Can’t quit caring

Rosie, the 4-year-old German shepherd, snoozed after a spay operation — a resting reminder of why Dr. Marianne Fairchild started a new business when many people in her position would be thinking about retirement.

As a veterinarian at East Baton Rouge Parish’s animal shelter for 13 years, Fairchild said she saw dogs similar to Rosie — a foster dog in need of a permanent home — come in and never leave.

At 55, Fairchild could have retired after leaving work as a shelter veterinarian. Instead she opened a clinic that focuses entirely on low-cost spaying and neutering of dogs and cats in hopes, she said, of lowering the number of animals that die in shelters.

“Working at the shelter for 13 years wasn’t making a dent in all the animals that come in,” Fairchild said. “Every day it would increase. The only way we’re going to decrease the number of animals coming into the shelter is to spay and neuter. That’s the only way.”

In the past few years veterinarians and animal lovers have begun to focus on ways to lower the population of unwanted pets, with most of them agreeing that spaying female cats and dogs and neutering males is the only way.

Fairchild and some other clinics and nonprofit groups in the Baton Rouge area now focus exclusively on spaying and neutering animals at low costs in hopes of decreasing the number of animals entering shelters.

Baton Rouge Spay/Neuter, a nonprofit clinic at 7807 Greenwell Springs Road, started three years ago on the back side of Associated Veterinary Services and has operated on 18,000 animals since then, according to chairman of the board Dr. Craig Alberty. They spay dogs for $85 and neuter them for $45, while they spay cats for $45, and neuter them for $30.

Spay Baton Rouge, a nonprofit that covers most of the cost of spay and neuter operations for low-income pet owners, has fixed 11,000 dogs and cats since 2006, said Sandra Feuer DiTusa, the organization’s executive director.

Fairchild, who has “fixed” 10,000 animals in her career, just opened her clinic, the Spay Spa at 12480 U.S. 190 in Erwinville this fall. She offers dog spay operations from $75 to $95 and neuters for $55 to $65. Cat spays are $40, while neuters are $35.

“That’s one of the top reasons people don’t (spay or neuter), because of the cost,” said Kurt Kieschnick, general manager of Neighborhood Pet Market and the foster owner of Rosie. “Especially where (Fairchild) is, in the rural areas, that’s a breeding ground.”

Fairchild’s clinic is not classified as a nonprofit like Spay Baton Rouge and Baton Rouge Spay/Neuter, but she hasn’t taken a paycheck yet.

“It was kind of a life choice,” she said. “I’m close to retirement, and I can’t believe I’m doing this at my age, so I’m doing it simple.”

In conversation Fairchild rattles off statistics related to pet overpopulation: 8 million dogs and cats enter shelters in the U.S. each year, and 4 million are put down. Euthanasia is the No. 1 killer of dogs and cats, she said.

Pets, which are like members of the family to many Americans, deserve better, Alberty said.

“They just give us a lot,” he said. “I don’t think I could ever pay that back. ... They always are wonderful. They’re happy to see you when you get home. You can tell them anything you want to.”

Dogs, which are able to reproduce two times a year, and cats, which can have three or four litters a year, are capable of exponential growth, Fairchild said.

“This is so amazing to me that if you have a dog or a cat and they have a litter,” Fairchild said, “then if all their offspring have litters, then in five years you’ve got in the tens of thousands of animals.”

The Spay Spa and Baton Rouge Spay/Neuter only offer a few services: spaying and neutering and annual vaccines. Maintaining a bare-bones clinic allows them to keep costs down. While operations pay for the day-to-day costs of running Baton Rouge Spay/Neuter, the clinic opened with new equipment purchased via grants from the PetSmart Foundation and the Humane Society of the United States, Alberty said.

Baton Rouge Spay/Neuter “leases” veterinarians, all of whom work for other clinics, instead of taking volunteer labor.

“The reality is that if you’re trying to maintain surgical standards, it is probably problematic to rely on a volunteer force, so you have to depend on a paid force,” Alberty said. “It’s one thing to do volunteers for certain things, but for surgery, it doesn’t work out well.”

Education about pets is also needed to lower the number of cats and dogs sent to death row, Fairchild said. Some pet owners mistakenly believe they do not have the time, or they think spaying or neutering will change their pets’ personalities. Many others want to breed their pets.

“Everybody thinks their animal is special, and they want to have a litter,” Fairchild said. “They think they can find homes with all their friends and family, and they probably can, but if those animals don’t get spayed or neutered, it’s just a vicious cycle.”

A few pet owners, Alberty said, seem to think that taking away a dog’s reproductive ability is demeaning or sad.

“They identify with their pets,” he said. “The term is anthropomorphism. The reality is the pet could care less. One less thing we’ve got to worry about.”

Some pet owners think that spaying or neutering their pets will change their personalities or make them fat and lazy. Correcting such misunderstandings is crucial for cutting pets’ population growth, Fairchild said.

Also, many pet owners put off spaying and neutering their pets. Dogs and cats can be spayed and neutered at 8 weeks of age, Fairchild said. After performing thousands of pediatric operations on pets, she said she learned that younger dogs and cats recover from the operation much faster than older animals. The operation also can improve behavior in pets.

“A lot of the behavior problems are part of not being spayed and neutered, like roaming, aggression, urinating on things,” she said.

Dogs and cats that face euthanasia kept Fairchild up at night at times when she worked at the shelter. She already has nine dogs and three cats from her career as a shelter veterinarian.

“When you walk through, there are certain dogs that just grab you,” Fairchild said. “I wouldn’t take them home immediately, but they would be things I would lay awake at night and think about. ‘I’ve got to have that dog.’”

If Fairchild has her way, there will be fewer unwanted dogs and cats to keep her awake at night.