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FARMINGTON — A simple medical procedure could save thousands of animals from euthanasia and local governments hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.

City and county government officials, local veterinarians and animal welfare activists hope that a combination of spay/neuter legislation and community education will encourage more pet owners in San Juan County and on the Navajo Nation to spay or neuter their animals. Reducing the area's pet population has long been a critical issue, they say. Overpopulation has led to high euthanasia rates at the Farmington Animal Shelter and skyrocketing costs for local governments.

Farmington's city officials are taking decisive action, including consideration of a low- to no-cost spay/neuter program, but changing the public paradigm on sterilizing pets is likely to remain an uphill battle for the foreseeable future.

Reducing the area's cat and dog population over the long term will require rigourous community education, said Manuel Garcia, a veterinarian at San Juan Veterinary Hospital.

“It's a change of heart,” Garcia said. “Spay and neuter is not going to change people dumping puppies in a trash can.”

Garcia said he encourages people every day to spay or neuter their pets, but that he hears a variety of excuses.

“It crosses socioeconomic lines,” he said. “How do you change that belief? In communities on the East Coast and West Coast, they're doing this. I grew up here, and it has evolved. It has gotten much better. (Dogs) went from the shed to the bed.”

Spaying or neutering is not only about population control, Garcia said.

The procedures significantly reduce a dog's or cat's chances of getting cancer, he said.

But lasting cultural change takes time, he said.

The Farmington City Council will vote on implementing a low-cost spay/neuter program at a meeting that has yet to be scheduled.

Although seven different veterinary hospitals in and around Farmington offer spay/neuter services, cost appears to be an issue for some residents. The average spay/neuter cost at a veterinary hospital in San Juan County is $163, according to a list of prices provided to The Daily Times by the Humane Society of the Four Corners.

Low-cost options averaging just $49 are available through the Aztec Animal Shelter and other locations, according to the list. Cost and accessibility are only part of the issue, Garcia said.

“I applaud the city for doing this, but it takes buy-in,” he said.

Linda Spencer, a veterinary technician with the Farmington Animal Shelter, said any low-cost spay/neuter initiative approved by the Farmington City Council should be targeted at those who truly cannot afford to pay for a spay or neuter procedure at the area's veterinary hospitals.

“If you do everyone it clogs the system,” she said.

San Juan County is also joining in the effort to control the area's pet overpopulation problem. Kim Carpenter, county CEO, said the county's legal department is researching and drafting a spay/neuter ordinance.

“Animal control is our single largest inflationary expense,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter has said the county spends about $800,000 annually on animal control. His effort has even extended to the Navajo Nation to establish an animal control, population management agreement between the county and tribal government.

“We've been talking back and forth with various chapter houses,” Carpenter said. “We've been talking to Shiprock. I've talked to other counties bordering (the reservation), but I have yet to find any standing agreement. We're gathering data. To make a real argument, I have to have quantifiable data.”

However, Carpenter said community education will be just as important as creation and enforcement of a spay/neuter ordinance.

“An ordinance is only as good as what you teach the people,” he said. “There is an educational component.
Veterinary technician assistants Alyssia Henry and Ray Hollett prep a dog to be spayed while Nicole Shevokas, a veterinarian with San Juan Veterinary
Veterinary technician assistants Alyssia Henry and Ray Hollett prep a dog to be spayed while Nicole Shevokas, a veterinarian with San Juan Veterinary Hospital, at center, performs a spay procedure on Thursday at the Farmington Animal Shelter Spay and Neuter Clinic. (Augusta Liddic/The Daily Times)
 It really is a culture change.”

Carmaletha Lee, the senior veterinary technician at the Navajo Nation Veterinary and Livestock Clinic in Shiprock, said educating the reservation's residents on the importance of spay/neuter is a challenge, but people are becoming more receptive.

“We do presentations at community events, but there's only a few that are willing to spay and neuter,” Lee said. “It's a cultural thing. Traditionally, you're not supposed to do anything to the animal. They believe anything you do to the animal will come back to you 10 times as much.”

Nevertheless, a growing number of the reservation's residents are willing to spay or neuter their pets, and the Shiprock clinic offers rates far lower than those of Farmington's veterinarians, she said.

“We charge from $60 to $120, depending of the size and (medical condition) of the pet,” Lee said. “That also includes a health examination. It's affordable, but on the reservation, it's considered expensive. We do have our Navajo Nation mobile (spay/neuter) unit going around.”

The mobile unit offers spay and neuter services for $10 and is in its first year of operation on the reservation, she said. The mobile clinic can operate on between 20 and 30 animals per day, while the Shiprock clinic operates on as few as three or four animals per week.

“We are definitely putting an effort forth,” Lee said. “We're doing a radio campaign, and some humane society chapters contact us about offering free spay and neuter. We post the information and most people are excited. They save the date. We do as much as we can.”

A solution to the area's animal overpopulation problems could take more than disparate efforts spread out across the county, the state and the Navajo Nation. Pet overpopulation crosses regional and cultural boundaries in Northwestern New Mexico.

The McKinley County Humane Society in Gallup has been grappling with animal control issues for years.

“Previously, we were able to go out onto the reservation, but we were told to leave,” said Sandra McKinney, office administrator at the humane society. “That was about 15 years ago. Now we're no longer allowed.”

McKinney said there has been some improvement in education and community willingness to spay or neuter their pets, but that they are combating the culture of machismo.

“Men tend to be less inclined to have their dogs neutered,” she said. “I think in the last few years it's improved, but it is a culture thing. I was told by a Native American man that they feel the dogs are a free spirit and that we shouldn't interfere in that.” The humane society also have a program to transfer its animals across the state line.

“The state of Colorado has very strict spay/neuter laws,” McKinney said. “We have a transport program in Durango that takes (our) animals to Boulder. They have space up there because of their laws. This will require a state-level decision.”

 Greg Yee covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606 and gyee@daily-times.com. Follow him @GYeeDT on Twitter.