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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.