The organization, Saving Animals Volunteer Effort, ferries adopted pets to a low-cost, non-profit clinic in Irondale that performs the spay-and-neuter operations. The Calhoun County effort has been so successful that in 2011, 283 surgeries, nearly one-third of the surgeries done on Calhoun County pets at the clinic, were funded by SAVE. So far this year, thanks to a $10,000 grant from the city of Anniston, the group has paid out more for surgeries in the first three months of the year than it did in all of 2011, said Margaret Hatley, one of the founding members of SAVE.
The clinic, which opened in 2008, has benefited from partnerships with groups like SAVE, said Mark Nelson, executive director of the clinic. It has done more than 40,000 surgeries since it opened, 10,899 in 2011.
“They not only raise money to help low-income households in that area to supplement the price of surgery, they’re very active in educating the public,” Nelson said. “Without their partnership we could not be nearly as effective.”
The partnerships also benefit the communities in which they are based, he said.
“The areas where we have strong partners like SAVE Calhoun County are the areas that are seeing the most dramatic impact as far as the reduction in shelter intake.”
In Anniston that has translated to a 17 percent decrease in intake in Anniston’s animal shelter over the last three years, said Millie Harris, a member of SAVE. She said the Calhoun County animal shelter stopped taking in transfers from Etowah County in the last three years, so those numbers couldn’t be used to track a reduction.
Still, unwanted puppies and kittens are a big problem in Calhoun County.
Donna Roberts, a former vice president of the League for Animal Welfare who helps out at the league’s no-kill shelter, said the problem is pretty bad.
“We get a lot of animals kind of dumped off,” Roberts said. “The mother hasn’t been spayed and they have a litter and sometimes they drop them off at the door. They just leave them and I know that’s happened twice in the last two or three weeks.”
Ninety percent of the animals that go into the county and city shelters come from low-income families, Harris said. Those are the people that are benefiting most from SAVE’s help, she said.
In June 2011, the partnership between SAVE and the clinic was threatened. The clinic received a letter from the Alabama State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, telling it to stop work. The board said the clinic was operating illegally since it wasn’t owned by a licensed veterinarian.
State law, the board said, meant that only a veterinarian could own and operate a clinic performing veterinary medicine. The clinic argued that is a misinterpretation of the law. It has been fighting the shutdown in court.
But state legislators are also trying to fix the problem. Representative Patricia Todd, D-Jefferson, introduced legislation that would add an exemption to the law for charitable organizations that perform only spay-and-neuter surgeries and vaccinations given at the time of surgery. House Bill 156 was passed on Feb. 28 and is now in the Senate Committee for Health waiting for a hearing.
The board couldn’t be reached for comment, but Dr. Tom Nelson, a veterinarian at Animal Medical Center, said he wouldn’t fight the bill or the clinic. However, he thought it was important to point out that the pets wouldn’t be receiving the same level of care as they would from a veterinarian in private practice.
“I just know how much the cost of the materials and stuff are. The only way you can do it for that cheap is to cut corners,” the veterinarian said. “They’re not going to have the same level of equipment, the same level of anesthetics, the same level of support staff.”
The most expensive surgery at the clinic, spaying a female dog, costs $80, said Harris, while veterinarians in private practice can charge $300 for the same service, a figure the veterinarian did not dispute.
Tom Nelson said the veterinarians-only law was put in place to ensure that decisions were made on a medical basis, not a cost basis. If the law were amended, it must still protect the public, he said.
But, said Mark Nelson, in an unexpected way the controversy has done some good. He regularly receives comments of support from people who visit the clinic and many people ask about the status of the legislation, he said.
“I think it has increased awareness of the spay-neuter clinics,” Mark Nelson said. “I think it’s not just the spay-neuter clinics, I think it’s just increased the awareness of how important it is to spay and neuter your pet.”
The local effort began in 2009, when, tired of seeing domestic animals suffer, a number of area residents got together to try to make Calhoun County more pet-friendly. SAVE was formed in September of that year.
“After getting involved in animal rescue, helping at the shelter and getting involved in animal welfare, I saw how many animals are abandoned, neglected, abused and that have to be killed every year,” Hatley said.
The group met the first time in July 2009 with Hatley, Harris, State Sen. Del Marsh and about 75 other concerned residents, many who were involved in other animal welfare groups. They weren’t sure what they could do, but they knew euthanasia wasn’t the answer. As Hatley put it, “you cannot kill your way out of a pet over-population problem.”
Said Harris, “We came together knowing that spaying and neutering is a proactive thing that we can do and it will make a huge, huge difference.”
They talked about possibly creating their own low-cost spay-neuter clinic in Calhoun County, but with the Alabama Spay Neuter Clinic in Birmingham so close, it seemed best to work with it, Harris and Hatley said. The clinic was already offering a low-cost alternative to traditional veterinarians. The group started work immediately and created a partnership with the clinic.
That first year, between September and December, SAVE began meeting a transport taking animals to and from the clinic. It also scraped up enough donations to fund 20 of those surgeries. In 2010, the group was able to fund 164 surgeries.
Star staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545.