Imagine if the York County SPCA found a way to more than double, or even quadruple, the number of animals it could spay and neuter every day. Would that significantly reduce how many homeless pets are euthanized for no other reason than shelter overcrowding?
Executive Director Melissa Smith believes it would, by as much as 75 percent.
With the Emigsville shelter's adoption numbers dropping annually and its euthanasia numbers increasing each year -- from 1,374 in 2007 to 3,144 in 2011 -- the chance to get ahead of the problem has become tantalizingly real for the first time, she said.
Smith said creating a high-quality, high-volume spay/neuter clinic is the long-term solution to shelter overcrowding, feral cat colonies and euthanizing companion animals because the shelter has no space for them.
"We are viewing this as the answer to the heartbreak," she said. "The emotional toll euthanasia takes on the staff is overwhelming."
Pioneers: The York County SPCA has been working with the Asheville, N.C.-based Humane Alliance, which pioneered the high-volume spay/neuter clinic model in 1994 and helped more than 100 shelters across the country start up their own.
Since the clinic opened, western North Carolina has seen a 75 percent reduction in animal euthanasia and a comparable reduction in the number of animals being brought to shelters, according to Smith.
She admits she was very skeptical when she first heard the Humane Alliance could teach York County SPCA veterinarians to do 35 surgeries each day, with the right set-up. Then she and others went to the nonprofit group's North Carolina shelter, as well as to a Delaware shelter, to see how those claims held up.
"We left there in tears," Smith said, relieved at finally finding a way to attack euthanasia by reducing the number of unwanted animals born in the first place, including feral cats.
Studies have shown one female cat and her offspring can produce 420,000 kittens in just seven years, according to Smith, while one female dog and her offspring can reproduce up to 67,000 puppies in six years.
"We need to do something to break this unsustainable cycle," Smith said.
So the York County SPCA is striving to be the first shelter in Pennsylvania to open a Humane Alliance-model spay/neuter clinic.
$1.6M request: On Wednesday morning, Smith will discuss the proposed clinic at the York County commissioners' meeting and ask the county to commit $136,000 a year for 12 years to the shelter.
That pledge would be the collateral needed so the SPCA could secure a 12-year, $1.35 million loan and build the $900,000 high-volume spay/neuter clinic adjacent to its current shelter, Smith said.
The annual county contribution would pay the debt service on the loan and also cover start-up costs and clinic staffing, she said.
Smith said if the clinic becomes a reality, she expects to see a significant reduction in the number of unwanted animals and feral cats within the first couple years.
Smith also predicts shelters in other counties would pay to have their animals fixed at the clinic, meaning the clinic would actually make money for the York County SPCA.
Supportive: President York County Commissioner Steve Chronister said he's supportive of a high-volume spay/neuter clinic. He said he believes it would eventually turn into a revenue stream, meaning the SPCA would no longer need to ask the county taxpayers for financial support.
"We just need to give them that head start," he said.
County administrator Chuck Noll visited a Humane Alliance clinic model and was very impressed, according to Chronister.
"This isn't something we can Band-Aid -- this is something that possibly could be a public health issue, if not controlled," Chronister said.
This year, York County gave a total of $160,000 to the SPCA, with $60,000 of that earmarked for a program to spay and neuter feral cats.
Planned goals: The York County SPCA currently performs about 3,000 spay/neuter surgeries a year. Including procedures done at private veterinary offices that partner with the shelter, the number rises to 5,000 annually, according to Smith.
Smith said if the clinic is built, the goal is to increase spay/neuter surgeries at the shelter to about 8,700 within the first couple years. It's doable with one veterinarian working five days a week and performing 35 surgeries a day, she said.
"We're hoping, down the road, to hire a second veterinarian for the clinic," Smith said. If that happens, the goal is to eventually perform 17,500 procedures a year.
Ready by April? If commissioners approve the SPCA request, the clinic could be operational by April 2013, according to Smith.
"We recognize it's quite an endeavor, but this will be well worth it in the long run for the community, the animals and for our organization," she said. "We desperately want to reduce euthanasia. Other shelters have done that by simply turning animals away, but we know that's not the answer."
Smith said if the plan moves forward, the SPCA will have a significant annual budgetary shortfall to overcome.
"We will focus on specialized fundraising efforts to make up the difference," she said.
"But I think this is something our whole community can stand behind," Smith said. "In one way or another, the animal overpopulation issue affects everyone."
-- Liz Evans Scolforo can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.