Sara Dent is a Tucson attorney and animal advocate. 

Earlier this month I was humbled and honored to be part of a community of volunteers providing free pet surgeries to all comers, at the 48 Hour MASH (Marathon Animal Spay/Neuter Hospital) Clinic. The original goal was to alter 500 animals in that 48 hour period. More than 800 people had signed up their pets, and the final numbers totaled 800 surgeries over the weekend, with vouchers given for 300 more pets to altered for free at a later date.

Pima Animal Care Center, the only open admission shelter in Pima County, is constantly battling an age-old sheltering math problem that open admission shelters across the country face: taking in more animals than they are able to get out alive. Funding for the shelter is a political hot-button issue, as resources are scarce, and some feel other issues should have a higher priority.

One of the simplest ways to reduce high intake numbers, and the volume of companion animals needing homes, is to reduce the numbers accidentally being born. This reduction is accomplished by encouraging people to spay or neuter their pets. There will always be medical exceptions, and people who just don’t want to alter their animal, but this unwilling demographic is not the majority. Studies have shown that people who live at or below the poverty level cannot afford the often high expense of surgery. When services are free and convenient, these people happily comply.

A common suggestion made in effort to accomplish the goal of reducing the volume of shelter intake is to pass mandatory spay/neuter laws, thinking that mandatory compliance is the answer. The desired result is certainly admirable, but the practical application has disastrous results, and is counterproductive in reducing intake.

I frequently argue against any sort of mandatory law for many reasons, not the least of which is that this sort of law penalizes the poor, is costly to enforce, and results in higher relinquishment numbers for the people who can’t afford to be in compliance.

My observations of the folks taking advantage of the opportunity to have their pets altered for free, and some of the conversations had with some of those people, completely validated and reinforced my arguments against a mandatory law and how punitive it is in practice.

These members of our community who took advantage of free spay/neuter service were absolutely willing! Some were desperate, some thankful, and some brought multiple pets to get altered. Most all people were so amazing and patient, and despite some pretty high wait times for surgery and recovery, these people were grateful.

One couple who had dropped off their cat about 10 p.m. on Saturday night, came back about an hour later, with two full carriers of large coffees, with creams, sugars and doughnuts — a small token of gratitude for this free service — for the full vet staff and other volunteers working away throughout the night.

Several people came with their children, making attendance a major event in that family’s life. For many of these families this was an incredible teaching moment, not only about the importance of responsible pet ownership, but also about the value of community service to others less fortunate, and that kindness and generosity benefit everyone.

Experiencing this event firsthand completely validated the importance of supporting and assisting the members of our community who love their pets and want to do the right thing.

Making a mandatory rule that financially penalizes these folks is not the right fix.

Sara Dent is a local attorney and animal advocate. Contact her at saradent1@gmail.com