It's Raining Cats and Dogs in South Carolina

by Donna Thorne
(reprinted from Sandlapper magazine, Summer 2011)

In order for every cat and dog in Richland County to have a home, each person would have to adopt seven pets. That’s 28 pets in a household of four people,” explains Jim “Soni” Sonefeld, president of The Animal Mission, a nonprofit organization based in Columbia. “I’m sure those numbers would be the same across South Carolina.” If you think you’ve heard Sonefeld’s name before, you’re right. Yes, he’s the drummer for Hootie and the Blowfish. But he’s also an animal lover who helped start The Animal Mission more than a decade ago.

While The Animal Mission encourages people to adopt pets from local shelters, the organization focuses almost all of its efforts on spaying and neutering cats and dogs. “We cannot adopt our way out of animal overpopulation,” Soni says. “Spay/neuter is the only long-term, lasting solution to the problem of stray, abandoned and unwanted pets.”

Mission Possible

Year in and year out, the group has put its money where its mouth is. Since 2006, The Animal Mission has raised almost $800,000 and has put the entire amount into spay/neuter coupons for residents of six counties across the Midlands of South Carolina. The coupons can be used for a discount at a local vet, or for a completely free procedure at the Humane Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Columbia. Over the last five years, almost 12,000 cats and dogs have been spayed and neutered through the coupon program. “Our long-standing partnership with The Animal Mission has prevented thousands upon thousands of unwanted litters, many of which would have ended up in shelters facing possible euthanasia,” says HSPCA CEO Wayne Brennessel. “The Animal Mission has made a big impact in the Midlands.”

Shelters across the country take in millions of animals each year. Sadly, a vast number of pets are euthanized as a form of animal population control. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that between three and four million cats and dogs are euthanized in shelters each year. The City of Columbia Shelter, which also serves all of Richland County, takes in roughly 12,000 animals a year. “Euthanizing pets is the worst part of the job,” says Marli Drum, superintendent of Columbia’s Shelter. “But it just isn’t humanly possible to house, feed and care for all the animals that come here each year.”

But there is a bright spot. The Animal Mission’s spay/neuter campaign is having an impact in the Midlands. “In 2010, we saw an 11% drop in the number of animals entering our shelter and our euthanasia rate dropped by 10%,” Marli reports. And that’s The Animal Mission’s goal— to decrease the number of pets entering shelters across the Midlands, thus reducing the number of euthanasias.

Good for Pets and People

Spaying and neutering helps animals live longer, healthier lives by eliminating or reducing many health problems, including cancers. Sterilized animal companions are far less likely to roam or run away in search of mates and get into fights as a result. This helps protect animals from contracting fatal diseases such as feline leukemia or feline AIDS.

Sterilizing animals makes them more affectionate companions and eliminates or reduces many behavior and temperament problems. Animals who are spayed or neutered are also less likely to bite their owners and other people.

“I can’t understand why people don’t spay or neuter their pets,” Soni says. “It’s good for the animal and it’s good for the owner. And it’s good for our entire society.”

Growing the Program

Apparently, Columbia businessman Austin Meyer agrees with Soni. The creator of the world’s most popular airplane flight simulation computer program, X-Plane, gave The Animal Mission a generous grant of $100,000 to establish The Meyer Initiative and expand the spay/neuter coupon campaign beyond Richland and Lexington counties to four other Midlands counties— Fairfield, Kershaw, Orangeburg and Calhoun.

“This was the first time these rural counties have had the opportunity to offer residents free spay/neuters,” Soni says. To get the word out, The Animal Mission bought billboards, newspaper, TV and radio ads promoting spay/neuter and the coupons’ availablity in each county. “This education component was critical,” Soni explains.

Sharon Jones, director of Kershaw’s Walter M. Crowe Animal Shelter, concurs. “In rural areas, spay/neuter can be a hard sell. People in the country sometimes can’t see the need for sterilization because cats live out in the barn and dogs live in the yard. We try hard to educate people about the benefits of spay/neuter.” Phase I of the ongoing Meyer Initiative was a huge success in Kershaw County. “There were people here for coupons from the minute we opened our doors until we went home at the end of the day,” she remembers. “During a recession, people were having to choose between their families and their pets, and this was just a huge help during rough times.”

Even though Kershaw used all their coupons in a hurry, several local residents stepped up, opened their checkbooks to the tune of more than $20,000 and kept the program going. “It’s paid off already,” says Sharon. “We’re seeing fewer litters coming in than we did last year.” Thanks to their generosity, the free spay/neuter program is still going in Kershaw County today.

Davis Anderson, deputy administrator for Fairfield County says, “The Animal Mission brought us $25,000 for free spay/neuters. No one has ever presented us with a solution to pet overpopulation before.

Teach Your Children

The Animal Mission is also reaching out to South Carolina’s youngest citizens to teach them the importance of spaying and neutering pets. The group is sponsoring a forthcoming exhibit at the EdVenture Children’s Museum that, when finished, will show the importance of spay/neuter, humane animal treatment and other animal issues. “If we can teach children when they are young, then they’ll always be responsible pet owners and, hopefully, they’ll pass that on to their children,” says Julie Ruff, First Vice President of The Animal Mission. “We hope we can change the norm with the next generation.”

Stopping the Rain

The mission of The Animal Mission is far from over. “Even though we’re seeing the impact, we can’t stop now,” says Julie. “This is an on-going battle and we’re in it for the long haul. Even though many animal rescue groups encourage adoptions, that’s just not enough. Spay/neuter PLUS adoption is the only answer.”