Two billion dollars per year. Billion with “b.”

That’s how much money is spent in the United States every year to collect, house, kill and dispose of unwanted pets.

“That’s $40 million per state, per year, that is preventable,” says Ruth Steinberger, founder of Spay FIRST!, a nonprofit pet spay and neuter advocacy program for low income residents in Oklahoma.

Steinberger started her career as a spay/neuter advocate while living in the poverty-stricken Appalachian region of southwest Virginia.

“Where there’s poverty, it becomes very clear that the problems you can prevent with spaying and neutering you cannot solve after the fact with rescue or adoption,” says Steinberger. “Not to suggest we don’t need shelters, but we don’t need them as the first line response.”

In 1999, after years of working in Virginia, Steinberger moved to Oklahoma to begin spay/neuter programs in a state without low-income spay/neuter options. She helped found Oklahoma’s first low-income, high-volume spay/neuter clinic, Spay Oklahoma, and she started Spay FIRST! in 2010.

“What Spay FIRST! does is reach out to places where an organization or people say, ‘We’re ready to make a change on the prevention end,’” says Steinberger. “We work to start programs in underserved areas where residents live in poverty or chronic poverty, far from existing (low-income) clinics.”

One successful Spay FIRST! program is “in-clinic clinics.” These are private practice partnerships around the state where existing veterinary clinics act as high-volume, low-cost spay/neuter clinics for a few hours each week or one day a month. The clinics are able to perform three to four surgeries per hour at low cost to pet owners all while using existing facilities and employees. This model often leads to a profit for the clinic, and most of these in-clinic clinics eventually become self-sustaining.

Spay FIRST! also sponsors mobile clinics that travel to areas in the state that have no local spay/neuter options.

Steinberger’s work has been so successful that she even garnered notice from the World Health Organization.

In September, Steinberger will give a talk at the First International WHO conference on Dog Population Management in England about her work on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Steinberger was asked in 2002 to aid the reservation in starting a spay/neuter program to help decrease the number of strays on the reservation. The stray problem was so dire that the tribe performed yearly dog round-ups and dog kills, and many dogs were dying of starvation or becoming cannibals. As the dog population declined due to the spay/neuter program, life for dogs on the reservation improved. More dog food was being sold on the reservation, and more dogs were being brought in for yearly checkups.

With all the success Steinberger has had, there are still only 10 states in the nation that have accessible spay/neuter programs for people with low incomes. Steinberger hopes to eventually fix that.

“It’s a mission for me because spaying and neutering pets is so doable, it’s so ridiculously doable.”

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