Taking it to the Streets
Everyone has seen the stray dogs and cats that call the streets of Houston home. You can’t miss them. They haunt the backs of restaurants and convenience stores asking for handouts. They troll schoolyards hoping for leftovers from a lunchbox or the chance to follow a sympathetic child home. They lie lifeless on the sides of rural streets and busy highways, the products of a losing battle with a machine-driven world. Now a local organization is taking the solution to the streets.
When they see stray animals, most people are haunted by the question, “Where will they end up?”
But at least one Houstonian asked a different question. “How does Houston’s stray animal problem start?” More importantly, he asked, “How can we stop it?” Then he went even further. He came up with the answers.
Sean Hawkins, executive director of the Spay-Neuter Assistance Program (SNAP), started focusing on Houston’s stray animal problem at an age when most of his peers were focusing on homecoming dates and algebra homework.
“When I was about 13 years old, CAP (Citizens for Animal Protection) built their first shelter a few blocks from my parents’ house,” Hawkins says. “From day one, I walked down to help with the critters. Eventually, that included helping to euthanize the animals. There was one weekend when we had to euthanize over 100 puppies and kittens. I remember saying to myself, ‘When I grow up, I’m going to do something to prevent homeless dogs and cats.'”
He was only 15 years old at the time, but his commitment to do something has lasted through the years and made SNAP a true Houston success story.
During his years at Stratford Senior High School and then the University of Houston, Hawkins became increasingly involved in helping the homeless, injured and diseased animals crowding Houston’s hectic streets. Sadly, it was obvious that no matter how hard he and others worked at supporting and operating shelters, they just couldn’t keep up with the number of homeless animals being born.
At the same time that he was attending college and volunteering with animal protection organizations, Hawkins was spending his nights working full-time as an animal health technician at an emergency vet clinic. Here, he mastered the skills of caring for animals before, during and after surgery. He also learned about all that goes into running an animal surgery unit.
In 1989, Hawkins first combined his skills as a nonprofit organizer and animal health professional by working with City of Houston Animal Control to start Houston?s first free spay and neuter clinic. Animal Control provided an empty room. Local clinics donated supplies and pharmaceuticals. Veterinarians volunteered to do surgeries at no charge, and Hawkins called upon his network of animal lovers to staff the office. All pet owners had to do was show financial need, and their animals would be spayed or neutered without their owners having to pay a cent. It didn?t take long for word to get out and clients to show up at the door. But there weren?t as many as there should have been.
“The problem was that the community we were targeting had no way of getting to the clinic,” Hawkins says. “Animals aren’t allowed on public transportation. So even though we were eliminating surgery fees as a barrier, the services still weren’t accessible to the pet owners who really needed them most.”
Because pet owners struggling to make ends meet often can’t afford vet care, low-income neighborhoods often become the breeding ground for future generations of homeless cats and dogs. According to SNAP literature, two breeding cats with all their offspring generate 420,000 cats in just six years, and two breeding dogs with all their offspring produce 67,000 dogs in seven years. Hawkins knew that spaying and neutering pets in low-income neighborhoods would make a huge difference in animal overpopulation. The problem was how to get the animals to the clinic. Or was it?
Like many innovators, Hawkins had his “a-ha” moment in the unlikeliest of places. He didn’t come up with his answer to preventing homeless pets in an association boardroom or even a vet clinic. It came to him when he was at a football game with his partner Jay Mueller.
“The idea solidified when I was out running around with Jay in some of his work,” Hawkins says. “He was setting up satellite transmissions at sporting events. We’d pull up at a stadium or a football field in this truck and have the entire video production facility in the back.
“It was at one of those setups that it hit me. If they can do all that in the back of a truck, why can’t we put a mobile surgery in the back of a truck? Then we wouldn’t have to figure out how to get animals to the clinic – we?d take the clinic to them.”
In 1993, Hawkins got busy making his idea a reality. His first task was to figure out how to pay for a mobile spay/neuter surgery clinic. Like all good nonprofit fundraisers, he started with the people he knew. He remembered meeting Houston Rockets owner Leslie and Nanci Alexander at a CAP fundraiser, and that turned out to be a great place to start. The Alexander Foundation gave SNAP its first check in the form of a $35,000 grant, the amount needed to purchase the basic truck.
Now that Hawkins knew what he wanted to do and had a grant that was going to pay for it, he just had to figure out if it was possible.
“I basically called truck companies and said, ‘This is my idea. Can we make it work?'” he says. “It had never been done before, so nobody knew if it could be done or not.”
General Truck Body, a local Houston company, attacked the project with gusto, and that’s what got them the job. Hawkins says that there was a lot of head scratching at first, but the designers at General Truck Body worked with him and went back and forth with options until they found the right combination. After many meetings, the designers transformed Hawkins’ napkin-scrawled notes into design drawings. They also gave him an estimate of how much it would cost to build it all in the back of a truck. The first mobile animal surgical unit in the world was only another $100,000 away.
Fundraising wasn’t foreign to Hawkins by now. He’d raised money for each of the organizations he’d worked with in the past, and he already had one grant commitment in hand, but now he faced some new obstacles.
“We got a lot of criticism when we were trying to build the first mobile surgery,” Hawkins says. “Some local animal protection leaders and vets said it was unsafe, and that hurt us. There was that fear of the unknown because it hadn?t ever been done before.”
In addition, some private practice vets disapproved of SNAP seeking funding to provide top-quality care for animals in low-income families. They expressed the opinion that people who can’t afford pets shouldn’t have them. Hawkins dismisses this idea as unrealistic. He says that low-income families do have pets regardless of anyone?s opinion of whether they should or not.
“And our taxes pay for it,” he adds. “It costs taxpayers $150 to send out a truck to pick up a stray, shelter it for 72 hours, destroy it and send the body to a landfill. It costs SNAP $60 to spay an animal. Not only is prevention kinder, prevention is cheaper.”
Despite the negativity and disapproval of some, the Hershey Foundation and the Houston Endowment stepped up with the additional funding needed to build the first truck. Hawkins didn’t waste any time putting the money to good use. In 1994, only one year after that ‘a-ha’ moment, the first mobile spay/neuter surgery clinic in the world was operational on Houston’s streets.
The outside of the SNAP mobile surgery doesn’t look much different from any of the thousands of moving vans and cargo trucks on Houston?s highways. It’s just an unassuming box behind an Isuzu cab. But inside that box, all similarities to a moving van disappear. The interior is a cross between a space-shuttle cabin, a medical lab and an operating room. Every surface is gleaming stainless steel. Patients wait and recover in sturdy, built-in cages along one long wall. Along the other long wall, the vet technicians process paperwork and check charts. They make sure patients show proof of need such as food stamps, WIC or Major VA Disability. At the back, kept sterile behind a glass viewing window and more stainless steel, is the state-of-the-art operating room. Everything is precisely placed and sized to make the maximum use of limited space, which means the décor is Spartan, and people are squeezed into tight spaces. But there are no compromises when it comes to patient care.
“We use the same type of gas in our surgeries that they use in human hospitals,” Hawkins says. “Many private (animal) practices didn’t use this gas until recently. Our mobile clinics used it from the beginning, even when it was very expensive, because for our patients, it was the best choice.”
What about those vets and animal protection workers who said the mobile surgery wouldn’t be safe? The standard of care and uncompromising quality evident in the surgery itself has won over even the toughest skeptics. Hawkins says that vets who tour the truck usually walk away in awe after seeing facilities, technology and equipment to match or overshadow that in their own clinics.
While the initial funding paid for the truck to be built, the first year of operating the mobile surgery was one of pinching pennies and funding operations one day at a time. Hawkins, Mueller and a small group of volunteers drove the truck and worked as vet techs without pay. But it still took money to pay vets, buy supplies and maintain the truck.
“Literally, we’d have a garage sale on one weekend to pay a vet to work the next weekend,” he says. “We’d go for a couple of weeks at a time without operating. If we didn?t have the money, we didn?t do it.?
Then, SNAP’s guardian angel made an appearance. His name was Cleveland Amory. The noted humanitarian, founder of the Fund for Animals (FFA) and author was in Houston in 1994 on a book tour for “The Cat Who Came for Christmas.” His publicist needed someone to gather Houston’s animal lovers, and Hawkins got the call.
“When I met him, Amory said he’d heard about the mobile clinic and wanted to see it,” Hawkins says. “We happened to be operating that day, so I drove him out to see it. Then I flew to Dallas with him for the next stage of his book tour, and he offered me a job on the plane.”
As easy as that, Hawkins became the director of spay/neuter services for the FFA. His directive from Amory was to open mobile and stationary SNAP clinics just like the ones in Houston in other cities throughout the nation. Houston was to be the model that animal protection organizations throughout the world would follow, and the FFA would provide the financial backing needed to make it all work.
“We ran very successfully as part of the FFA until 1999,” Hawkins says. “But after Cleveland died in 1998, the board decided to get out of the spay and neuter business. They wanted to refocus on wildlife.”
Since going out on its own in 1999, SNAP has been rebuilding the infrastructure and support system it lost. But the primary focus is on getting money in the door to keep the clinics and surgeries open. So far, Hawkins and his team have been successful. The Houston operations continue to be the model upon which mobile spay/neuter operations around the world are based.
“We’ve worked with organizations in Israel, Hong Kong and Brazil,” Hawkins says. “We even had Russian vets come here to Houston to see how the mobile clinic works.”
SNAP also has been involved in every mobile clinic project developed in the United States since 1995. The expertise developed in Houston has gone into designing the trucks, the programs and the procedures for each of these projects, which now number more than 20 and spread from coast to coast.
“SNAP is Houston homegrown,” Hawkins says. “Because of what we’ve accomplished here, people come to us and either ask our advice on how to duplicate the program in another place or ask us to duplicate the program for them. When people say,” We will give you money to do this in other places,” that’s a great compliment for what we’ve done here in Houston.”
But the best compliment of all is in the number of animals SNAP has kept out of shelters by preventing overpopulation. In the four years that SNAP has been operating mobile surgery clinics, Hawkins says that, the number of animals ending up in shelters across the state of Texas is down by 16 percent. In Houston, that number has gone down by 22 percent.
“SNAP isn’t here to criticize the shelters,” he says. “They’re the real heroes. They take the animals no one else wants and either rehabilitate them or give them death with dignity. But we?d all be thrilled if there were no more need for shelters. That would be the ultimate success.”
Spay-Neuter Assistance Program
PO Box 70286, Houston, TX 77270
Clinic for shots, heartworm testing, etc.:
Houston Wellness Clinic
1801 Durham Drive, Suite 1 at I-10, Houston, TX 77007
Stationary low-cost spay and neuter clinic:
Houston Spay & Neuter Clinic
1603 Shepherd Drive
Houston, TX 77007
by Kelli D. Meyer