Spaying and neutering your pet -- it's a costly, but necessary, procedure for most new pet owners who don't want to deal with their cats or dogs getting pregnant unexpectedly.
But as veterinarians are becoming more and more scarce, animal shelters in the Tri-Valley and across the U.S. are experiencing a real crisis with too many animals in their facilities.
According to Shelter Animals Count, a national database of sheltered animals, 4% more animals entered into shelters in 2022 compared to those that left. This is up from 2% in 2021 making it the largest gap in the past four years.
While some might think the simple solution would be to just get these animals adopted, that can't happen effectively if those animals are not spayed and neutered.
"During COVID, the government asked us to stop doing elective surgeries, which is what spay and neuter falls under. And so right now they're estimating that we're three million spay and neuter surgeries behind," Melanie Sadek, president of the Valley Humane Society, told the Weekly. "So when that happens, you have a backlog now of adoptable animals that can't get placed because we can't adopt them until they're fixed."
"The end result of that is public shelters that are totally overwhelmed and impacted," Sadek added. "Their population is going up, rescue transfers out of those shelters are way down and there's just not even enough adoptions to be able to move everybody through ... there's not enough spay and neuter appointments."
That's why in order to provide what she described as an essential service to the thousands of homeless pets in need of not just spay or neuter surgery, but medical operations in general, Valley Humane Society created its new Phil Scholz Veterinary Surgery Center.
Named after Phil Scholz, a Pleasanton resident and pet lover who died in January 2014 while rescuing a man from the Santa Clara rail tracks during his commute home, the center on the edge of downtown Pleasanton is now mostly operational as it is helping alleviate the backlog of rescue and shelter pets that need surgeries.
"The serious shortage of surgery appointments affecting our industry limits how many animals rescue groups can help," Jill Tucker, CEO of California Animal Welfare Association, said in a press release from the organization. "The state of California requires animal shelters and rescues to spay or neuter all animals before adopting them, but if we can't get them fixed, we can't send them home."
Located in a renovated building on Spring Street, the center is fully equipped with new examining rooms, administrative offices, state-of-the-art operating tables and an X-ray room that alone cost $50,000.
The project, which cost $1.9 million, was mostly funded by Nvidia, the American multinational technology company where Scholz used to work. Sadek said the company donated $650,000 to her organization, which was one of the reasons the facility was named after him.
During a walkthrough of the newly opened center, Sadek said that while the center has been fixing pets from the Valley Humane Society since Feb. 2, it won't become fully operational until the organization raises the final $150,000 to bring the elements to fruition.
She said that the nonprofit still needs that money to complete the last couple of construction projects and to pay off some of the equipment such as the X-ray machine.
Sadek added that the center is still operating off a temporary use permit from the city until it can finish certain accessibility design updates.
"This building was built in 1950," she said. "We were the first ones to pull permits, which meant there were lots of things that needed to be changed."
"This building was never ADA-modified ... So 22% of our budget is just on ADA changes," she added. "That's making the bathrooms larger; we had to cut a hole (in the wall) so that people had access to an ADA restroom ... It's just this vast amount of changes."
And while Sadek said these improvements are necessary to have a safe, accessible building, the organization is now looking to the public to donate money for the last phase of construction.
"We're trying to bridge the fundraising gap of $150,000," Sadek said. "So we've already raised over $1.7 million but the campaign is costing $1.9 million .... so we're reaching out to the community asking them to help us."
She said if everything goes smoothly and they can raise the funds in time, the center will be fully operational by May.
With that, she said, comes the opportunity for the public to sign up for one-time surgeries for their pets.
Even though the center will not act as a full-service hospital and will not offer emergency services, Sadek said people from around the Tri-Valley will still be able to get their pets fixed.
"We anticipate our clients will maintain relationships with their existing veterinarians for routine pet wellness care and diagnostic services," surgery center manager Tracie Cota said in the press release.
While the overall cost of services will be somewhat reduced, payment options will be available if needed. Specialty procedures will also be available for clients who have a veterinary referral system if costs become a problem.
Sadek said that will specifically help reduce the amount of animals that end up in shelters due to owners who can't afford to spend thousands of dollars on surgeries for their pets.
"If you can't afford (the surgery), then those vets are in this really difficult situation," Sadek said. "What ends up happening is either we have economic euthanasia -- which is euthanasia due to finances, which no vet wants to do, especially if it's a treatable animal -- or the animal ends up getting surrendered to a shelter."
She said that the idea is to create a veterinary referral program at the center so that they can partner up with local vets who will send their patients to the surgery center for specific emergency operations.
"What we see is tons of animals coming into the Valley Humane that have treatable medical conditions that are surgery related, and probably had a wonderful home but they couldn't keep the animal because they couldn't afford to give the animal what they needed," Sadek said, adding:
"So what we're hoping to do is create a referral program where that primary veterinarian can say, 'Hey, I know that you can't afford this, I don't want you to give up your pet, I don't want to have to euthanize your animal, I'm going to refer you to Valley Humane Surgery Center.' They'll give us all the prep for the surgery, the animal will come in, we'll do the surgery and all the post-op care will happen at their own private veterinarian."
Sadek said the public can visit valleyhumane.org to find the link to donate to help fund the center's final phase.