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Erin Richards talks Friday about the MnSNAP Spay Neuter Assistance Program's mobile surgery van, which was at the Hawk Creek Animal Shelter in Willmar. Tribune photos by Ron Adams

Mobile, low-cost spay-neuter service meets a need for many pet owners

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WILLMAR -- The patient was anesthetized, limbs lolling as Erin Richards and Lindsay Liles carried her to the back of the RV and hoisted her onto the surgery table.

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Dr. Kim Culbertson was ready and waiting to make a swift cut into the dog's abdomen with her scalpel.

By the end of the day Friday, the team with the Minnesota Spay Neuter Assistance Program had completed surgery on some 30 cats and dogs and sent them home with their owners.

One pet at a time, the mobile service is working to reduce animal overpopulation in Minnesota through low-cost spaying and neutering.

"It benefits the animal and it benefits the client and it benefits the community," Culbertson said.

For most of Friday, MnSNAP's big white RV was parked outside the Hawk Creek Animal Shelter.

Inside the veterinary clinic-on-wheels, Culbertson cut and stitched while animals waited their turn in kennels lining the aisle. Richards and Liles moved steadily back and forth, fetching supplies, prepping the next doggy patient and monitoring animals recovering from surgery

The low-cost service for the public is something that has been needed locally for a long time, said Bobbie Bauman, director of operations at the Hawk Creek Animal Shelter.

The shelter constantly gets calls from pet owners looking for help with affordable spaying and neutering, she said.

Local assistance isn't entirely absent. The Humane Society of Kandiyohi County offers a small subsidy for spay-neuter surgery when funds are available. Eight area veterinary clinics also joined the national Spay Day USA promotion this past week, providing spay-neuter surgery at a discount.

But there's still significant demand, and once the word went out that MnSNAP was coming to Willmar for a day, appointments filled up rapidly. "The low cost is a wonderful help," Bauman said. "People were really grateful it was being offered."

Lack of access to low-cost spaying and neutering isn't just an issue for pet owners. It's an issue for shelters too because that's where surplus companion animals usually end up. Although many get adopted, thousands are euthanized each year for lack of space and resources.

"No one knows for sure how many animals are killed in Minnesota from homelessness," said Culbertson, one of the founders of MnSNAP. But one study estimated that 20,000 unwanted cats and dogs are euthanized annually in the Twin Cities alone, she said.

Another telling statistic: Low-income pet owners have the lowest rate of spaying and neutering their animal companions and the highest rate of surrendering their pet to a shelter.

"Cost is the No. 1 reason why people won't have their pets spayed and neutered," Culbertson said.

Other barriers are lack of transportation and a shortage of veterinary clinics.

MnSNAP fills this gap by bringing its mobile service to low-income neighborhoods and animal rescue organizations. A team of a licensed veterinarian and three veterinary technicians is on the road five days a week; a second team is being established so that MnSNAP can expand its service to weekends too.

Although the RV mostly travels to sites in the Twin Cities, "we will go wherever the need is," Culbertson said.

The vast majority of the clients, who must be income-eligible in order to qualify for the service, don't otherwise go to a veterinarian, she said.

JoAnn Schoonover packed Misty, her rat terrier, into her car Friday morning and drove more than 30 miles from Cosmos to Willmar to have her dog spayed by MnSNAP.

Schoonover loves her dog -- "She's mama's baby" -- but is unemployed and on Social Security disability. A spay surgery at a veterinary clinic would have cost $160, she said. "I didn't know where it was going to come from."

MnSNAP charges between $40 and $70 per surgery. The Hawk Creek Animal Shelter also used a small matching grant to subsidize part of the cost and lower the price further for individual pet owners.

"What a godsend," Schoonover said as she waited for her dog to come out of surgery.

Bauman said MnSNAP is already scheduled to make a return visit on April 25.

"This is a perfect time of year to do it," she said. "We've got to prevent the spring litters. We struggled so much with kittens and cats last summer."

Culbertson believes the mobile service "absolutely" is meeting a need.

"We were getting inquiries for our service before we even started," she said. "Clients are very grateful to be able to afford to do this. If there's one thing I've learned since starting this, it doesn't matter what a person's income is, she loves her pet. Now we're able to help them keep their pets at home."

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Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at http://healthbeat.areavoices.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

(320) 235-1150
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