Neuter Scooter clearly a van with a mission


It's 8 a.m., and "Shakes" is already shaking.

Shakes, a small brown Dachshund, is being dropped off to see the vet today. (That isn't why he's shaking, his owner explains. He just happens to shake a lot, thus the name.) But this is no ordinary vet visit. And not just because Shakes is about to be neutered. Shakes is the morning's first patient at Baltimore's first mobile spay and neuter clinic: the Maryland SPCA's Neuter Scooter.

The Scooter, a 36-foot-long, 3,200-pound customized bus, has been scooting around the streets of Baltimore for two months now, bringing free spaying and neutering services to pet owners who might not otherwise get it done. With a $200,000 budget and a staff of five, the Scooter has already taken care of nearly 400 pets.

In the planning since 1996, the Neuter Scooter finally became a reality this spring, making its first trip on May 17 after several test runs in the SPCA parking lot.

"We were so excited and amazed to see the Scooter" out on the road," recalls SPCA Executive Director Aileen Gabbey. "It took years to get together."

That first trip created quite a buzz. When the staff - coordinator Erika Moore, clinical assistant/driver Jim Rose, veterinary technician Jina Leader, summer intern Tracy Morgan and veterinarian Dr. Toni Price - returned to the office, the voice mailbox for the Scooter was full and the staff had to start taking messages by hand.

Since then, on each of the four days a week it's on the road, the Scooter averages about 20 appointments. The staff will also see about 10 walk-ups who ask questions or set up appointments.

The concept behind the Neuter Scooter is simple: to take spaying and neutering services to areas of a city where stray cats and dogs are common, in an effort to keep the number of unwanted pets down.

In planning its program, the Maryland SPCA Spay and Neuter Committee examined similar programs in other states, including Texas, Florida and Nevada. According to Janet Boss, the committee chairwoman, the group "looked at demographics to compare our city to ones with similar animal population problems," and found a good model in Austin, Texas.

Then came fund-raising, an effort that continues. The Scooter has received grants from the Animal Welfare League of Baltimore and PetSmart stores. It also received a donation from the estates of Anne T. Purnell and Mary K. Dempsey; a plaque on the Scooter commemorates their generosity.

Gabbey says the Scooter also accepts donations for its services, and is looking for sponsors who might want to advertise on the back of the bus, which is readily identified by its logo of a dog and cat happily riding on a scooter.

Gabbey says so far, the program seems to be working out just fine.

"The Scooter has bookings through September and it feels good to know there's a need for this," she said.

Shakes the dachshund's experience is typical. On this day, the Scooter has traveled to the parking lot of Memorial Stadium. Shakes' owner, who made an appointment beforehand, brings him in at 8 a.m.

At a table set up outside, Moore checks him in, making sure he's got an appointment and that the staff has all the necessary medical and emergency information.

Meanwhile, Rose takes Shakes inside the Scooter and weighs him. Then the medical staff gives the dog a quick once-over to make sure he can be neutered.

Once he's given the OK, Shakes is put into a cage where he'll wait his turn for surgery. The surgeries begin at about 9 a.m.; owners are asked to return to pick up their pets at 3 p.m.

By 9 a.m., most of the day's patients are secure in their cages. The specially designed Scooter is fitted with cages that can hold up to 27 cats and dogs. There are prep tables and a veterinary hospital operating room licensed by the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

The cats go through surgery first. According to the staff, the easiest animal to fix is the male cat; the surgery taking only minutes. Male dogs are nearly as easy. The most difficult surgeries are those on the females, because the procedure is more invasive and complex. That can make scheduling difficult, as only two female dogs can be accommodated on each trip.

When it's Shakes' turn, technician Jina Leader sedates him, then prepares him for surgery. Besides being cleaned and shaved, he has an ID number tattooed on the inside of his hind leg by Tracy Morgan, a veterinary medicine student and the Scooter's summer intern.

Like a permanent license tag, "the number allows a runaway dog or cat to be traced and returned to their owner," explains Rose.

Spaying is beneficial to female pets' health because they are less likely to get breast cancer, the Neuter Scooter staff says. Similarly, neutering male cats and dogs helps prevent testicular cancer.

There are a few restrictions on the kinds of pets that can be accepted aboard the mobile clinic. Animals over 60 pounds or those that are too excitable or might cause harm to the staff can't be handled in the confines of the bus.

Despite his shaking, Shakes' surgery is problem-free. When his owner returns to pick him up at 3 p.m., the little pooch is groggy and a little bit sore, but clearly glad to be going home. For a week to 10 days, the owner is reminded, Shakes will have to take it easy as he heals.

As Moore and the rest of the staff finish up their work for the day, she can't help talking about the rewards of the job. It may not be for everyone, she says, but there's great joy in seeing animals loved by their owners.

"The best part of the job is listening to the stories of how people get their pets," says Moore. "Once a gentleman told me how he saved his dog because the owner was going to kill her because she wouldn't fight. The gentleman asked how much her life was worth, then bought her."

For information or to make an appointment to have your animal spayed or neutered call 410-889-SPAY.

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