Long Beach Animal Care Services is catching up on a backlog of unaltered cats, dogs and rabbits that had been adopted through the HomeFirst program at the shelter during the pandemic. Now, several mobile clinics are bolstering the shelter’s effort to get each one of them fixed.

HomeFirst was initially conceived as a foster-to-adopt program. It was initiated in shelters across the country in 2020 as a response to facility overcrowding and a shortage of veterinarians during the COVID-1 pandemic. However, when the emergency situation forced a choice between getting unaltered animals into homes as soon as possible and euthanizing them, LBACS management went with the former and adopted many of them out.

“In our world of sheltering, animals have to leave to make room for other animals, which left a huge problem: how do animals leave adopted if they’re not fixed?” asked LBACS’ interim director, Melanie Wagner. “For all of us in the field at this time, the only solution was to make the choice between spaying and neutering before leaving the facility or euthanasia for space, which really isn’t much of a choice. Obviously, progressive leadership is going to opt for the outcome that saves lives.”

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Wagner said that, although the pandemic has come to an end, the veterinarian shortage has not.

“During the pandemic, access to spay-and-neuter services was, essentially, gone, and for many months, there was little to no access to surgeries,” Wagner said. “After we made it past that fiasco, many veterinarians decided to retire, and the rate at which veterinarians were and are graduating from university did not keep up with that gap. This is still a national problem.”

California Food and Agriculture code 30503 requires spaying or neutering all dogs and cats adopted from shelters and rescues. Although the wording makes it unclear whether pets should be altered before or after adoption, they must be fixed either way, which made for a sticky wicket during the pandemic.

Circumstances may never return to normal, but the Fiscal Year 2024 Adopted Budget has made it possible to catch up with a backlog of unfixed pets who were adopted out or are still inside the shelter. The budget delivered one-time funds of $250,000 to fix about 1,600 unaltered pets adopted through HomeFirst and $150,000 to fix the ones inside the shelter.

Since August 2023, 450 HomeFirst pets have been fixed through low-cost veterinary partners that include Fix Long Beach, CAMP Clinic San Pedro, Primary Care Animal Hospitals and Amazing Small Animal Practice in Gardena. Brent Dennis, director of the Long Beach Department of Parks, Recreation and Marine, said that LBACS expects the backlog to clear in June.

The HomeFirst program itself is scheduled to end this month, which will make LBACS compliant with mandatory spay/neuter, Dennis said. From now on, all pets residing in the shelter will be altered before adoption, including rabbits, which require the skills of veterinarians who specialize in small animals.

“We are legally responsible for fixing cats and dogs before they leave, but we are ethically responsible for fixing bunnies, although spaying and neutering bunnies is a bit more challenging,” Wagner said. “We are working with a few veterinarians who are willing to provide this service, namely our in-house vets and Amazing Small Animal Practice.”

Partnerships with mobile clinics, specifically Helen Sanders CatPAWS, the CAMP clinic and Amazing Small Animals, are whittling down the number of unaltered in-house pets. As of Oct. 2023, 430 shelter animals have been fixed through budget funds.

“This number will increase as our mobile vet clinics onboard new veterinarians to pick up additional days,” Dennis said. “LBACS staff has colloquially named these services ‘Mobile Mondays.’”

And, Dennis added, “volunteers have been instrumental in the success of this initiative.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify which code requires cats and dogs to be spayed or neutered after being adopted from shelters or rescues.