Task force confronts animal fertility

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Classical music blares over the surgical tables as Terry Yunker wields his blade. He works so quickly and cleanly that his nurse, Joni Aronson, can hardly prep the next patient quickly enough. He leaves a little tattoo next to each incision to mark his work.

These are what days are like at the Flathead Spay and Neuter Task Force during its monthly clinics. The patients are cats and dogs who can (and will, if given a chance) breed and inevitably clog up animal shelters.

As Montana’s only permanent spay and neuter facility, the task force clinic is given a whopper of a chore to handle.

Celebrating its 12th year of existence this month, the task force has performed 29,000 surgeries  on dogs and cats at the facility on Trumble Creek Road near Columbia Falls and has kept thousands of feral cats and dogs off the streets.

Yunker, who used to live in the Flathead Valley, is now a high-volume spay and neuter specialist living in Oklahoma. He is flown up on the third weekend of every month to alter Northwest Montana’s furry friends. His surgeries take around six minutes per animal.

Mimi Beadles, the executive director of the task force, said the anniversary coincided perfectly with a new push to cull the feral cat population.

“Cats have about five in a litter,” Beadles said. “Those kittens can go into heat at four months old. It is possible for that one cat to be responsible for 150 new cats in one year.”

Cats tend to be in heat (to have the ability to breed) far more often than dogs, going through heat cycles regularly unless they are spayed. This subsides in colder months, so the task force is using winter as a time to stop the feral population.

“Quite honestly we just want to prevent euthanasia in our county shelter,” Beadles said. “We’ve seen the euthanasia rates go from nearly 60 percent down to two or three percent.”

Of those killed at the shelter, almost all are sick, hurt or irredeemably aggressive.

Kootenai Pets for Life in Libby and Troy and Tobacco Valley Animal Shelter in Eureka have seen similar improvements in euthanasia rates.

One of the big problems Beadles encounters at the Flathead Spay and Neuter task Force is pet owners anthropomorphizing their critters.

“They are not people,” she said. “Some men won’t bring their males in because they can’t do that to their boy.”

People also love kittens and puppies but have no intention of raising them, instead giving them away to friends.

Unlike people, animals tend to breed regardless of circumstances around them. Spaying or neutering animals doesn’t change animals’ quality of life.

Animals can be altered at just six weeks old and the task force for a limited time is spaying kittens under four months old for free. Cats six months and younger cost $10; for older cats, the cost is $20 for males or $25 for females. Dogs can be fixed for $20 for pit bulls or pit mixes or $40 for all other breeds.

The task force is geared for low-income pet owners and has its clinics for four days, starting on the third Saturday of every month. Yunker is flown up from Oklahoma just for the occasion, where he will routinely perform 250 alterations in those four days.

Pet owners can call 881-4500 to schedule appointments.

Reporter Ryan Murray may be reached at 758-4436 or by email at rmurray@dailyinterlake.com.

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