How Is a Stray Dog Like a Crack Addict?

As we’ve noted before (here and here, e.g.) some interesting e-mail makes its way to the Freakonomics in-box.

The latest was from one Stephanie Downs of MarKomm Consulting, which I thought was worth posting here:

I am involved with Spay/Neuter programs with various organizations, she began, and the mentality is to fix the problem and not the symptom. In the US alone, we kill 5 million domestic pets a year – and as taxpayers we spend $2 Billion rounding them up, housing them, and putting them to sleep. We offer no free spay/neuter options and even the low cost options are more than people who can’t pay their utility bills are going to spend. My idea is to provide the surgery for free AND bribe people – be it cash, $50 in PetCo certificates, beer, whatever it takes.

I found your story about the [Israeli] daycares very interesting. I want to do the research upfront on what will motivate people instead of spending years finding the right formula. I believe this is a problem we can solve in my lifetime – but what we are doing now is failing miserably.

I wrote back with a few questions (e.g., where did that $2 billion figure come from) and some comments, including these:

The beauty of this campaign is that most people you need to appeal to are already in your camp — i.e., they are pet owners and therefore, presumably, pet lovers. So you can appeal very much to their sense of empathy. I’m thinking of the recent TV commercial showing a baby in a car seat suffocating in the parent/driver’s blown smoke — very powerful in getting someone to not smoke around their kids. Similarly, I’m guessing that the right messages, incentives, and imagery could be really effective in getting people to neuter — i.e., a commercial showing a litter of puppies left by the side of a highway … a bunch of kittens shivering in the cold …. etc. And I like your idea of experimenting with various incentives (positive *and* negative) to fix the problem.

Here, in part, is her reply:

The $2 billion figure came from an American Humane Association report. Below are some stats you might find interesting. I feel fairly comfortable with the numbers as I have seen similar figures in various studies:

+ Two unaltered dogs and all their descendents can produce over 67,000 offspring in just six years.

+ Two unaltered cats and all their descendents can produce over 420,000 offspring in just seven years.

+ Over 5,000,000 cats and dogs are killed in shelters each year. That’s one about every six and one half seconds. (equivalent of the holocaust every year!)

+ It costs U.S. taxpayers an estimated $2 billion each year to round up, house, kill, and dispose of homeless animals.

+ Tens of millions of stray and feral cats struggle to survive on their own outdoors. They reproduce at will and many suffer from illness or injury before dying.

I am guessing some of this is pure hyperbole — tens of millions of stray and feral cats? (Let’s take “tens of millions” to mean thirty million. That’s one stray cat for every ten Americans. That means that in New York City, which has about eight million people, there should be 800,000 stray cats roaming around. There aren’t. Even the New York Feral Cat Council puts the number in the “tens of thousands.”) And the Holocaust reference is, to my mind, neither useful nor dignified. Still, I was interested to hear the rest of what she had to write:


+The TOP reason both cat & dog owners give for not having their pet altered is that they simply have not bothered to do it yet.

+ And – most men I have spoken with think it is cruel to neuter male dogs. I spent 5 weeks last year in the Virgin Islands researching some concepts and heard this from everyone I talked to that they thought having an animal fixed was cruel. This is a place where you see strays running everywhere and dead animals on the road – yet they don’t seem to see that as cruel.

+ However, when I asked if $20 would change their mind they all became less concerned about being cruel Free surgeries would not cause them to take an action – but it appears a bribe would (from my rough research, the main offenders of producing unwanted litters are low income).

+ I was working on this in St. Croix because I want to test the bribing theory in a controlled environment so I can gather more accurate data. In a place like Colorado, we get animals shipped to our shelters from neighboring states so it would be hard to truly measure the impact. St. Croix has a population of 50,000 people and their shelter euthanizes 5000 animals a year. If we could, for example, cut this number in half in a few years, we could show it works.

And then here’s where it gets really interesting:

The idea behind paying people came from an organization I read about called CRACK [Children Requiring a Caring Community]. This organization pays crack addicts to get sterilized.

I’d never heard of this organization. Here’s a recent news article about it.

I am very eager to see how Stephanie’s project works out, to see what blend of incentives she can come up with to address the pet overload. I am also very eager to see what happens if and when CRACK (or, as it seems to be more officially called, Project Prevention) gets some traction. I am guessing that a lot of people who like the idea of paying to have pets sterilized will be horrified with the idea of using the same tactic on humans.


What I like most about Stephanie is her ability to think outside the norm. Instead of sitting around theorizing about what could happen, she is out there doing something about it. In addition, her cause is extremely worthwhile and one that has been ignored for far too long. She is the type of person that makes things happen. Good work, Stephanie.


"Two unaltered cats and all their descendents can produce over 420,000 offspring in just seven years."

So with "tens of millions" (30 million) stray and feral cats on the street, we run the risk of having 6,300,000,000,000 cats in seven years.

With the more realistic 10,000 cats, that still means that we can have 2,100,000 cats in seven years in New York City.

With all those cats, why is there still a rat problem?



So if I get two cats and wait seven years she'll pay me $8.4M? Sounds good to me, where do I sign up?

I'd expect a lot of the strays to be in rural areas, where they might outnumber people, rather than in New York.

John S.

CRACK is a pretty scary organization. There's probably a big lawsuit in their future too, especially given the funding from "deep pocket" characters like Richard Scaife. All that is required is a woman who agreed to be sterilized, and can later claim that she was not in her right mind when she signed the release. Smoking crack is pretty much synonymous with not being in your right mind.

A quote from the article: "She creates the mythology that if you could just get a certain group of people to stop procreating, some social and economic problems would go away." What is your opininion Dr. Levitt? Myth or reality?


Edward Glaeser of Harvard, wrote an interesting essay on choice, endogenous faults in cognition and soft vice hard paternalism.


"Children Requiring a Caring Kommunity?" If the whole pseudo-eugenics thing doesn't work out for them, they can always refocus and become advocates for spelling reform.

You know, I have three kids, and I've been thinking of ending the production, so to speak. If I pretend to be a crack addict, can I get $300 and a free medical procedure? Is it just a matter of inking up my arms a bit, or do I have to fail a drug test before they'll shell out?


Horrified with the Idea of Sterilizing Humans!!!!!!!

Perhaps you would have never heard about India and the fact that we have 1 billion population. We do the sterilization thing on a regular basis. There are people acting much like insurance agents trying to convince pergnant mother's to sterilize themselves after their second child's birth. And there are million dollar TV ads asking men with two children to sterilize themselves.

Many jokes in the Indian Movies were be about comedians accidentally getting sterilized or people being bribed with a bag of rice to sterilize themselves. Perhaps you should look at the incentives for this.

I should mention that its not state sponsored as in China and people have to sign a declaration before getting sterilized and its an honourable thing if you already have two kids.


Instead of offering incentives to people (either financial or otherwise) for having their pets spayed or neutered would do you think the effect would be on the overall animal population if it became law for people to have their pets spayed or neutered? Just think if the government (either state or local) passed a law saying that you would be subject to a fine for "X" amount of dollars for every pet you owned that was not spayed or neutered after if reached a specific age. And if you wanted to breed your pets you have to obtain a license (for a fee) allowing you to do so.

Do you think that a law like or similar to this would have a better effect then an incentive program at lowing the population of stray cats and dogs? I think it would be interesting if one community made it a law for people to have their pets spayed or neutered while another community, with roughly the same number of people and pets, had an incentive program for people to spay or neuter their pets.

Which would people respond more to: an incentive based program or a law and which would have the greater impact on the population of stray cats and dog?



Hmm, if you passed such a law, then openly selling/giving-away puppies or kittens would get you caught. So, I guess those people would just dump them on the side of the road, creating yet more strays (or dead animals). Laws like this do not tend to work, since it is hard to monitor. Forcing vetinarians to be police does not work well and likely would mean more people would not take their animals in.

Incentives can work if the value of the incentive is higher than the "moral" or other objections. I suspect that the objections are probably low value in most cultures/communities, other than those with fighting dogs.


As the Travis comment goes, doesn't the Coase theorem apply? Just eliminate the transaction costs!

As the program goes, I'll definitely keep a breeding pair or two of pets around to keep those neutering bribes coming in!


In response to comment #8, I'm wary of the effectiveness of that kind of program. Two examples:
1. Canadian Gun Registry
2. Dog Licenses
Therefore my money is on the incentives, providing the $ (or whatever) is high enough (the gun by-back program was met with limited success, I think for this reason).
It would be great if Stephanie's program works. There are huge problems with abandoned pets in parts of Europe. Sorry for there stereotype, but the best example I can think of came from CBC radio (yes, I am a canadian) describing how gypsies in parts of Eastern Europe take the litters of their unfixed pets to market. The ones not sold are adandoned.
A thing I noticed on CRACK. Detractors of the program worry about racism (read: poor women of colour) in defence the woman says she has adopted black babies. Is that really a defence? Instead it rather highlights poor women of colour as crack addicts. However, from a "freakonomics" view, if statistically more women of colour use crack than that isn't racist, it's numbers.



Sounds like an interesting twist... if you like the idea of aligning incentives of n'er do wells check out Seattle's Bunks for Drunks initiative... Similar to pulling unwanted pets off the streets, except they're unwanted drunks that may or may not cost taxpayers more off the street than on it.


In further response to comment #8, and the reply in #11; analogies are unnecessary. Such ordinances exist in many cities.


I recently discovered that there is forced sterilization that has been practiced in this country. The Supreme Court ruled it constitutional back before the great proliferation of birth control. But it has been practiced more recently as well.

I have no moral issue with forced sterilization. If it were up to me a teenager would get the depoprevara shot at 14 until they get older.

Perhaps a little hyperbole but there is no doubt that teenage pregnancy is a vicious cycle that costs our country billions in the related phenomena.

As a former addict I have no problem sterilizing crack addicts, I applaud this organization and if they do get clean and stay sober they can adopt a kid who may not have the 50% (usu. .55-.60) chance of inhereting the bundle of genes that leaves a person suseptible to addiction.


As to people abusing the system with animals, that is just a calculated overhead cost, just like minor shoplifting at stores. You can tolerate a few abusers if the overall system works.

As to crack addicts (sterilization or birth control), I hate that people always claim something is racist if it happens to (or is assumed to) impact more of one race than another. Should we have refused to help Katrina victims as it happened more were black than white?

Similarly, I hate the view that something should not be tried unless it is 100% cure. In spite of the amazing success that the US has had in preventing drug addiction, CRACK seems to want to do this anyway? Or are the detractors saying that they have the cure, but CRACK is stopping them? Small steps more often lead to results than the grand scheme with too many ways to fail.

J. Cross

How about the fact that paying people to get sterilized is overwhelmingly creepy? Should be illegal just as selling body parts and prostitution are illegal, IMO.


I want to thank you all for taking the time to post. Comments such as, "I'll definitely keep a breeding pair or two of pets around to keep those neutering bribes coming in!" are especially facinating as it punches a hole in the concept I had not yet thought about. It is hard to think like the mind of a criminal ;-) However, I refuse to give up!

ATTENTION: If you or anyone you know would be interested in collaborating on this idea, please contact me at In particular, I am looking for someone interested in helping with the study -- maybe a college econ professor looking for an interesting project. I am happy to cover any expenses. Please spread the word! Any help is greatly appreciated. Thanks, Stephanie


I want to thank you all for taking the time to post. Comments such as, "I'll definitely keep a breeding pair or two of pets around to keep those neutering bribes coming in!" are especially facinating as it punches a hole in the concept I had not yet thought about. It is hard to think like the mind of a criminal ;-) However, I refuse to give up!

There is obviously a lot of debate around CRACK. I don't really have an opinion on the organization -- but am just pleased to see someone trying to do something new. As they say, you can not continue to do the same thing and expect a different end result.

ATTENTION: If you or anyone you know would be interested in collaborating on this idea, please contact me at In particular, I am looking for someone interested in helping with the study -- maybe a college econ professor looking for an interesting project. I am happy to cover any expenses. Please spread the word! Any help is greatly appreciated. Thanks, Stephanie



In reply to #8 as well, I am against cash incentives to obey the law.

The 2 biggest contributions to dog overpopulation are the Backyard Breeder (someone who breeds dogs for money, designer breeds, and does not go thru the rigorous confirmation process) and the pet stores.

What I would do is handle this thru the dog licensing process. Charge $5-10/year for the annual license process, but a one time fee of say $500-$1000 for an "unaltered dog" license. That would be a big incentive to spay/neuter for pet owners, and not really that bad dent in the cost for serious show breeders.

How would this be enforced? I would require every veterinarian, pet boarding facility or groomer to check the licenses and report violations or face penalties.

That would be a big incentive to spay/neuter.


Thoughts on preventing abuse of spay/neuter bribery:

- Make sure that the bribe is smaller than the average cost of raising a pet from birth to appropriate spay/neuter age. If you have to spend $50 on dog food to get a $25 bribe and free surgery, the money tree stops flowering.

- Provide the bribe only after a time delay, maybe as a certificate that can't be used until after a given date and only in combination with a particular animal. Not easy to enforce, but it could help raise the carrying cost above the bribe amount.

I don't think the purely legal solution is going to fly; sure, you'll get some people to comply, but most of them are the ones who are already sterilizing their pets by choice. (Able to afford the operation, aware of the negative consequences of fertile pets, etc.) The bribery plan has a good chance to reach the remainder of the pet-owning population.

Good luck, Stephanie!