José Silva and his dog, Pinto, arrived at the St. Mary’s University Bill Greehey Arena at 5:30 a.m. Saturday. Pinto was one of more than 300 animals who would be neutered, vaccinated, and microchipped in the building’s cavernous gymnasium throughout the day as part of SNIPSA’s Big Fix clinic.
Silva and Pinto were first in line, but over the next few hours, hundreds of Westside animal rescuers and pet owners lined up behind the pair. When SNIPSA organizers and volunteers opened the doors to the arena at 7 a.m., the assembled started filing in, bringing with them big dogs on leashes, small dogs swaddled in blankets, mewling kittens wrapped in pillowcases, and cats huddled at the backs of carriers.
The pavement outside the arena was so crowded, in part because the services offered at The Big Fix are entirely free. A standard spay or neuter at a veterinary office can easily cost around $400, but, through a combination of donor money, City grants, and veterinary volunteers, SNIPSA is able to offer thousands of dollars worth of services to local residents free of charge.
The only requirement is that the pet owner must live in one of the city’s nearly two dozen target zip codes, and that the animal must get spayed or neutered — coming just for the vaccinations or the microchip is not allowed.
The St. Mary’s event is one of five or six Big Fixes set up by SNIPSA each year, all in different underserved San Antonio communities. Since its inception in 2009, The Big Fix program has hosted more than 50 clinics like Saturday’s and has spayed or neutered more than 8,500 animals.
Silva said he’s getting Pinto neutered so that he won’t chase the female dogs in their neighborhood.
“It was about time for me to do it, so he’ll stay away from all of those girls,” Silva said. “I want everybody to be safe. Not too many kiddie-dogs around.”
Many of the pet owners in line, most of whom live on the Westside, echoed Silva’s concern about producing more litters in an area of town that’s already filled to the brink with animals. Stray dogs and cats are a constant fact of life in the area and free-roaming animals, which are animals that have a home but are let loose to patrol the neighborhood, can also cause problems.
Aurora Garcia brought in one feral cat from her neighborhood and another free-roaming dog, who she calls Annie Lou. Garcia said Annie Lou is owned by an elderly neighbor who lets her wander the streets. She’s not sure if Annie Lou is regularly fed, so she tries to give her food sometimes. Last night, she gave Annie Lou a bath and put her in her backyard for the night.
“The thing is, I have to do it behind my husband’s back,” Garcia said with a laugh. “My husband’s not an animal lover. Of course, I left early this morning so he never knew I had the dog.”
Garcia signed in Annie Lou and the cat at the registration table and both animals were taken by a volunteer to the gymnasium to get their surgery and shots. Later in the afternoon, once they woke up from the anesthesia, the clinic would call Garcia to pick them up and they would return home.
“(I’ll take) care of her for a couple of days, and then I’ll just set her (back at the house),” Garcia said. “Cause she’s used to that house where she lives. And that old lady needs help too, you know?”
A lot of the people in line Saturday had stories like this — they brought in multiple animals from their neighborhood that needed medical care, or came with friends and family members who were getting a pet altered for the first time.
SNIPSA appreciates this somewhat ad-hoc approach. Oftentimes, clinics like this are the only way underserved communities can get pets altered. Organizers like Adoption/Foster coordinator Jeni Smith recognize that it takes a village to do this kind of work.
“These events are so important in not just trying to reach a no-kill status in San Antonio, but to maintain it,” Smith said. “The only way we’re ever going to be able to maintain it is if people start to spay and neuter their pets.”
SNIPSA got its start in 2004, Smith said, after a series of explosive articles published by the San Antonio Express-News described in disturbing detail how many San Antonio animals were killed via gas chamber in the city. That year, the number was nearly 50,000, more per capita than any other major U.S. city.
Though part of SNIPSA’s work is fostering and adoption, which helps stem the immediate flow of animals to the euthanasia building at Animal Care Services where dogs and cats are now more humanely injected with life-ending drugs, The Big Fix is their effort to reduce the overpopulation that leads to high euthanasia rates.
According to Smith, SNIPSA founders asked themselves what barriers were in place for people to get their pets spayed and neutered.
“Cost,” first of all, Smith said. Next, “Being able to get to a vet clinic during the week when you have a job, (and) transportation to the vet clinic.”
Their solution: a mobile surgery unit that goes to high-need areas of San Antonio on weekends, plus a program that actively seeks out spay/neuter candidates.
“We’re very grassroots,” Smith said in a rare free moment during the day. “So we block walk. We go into the neighborhoods around the community centers where we’re doing the event, and knock on people’s doors, and put flyers on their doors, and say ‘Can we sign you up? Do you have neighbors that we could help? Can we pass this along to your neighbor?’”
It takes hundreds of people — both community members and SNIPSA block walkers — to get animals in need to The Big Fix. But, as is clear from watching SNIPSA at work, it takes nearly as many to care for them when they get there. Between 150 and 200 volunteers cycle in throughout a Big Fix day, which can go from before dawn to 2 or 3 a.m, Smith said.
There are the volunteers at the front who help pet owners fill out paperwork, keep track of which animals have shown up for their appointments, check in on no-shows, and call people on the waiting list when there are spots free. Then there are transport teams, who walk dogs and move crates of kittens through a tarp-covered hallway into the brightly lit gym.
Once in the gym, the animals are weighed by another team of volunteers and loaded into crates according to size, where they’ll wait to be anesthetized, vaccinated, microchipped, and prepped for surgery by veterinary technicians who man a row of metal tables along the back wall of the gym.
Next, of course, comes the real big fix, and volunteer veterinarians perform the surgeries. The procedures can take as little as three minutes for a male cat and as much as 20 minutes for a female dog.
Dr. Todd Cochran, a veterinary volunteer, said that she was at the event partly for selfish reasons.
“I really love doing surgery,” she said. “The other thing is just to have these animals spayed and neutered so there’s less population. A lot of these dogs probably will never see a vet again, but at least now they’ve had some vaccinations, they’re not going to have health issues from being left intact, (and) they’re not going to have litters.”
Once the patients leave the surgery area, they’re carried to a patch of floor covered in blankets, where yet another set of volunteers sit with them as they regain consciousness, and monitor them for any signs of distress.
Angelica Flores is one of those volunteers. She works with an organization called Kym’s Kids of San Antonio, which helps students earn scholarships through volunteer efforts.
Flores sat cross-legged next to her charge, a husky puppy named Slushy, stroking her fur and cooing at her as the drugs slowly wore off.
“They’re just helpless,” she said. “It feels good though, because they’re so dependent on you right now, and you just need to nurse them back.”
After a few hours, Slushy and her brother Bob, a boxer puppy who also got neutered Saturday, headed home, along with the SNIPSA staff and volunteers, and all of the equipment they brought with them.
Thanks to their volunteerism and work, more than 300 dogs and cats from the Westside of San Antonio will be healthier, their owners and neighbors will be relieved of the burden of endless litters, and the city will be a little bit closer to 100% no-kill status.
Top image: Miranda (Mimi, for short), checked in with a cat, Maddie, and dog, Dutchess. Her grandmother, Sharada Sanchez, helps her friends and neighbors in Sky Harbor, a Southwest side community, get their animals spayed and neutered through free programs like The Big Fix. Photo by Abbey Francis.