to 50 cats can have surgery on a first-come, first-served basis with each person allowed to bring up to two cats at a time. Follow the ASCMV Facebook page to find out about public TNR days.
One piece of good news? This past year, ASCMV received generous grant funding from both Best Friends Animal Society and Petco Love for an in-house initiative to TNR and spay/neuter 500-plus community and owned cats in discrete geographic locations based on city Animal Control data. At press time, almost 200 cats from these communities have been sterilized.
Of course, it isn’t only feral and community cats and dogs making kittens and puppies. One group of six dogs was recently relinquished to the shelter because, the owner said, “They keep having puppies!” The next week, one of these dogs gave birth to a small litter of two puppies (only one of which survived — puppies and kittens born in any shelter don’t have the best odds of surviving). Having the dogs spayed and neutered would have prevented pregnancies and — perhaps — allowed these pets to stay with their family.
Spay Neuter Action Program (SNAP)
A local nonprofit called Spay Neuter Action Program (SNAP) offers free and low-cost spay and neuter services for low-income families. Thanks to grants, donations, and fundraising efforts, SNAP can provide vouchers for sterilizations to qualifying households for $40 for cats and $60 for dogs. Depending on the availability of funds, a household can have up to six pets qualify for this service.
In July, SNAP announced on its website that they had received a generous grant from the Carroll Petrie Foundation that would allow them to issue many more vouchers for spay/neuter operations. SNAP works with Las Cruces veterinarians, including ASCMV, that accept the vouchers for the surgeries. Learn more about their services at snapnewmexico.org.
ASCMV’s New Building
While having fewer animals coming to ASCMV would be the best outcome, in the meantime, the center is getting closer to opening a new section that will allow for safer, cleaner, and more efficient housing for pets awaiting new homes. The campus will feature four separate pods for dogs, which will make it easier to prevent the spread of disease. In addition, each dog kennel will have both indoor and outdoor areas, so not only can dogs get fresh air at will, but they can be viewed by potential adopters while their kennels are being cleaned. Currently, the shelter is closed in the morning while cleaning takes place. Several outdoor get-acquainted areas are part of the plan, too, which will also give dogs a place to play with volunteers. There will be a new cat condo area in a separate building as well, also double-sided. The current building will be used as offices and for the medical wing.
How to help
Speaking of volunteers, ASCMV has a great need for volunteers to help with a wide range of tasks. In June 2022 alone, volunteers recorded 1,200 hours of service! Dog walkers get dogs out of cramped kennels for some much-needed exercise and socialization. Photographers take pictures of adoptable pets for the center’s website, where they can be seen by potential adopters. Volunteers clean kennels and bathe pets, do laundry, play with cats, help at adoption events, provide transportation to new homes out of the area, and even craft kennel mats for cats. They might keep their eyes open for sales on towels to buy for kennels or shop the ASCMV Amazon Wish List. In short, there’s a volunteer duty for just about anyone! (See more ways you can help here.)
Another important volunteer activity people take on is fostering animals, which gets the pets out of the shelter and into temporary homes. This could include caring for “bottle baby” kittens without moms to nurse them, dogs with heartworm or other illnesses, or animals that are lucky enough to be chosen because they match a foster’s interests, like large dogs — of which there is always a great number at ASCMV. Vanessa Chastain is the ASCMV’s new foster coordinator, and she would be happy to discuss fostering with interested Doña Ana County residents.
What You Can Do
First, remember that adopting a pet is for its lifetime. Next, if you have dogs or cats, make sure they are sterilized, vaccinated, and microchipped so they can be returned to you if found. Unlike a collar and tag (which are also important!), microchips don’t accidentally come off, but they do need to be updated if you move or change your phone number.
If you want to help, there are many ways to do it: donate funds, necessary items, or your time. Foster a pet and help prepare it for a forever home! Help with TNR programs. Get involved with one of the many animal-focused nonprofits in the area. Educate others about the importance of pet sterilization and vaccinations.
Finally, love your pets by doing the right thing — sterilize, vaccinate, and microchip!
Story and photography by Cheryl Fallstead
Originally published in Neighbors magazine.
Posted by LasCruces.com