Aspen nonprofit extends spay-and neuter program to Navajo Nation |

Aspen nonprofit extends spay-and neuter program to Navajo Nation

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Bland Nesbit/Friends of Aspen Animal Shelter
Bland Nesbit courtesy photo

An Aspen-based program to fight overpopulation of dogs and cats has been so successful at home that organizers have decided over the past few years to “spay it forward.”

The Friends of the Aspen Animal Shelter have been helping other parts of Colorado and the West with spay-and-neuter problems since fall 2007. Since then, the nonprofit has funded programs that have “fixed” about 12,500 dogs and cats, according to Seth Sachson, director of the shelter and president of the Friends of the Aspen Animal Shelter board of directors. He coined the term “spay it forward.”

The organization will help with spaying and neutering about 2,000 pets this year alone. The latest success story is on the Navajo Nation in the Four Corners area.

Friends of the Aspen Animal Shelter board member and Executive Birector Anne Gurchick said she and another board member visited a representative of the sovereign Navajo Nation in Window Rock, Ariz. in February and offered funding and expertise for the spay-and-neuter program. The Navajo welcomed the offer as a way to reduce the numbers of unwanted pets. The timing also was good because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had determined that an outbreak of Rocky Mountain spotted fever was affecting the residents of the reservation. It was likely being spread by ticks on free-roaming dogs. Spaying and neutering were seen as ways to reduce the number of dogs and, therefore, reduce the risk of ticks.

So far, there have been seven spay-and-neuter clinics on the reservation, often at isolated chapter houses that serve as a sort of community hall. The Friends of the Aspen Animal Shelter have been providing a mobile lab to undertake the procedures on the vast lands. Typically veterinarians provided by the Friends work with local vets and develop a system on one day and then undertake the procedures on a second day. Friends of the Aspen Animal Shelter board member Scott Dolginow is the managing veterinarian for the program. That system had to be tweaked for work on the reservation because of the vast distances between settlements and the limited amount of vet clinics, Gurchick said.

The program led to 300 pets being spayed or neutered in the Navajo Nation from June 1 through the end of July, Gurchick said. That will likely rise to 500 by the end of the summer. The goal is to return next year and fix another 500 to 1,000 pets, she said.

In addition, the Aspen shelter is saving puppies and abandoned dogs that otherwise would die on the reservation.

“They would give us as many as we would take,” Gurchick said.

Any animal brought to the Aspen shelter first is screened to make sure it is healthy. A veterinarian looks for everything from heartworm to lice.

“We’re not irrational rescuers,” Gurchick said.

The nonprofit’s efforts helped immensely in the Four Corners area. It was targeted for aid because nearly two in three dogs were being euthanized at the animal shelter there because of the sheer numbers, Gurchick said. Cortez had the highest rate of euthanasia in the state three years ago.

The Friends of the Aspen Animal Shelter pay vets in the Cortez area to provide spaying and neutering so that savings get passed on to the pet owners. There still sometimes is a fee based on ability to pay, but it’s marginal. If it weren’t, the program wouldn’t be nearly as successful, Gurchick said.

The local vets benefit because they are getting paid to provide a public service. The pet owners benefit from a reduced price for the procedure. The pets benefit because it reduces overpopulation and makes adoptions for individual pets more likely. The euthanasia rate at the Cortez Animal Shelter has dropped to about 20 percent, according to Gurchick.

The Friends of the Aspen Animal Shelter helped achieve their founding goal when the facility opened in March 2006. The nonprofit turned its focus the following year to spaying and neutering.

“First and foremost, we take care of Pitkin County,” Sachson said. Free services are available to make sure unwanted pets aren’t born. Pet owners in the upper Roaring Fork Valley have responded in overwhelming numbers. Many get their pets spayed or neutered without financial incentive.

The nonprofit expanded its efforts throughout the Roaring Fork Valley and eventually the lower Colorado River Valley. Success has helped it expand the scope of its work. It now helps in pockets around the state and region. Organizers are now hoping to expand services to Lamar and La Junta in southeast Colorado, where there is a problem with pet overpopulation.

The Friends of the Aspen Animal Shelter have an annual budget of around $200,000. Most of expenditures are tied to the spay-and-neuter program.

“Our actions speak loudly,” Sachson said. “We’ve gone from a grassroots group to a well-oiled campaign.”

Saving dogs in areas where the nonprofit works is “the icing on the cake,” he said. So far, the organization has rescued more than 1,700 dogs and cats from death row in other shelters, he said.