All in a spay’s work: 78,000 and counting


imageThe other day, a woman brought her cat into Dr. Peggy Larson’s Cat Spay and Neuter Clinic in Colchester. She wanted the animal spayed, but stressed that she was pro-life and did not want the cat to have an abortion if it was pregnant. Larson asked whether there was any chance of this, and the woman thought there was: She had seen the animal fooling around a lot with the intact tomcat next door. A few minutes later, one of Larson’s associates at the clinic reassured her that the cat wasn’t pregnant. It was male.

Larson, 79, has seen a lot in her Vermont clinic. And on reservations across the High Plains, where she pioneered and perfected the five-minute spay. And in her ongoing battles anywhere against animal cruelty – most recently in helping to shut down the Huntly Rodeo in New Zealand. Now, after spaying somewhere in the neighborhood of 78,000 cats, a couple hundred dogs, four or five dozen rabbits, and a handful of hamsters and guinea pigs, she is retiring. She said she is hoping someone will take over the reins and continue the service.

“It’s time for someone younger to take over,” she said. And yet it’s hard to imagine Larson slowing down. The Colchester clinic she opened in 1991 is only one part of her professional life. She founded the National Spay and Neuter Coalition in 1993, a group that now boasts 350 veterinary and shelter members, all striving mightily to stop pet overpopulation through sterilization. In addition to being a veterinarian, she has a law degree and has worked in both the Vermont Attorney General’s office and for the Franklin County State’s Attorney.

But the endgame for all of her work is pretty simple: stop animal cruelty wherever she sees it or hears about it. She’s assisted police and humane officers in animal cruelty and neglect investigations in California, Utah, North Carolina, Ohio, Utah, and Vermont. And just as ex-smokers are sometimes the most passionate anti-smoking advocates, Larson, once upon a time, was riding broncos bareback in rodeos as a North Dakota teen. “Rodeos are inherently cruel,” she observes now, her voice – usually so chipper – growing firm.

Preventing animal cruelty is why she is such a fervent advocate for spaying and neutering. “I think the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done is starting that coalition. We now have spay and neuter clinics everywhere. We’re making real progress to stop animal overpopulation.”

Her clinic charges $50 to spay a cat. The two area animal hospitals I randomly called to compare the price of a spay charged $200 and $270. Larson can charge so little because they are such a no-frills facility. While Larson and her staff will “do anything surgical,” they focus with scalpel-like precision on spaying.

In addition to the cats that her clinic spays for area animal shelters, they also accept low-income referrals from animal hospitals.

“I’ve discovered recently that I’m more popular with veterinarians than I thought I was. Now that I’ve decided to retire, they fear they’re losing their safety net,” she said.

Although she will soon be leaving the practice, she doesn’t expect to stop working. She will continue to be part of animal cruelty investigations. And she might write a book about her experiences, especially animal use and abuse.

I hope she does, because she’s seen a lot – some of it a testimony to how horrible people can be, but some of it a testimony to how kind we are at our best. Or, yes, how silly.

“The focus of our work has always been on the animals,” she told me. “We’ve never done this for public acclaim. We’ve always done this for the cats.”

They have. And they’ve made a difference roughly. . .78,000 times.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on November 16, 2014. Chris’s most recent novels are “The Light in the Ruins” and “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands.”)

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Chris Bohjalian
Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of eighteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Guest Room. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, and The Double Bind.

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