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They agreed to stop the carnage if he could come up with a more humane way to address the problem. He knew that spay/neuter was the answer, but he typically performed only four or five sterilizations a month and, given the invasive technique he was using, felt the procedure was very risky for the animal. Today, he does more than 50 procedures a month.

“We just didn’t have any education about sterilizations, so we hardly ever did them,” he writes in an email. “The new technique changed everything radically — it’s much safer and more efficient, and my costs have been reduced by 60 to 80 percent.” Regil reports that the population of stray dogs and cats is considerably diminished in his community, and he hopes to expand the program into neighboring areas.

As important as the spay/neuter program is, it is only part of the McKee model; equally critical is broader community training. As Crawford likes to say, the project “trains vets and people.” For this, McKee brings together various factions — from government officials and local authorities to representatives of nonprofits and business leaders — as well as local vets and educators in a series of meetings to frame animal welfare in terms of public safety, health and economics. Many communities recognize that for many reasons, large populations of abandoned animals are undesirable, and seek to reduce their numbers. But, with few resources and limited knowledge of alternatives, they often resort to mass killings, using cruel methods like poisoning. In the meetings, Vicente explains that culling is both inhumane and ineffective. Killing an area’s stray dogs simply leaves territories open to be claimed by new roamers, and the cycle continues.

Moreover, mass spay/neuter campaigns play an integral role in bringing about noticeable declines in the incidence of rabies.

Once these societal issues have been explained, Vicente reveals the pièce de résistance: not only will his program address animal overpopulation, but it will also provide local vets with a new way to make money. That’s right.

There is now a financial incentive for vets to address the problem of animal overpopulation. To die-hard animal activists everywhere, this amazing development is like hearing a lock’s tumblers fall into place after spending years searching for the right key.

As Crawford and others know, any serious animal-welfare effort must involve spay/neuter. Those procedures can either be done by sending in foreign vets, which is usually an expensive, one-off event, or by using local vets. And here’s where it gets tricky.

Regil, Wilson and other notables aside, most vets don’t choose their profession in order to be agents for social change; they simply want to make a living. The idea of offering low-cost sterilization services has seemed like unaffordable charity as well as a direct threat to their own businesses. Veterinary licensing boards have been known to stop such efforts in their tracks, much to the dismay of the animal-welfare community.

“This is a common barrier, but it’s not insurmountable,” says O’Marr, referring to the standoff between vets and animal-welfare activists. “Rather than pointing fingers at each other and creating a hostile relationship, McKee has been able to get these two groups to the same table.”

A McKee-method spay costs a pet owner as little as $10 to $12 while still earning the vet a profit, which means that a whole new socioeconomic market can now afford to have their animals altered. Moreover, that initial procedure often leads to a long-term relationship between vet and pet owner.

Crawford says that about one-quarter of the people who have had their animals sterilized by a McKee-trained vet return for additional services, such as vaccines and emergency care, and to buy products. In Dr. Rivas’s own practice, for example, he has expanded his regular client base by 900 during the time he has been using the McKee protocol.

This conversion from one-off to regular customer represents another critical element of the McKee approach. When a pet owner — even one who would be considered lax by U.S. standards — makes even a small financial investment in an animal, that animal’s perceived value grows accordingly. And the more valuable the animal becomes, the better he or she will be treated.

Twig Mowatt covered the drug war in Colombia for the New York Times and the Associated Press and now writes about animal issues. She works closely with dog rescue organizations in Puerto Rico and with GREY2K USA. grey2kusa.org

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