It can be a heartbreaking job running an animal shelter. No one wants to take a pet's life. But it happens.
"We are euthanizing a lot of animals each year solely because there are too many homeless animals coming into shelters and too few homes," says Jim Williams, executive director of Duluth's Animal Allies Humane Society.
The organization's Duluth shelter takes in 2,000 or more dogs and cats a year, but can only find homes for about half of them.
"It's well known that spaying and neutering is the best way to decrease over-population. Decrease the number of animals that are ending up in shelters, and decrease the number of animals that are being euthanized," Williams says.
“We are euthanizing a lot of animals each year solely because there are too many homeless animals coming into shelters and too few homes.”Animal Allies Exec. Dir. Jim Williams
But spaying and neutering is expensive, both for families and for animal shelters. That's where the Animal Allies Neuter Commuter van comes in.
On a sunny autumn afternoon a small recreational vehicle is parked outside a rescue shelter in Superior, Wisconsin. It's the Neuter Commuter, a veterinary M.A.S.H. unit on wheels. It's an animal surgery assembly line that can fix maybe 30 cats and dogs in a given day.
Two veterinary technicians are at work inside, trimming fur and administering anesthetic. Cages keep coming through the door. A small cat protests her haircut. A young brown terrier whimpers in a nearby recovery cage. Dr. Amanda Bruce is doing the surgery.
"I think we run it very efficiently," Bruce says. "We're able to get an animal prepped as one is getting finished with surgery, and so our flow is actually quite excellent."
Animal Allies bought the van from Animal Ark of Hastings, MN. It was used to neuter feral cats.
This clinic on wheels can cut the cost of service to shelters, from maybe $100 an animal or more down to about $30. And organizers say it makes a difference. Over time, shelters have noted a reduction in unwanted pets.
The van helps address pet population region wide. Bruce says the Superior shelter has pets from all over.
"They get animals down from Gordon, Wisconsin," Bruce says. "Our animals are going across the bridge, back and forth from Duluth and Superior. The Fond Du Lac Indian Reservation is flooding the Cloquet Animal Hospital. So the Neuter Commuter is really the first regional program in place that addresses this as a community wide problem."
Neuter Commuter calls on shelters every month in Duluth and Superior, and up to Two Harbors. They plan to expand deeper into Wisconsin, and to Minnesota's Iron Range.
But they'd like to do more. They'd like to fix pets from low income homes. Studies show those households produce the vast majority of unwanted animals. But in Minnesota, this unit can't legally do that, even for free, according to Animal Allies' Jim Williams.
"Unfortunately, Minnesota is one of the only states in the country that has an odd prohibition, that prohibits a humane society from providing veterinary services to privately owned animals," Williams says.
The Minnesota law ensures competent animal medical services, and it protects veterinarian's private practice. But Williams says, for low income pet owners, the law makes little difference. His organization wouldn't be taking any customers from clinics.
"Research shows that around 90 percent of these folks have never used a veterinarian and never will use a veterinarian," Williams says. "These are not folks who otherwise would be going to a clinic."
In the short term, Neuter Commuter may offer spay and neuter service to low income households in Wisconsin, and on Minnesota Indian reservations, which are outside the reach of Minnesota law.
In the long term, they'd like to see the Minnesota restrictions dropped, for the sake of the pets, and the shelters that end up taking them in.