CARLSBAD — When the animal control truck pulled to the side of the road near Puckett Elementary behind a wandering large, black and brown dog, she didn’t run away.
Instead, as Animal Control Officer Jacob Castaneda approached, she almost appeard to be asking for help as she warily approached his outstretched hand.
“She looks lost,” Castaneda said.
The scene plays out several times a day. Day after day and month after month as Carlsbad, and the rest of the state, continues to battle its constant pet overpopulation problem.
The dog was not wearing a collar and her fur was caked with dust.
He loaded her into the van without incident and with the help of a treat, and soon the dog was on her way to Noah’s Ark Animal Shelter.
There she runs the risk of become another statistic in a city where more than three dogs or cats are euthanized every day.
That is a number that animal lovers, shelter officials and pet advocates say cannot go down unless they get much needed help from the state and the community.
The end of the road
Noah’s Ark Shelter has shown significant decreases in euthanasia rates over the past few years, something Shelter Director Angela Cary credited to the spay and neuter certificate program and increased adoption and rescue efforts.
While the euthanasia rates have decreased by nearly half since 2012, the actual number of sometimes perfectly healthy animals that are killed remains large.
In 2015, 1,141 cats and dogs were put down at the shelter. That was more than three daily.
That number was 2,823 in 2012.
On a state level, Chief Program and Policy Office Laura Bonar with Animal Protection of New Mexico said 135,000 dogs, cats, puppies and kittens are taken into shelters every year.
Of those, more than 65,000 are euthanized.
Out of the dogs received at Noah’s Ark, Cary said most are pit bull and Chihuahua mixes, common throughout the state.
“There’s not been a single year that pit bull is not at the very top of the list and generally, Chihuahua is number two,” she said. “Those dogs are also hard to place into rescues, because they’re full of the exact same thing.”
Cary said she is glad at the progress the shelter has made in lowering it’s euthanasia rates, however, she is unsure of how much more they can do for the pets of Carlsbad.
“It seems as though we are almost at that plateau point where the shelter cannot do much more,” Cary said.
She said it seems many people remain uneducated or indifferent about spaying and neutering animals.
The public’s interest in the shelter’s spay/neuter certificate program, which started in 2001, has waned with fewer of the available certificates being claimed, Cary said.
“We were hoping that by this point, if the demand for certificates was going down, the number of animals coming into the shelter would also be lower,” she said. “Or, at the very least, you’d have a much higher percentage of ones coming in that were spayed or neutered. We really haven’t seen that.”
That program offers the surgery at no cost to pet owners.
One of the initiatives the shelter is taking is to increase the number of animals they spay or neuter before they leave the shelter.
Cary estimated that around 90 percent of the animals are fixed before they are sent to a rescue or adopted, with the help of local veterinarians.
“Unfortunately, a lot of people, even when the cost is paid, they don’t follow through once the animal has left,” she said. “That’s been our main focus for the last couple of years.”
Myths and misconceptions
People choose not to spay or neuter their animals for a variety of reasons, many of which Carlsbad veterinarian Dr. Sammie Uhrig said are simply not true.
“I think there’s a lot of wives tales about pets,” Dr. Uhrig, who has been practicing in Carlsbad for nine years, said.
Uhrig, Cary and animal control officers all mentioned one myth in particular that claims it is healthy for female dogs to have a litter of puppies before getting them spayed.
“It’s really not necessary for a dog to have a litter before she is spayed,” Dr. Uhrig said. “I think if people understood that, that would go a long ways towards overpopulation.”
Dr. Uhrig also said she has heard concerns over personality changes that can occur upon sterilizing male dogs.
“I guess that depends on what personality people are looking for,” she said.
According to a 2001 article in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, intact (unneutered) male dogs account for 70 to 76 percent of reported incidences of dog bites.
In addition, unneutered dogs can show a variety of behaviors including fence jumping and wandering, lunging at passersby and other male dogs, lack of cooperation with people, sexual excitement when petted and marking indoors, according to the American Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Dr. Uhrig said animals that are neutered later in life, after puberty, will have some of those behaviors engrained and they will be difficult to retrain.
“I think it can make a big difference behaviorally if you neuter them,” she said.
She added that those who do want their animal to serve a guard role should still fix their dogs, saying that training and interacting with the dog can make a great, neutered, guard dog.
In addition, research has shown a higher instance of cancers correlating with unsterilized animals.
“A female dog, if she is spayed by six months old, you have reduced her chances of mammary cancer by 90 percent,” she said. “There’s a really high incidence of prostate cancer in unneutered male dogs.”
Of course, there are other reasons that some people decide not to spay or neuter their animals.
For them, puppies and kittens may soon become a part of the picture.
Click around on Facebook for a while, and you’ll be sure to come across someone selling puppies.
“People think they can make some money off of this,” Dr. Uhrig said. “Yeah, you can do that, but what are the consequences? That’s a life.”
Cary said Noah’s Ark routinely takes in unwanted litters or puppies that owners were unable to find homes for.
Dr. Uhrig also reminded those who do choose to breed to take into consideration the mother’s health and well being.
She said pregnant and nursing dogs, like people, need extra nutrition and care. People should also be prepared for the actual birth of the puppies.
“I’ve gotten calls about dogs in labor and they can’t give birth to the puppies on their own. They said they didn’t have the money to take her to the vet for a C-section,” she said. “If you can’t afford to deal with the consequences of a pregnancy or complications of a pregnancy, then you shouldn’t be breeding your dog.”
Statewide, Laura Bonar with Animal Protection of New Mexico said the rural nature of the state means there are simply fewer resources in those areas.
For example, Bonar said there are a few counties in New Mexico that do not have a single veterinarian in them.
“I think it’s a problem of affordability and accessibility,” Bonar said.
The large feral cat population in Carlsbad also remains an issue, even with efforts to curb it.
Carlsbad Animal Control Officer Isaac Florez said while many people may have good intentions, feeding feral cats does not help the problem.
“They’re trying to feed these creatures and care for them and do good, but the way they’re going about it is way, way off,” Florez said. “You can’t just toss a bucketful of cat food onto your patio or in your backyard and say, ‘Oh, I’m helping.'”
Instead, he suggested setting a small amount of food out and pulling it in at night to avoid attracting wildlife and more feral cats.
Cary estimated that of the 1,147 cats taken into the shelter in 2015, 250 of them were considered feral. Aside from a small number of them that are given to people with enclosed barns to be used as pest control, those animals are euthanized.
Only 20 non-feral cats were claimed by their owners during 2015, compared with 746 dogs.
“A lot of the time, people do not look for their cats when they’re lost,” Cary said.
She also said cats are far less likely to be micro-chipped or have a collar and tags.
Cary did say the Feral Cat Program, which captures, sterilizes and provides rabies vaccines for feral cats before they are released, has had a positive impact on population control.
A day in Carlsbad where no animals are put down will not come without the support of the community, officials said.
Animal Control Officer Castaneda makes it a point during his work day to connect with community members, especially children, to try to educate them about being good pet owners.
“I do what I can to make a huge impact any time I speak to a juvenile,” he said.
Tuesday morning, he said he followed a Chihuahua running in the street to a home.
Upon knocking on the door, he found that the homeowners had just moved into the house and it appeared the dog had been left behind by its previous owners.
After speaking with a woman for a while, a small boy joined them.
“I asked this little boy, ‘Do you want mommy to keep the dog?’ And he looked at his mom and said, ‘Yeah, I want the dog,'” Castaneda said. “I told him he was going to have to be responsible and make sure the dog doesn’t get out anymore. Having a pet is a big responsibility.”
He said he believes animal control officers going into schools and teaching future pet owners about what’s expected of them might make a difference, something Cary agreed with.
“Sometimes if you can get to the children, that’s who’s going to grow up and be our next generation of animal parents,” Cary said. “It’s got to come from a shift in the community: from the way people feel about their animals, the way people treat their animals and take care of their animals.”
At a state level, Bonar said her organization is currently working on legislation to improve the accessibility and affordability of spaying and neutering in the state, something she said legislators are becoming more aware of and receptive to.
“Really, New Mexico needs sustained funding for spaying and neutering,” Bonar said.
An uncertain future
Until those solutions can be finalized, thousands of dogs and cats will go through the same routine as the dog that Castaneda found near Puckett Elementary.
After she was checked for a microchip that she did not have, the dog was given her vaccinations and had her picture snapped, similar to how a person’s mugshot is taken at a jail.
Unlike a human, the dogs picture shows a flicker of hope – hope that maybe some food, water and a loving home waits around the corner.
That flicker is quickly extinguished as she is led to the kennels with her tail tucked and digging her heels in.
Although maybe, at some point in her life, she had a name.
Here, she has no name, just a number.
Until she is reclaimed, adopted or euthanized , she is just dog number 30651420.
Maddy Hayden can be reached at 575-628-5512.
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