by Merritt Clifton
COLCHESTER, Vermont––Who is going to fix the feral cats, barn cats, and free-roaming pet cats of low-income Vermonters in 2015?
Low-cost cat sterilization, a longtime Vermont success story, took a double hit in 2014 from the faltering finances of the state-run Vermont Spay/Neuter Incentive Program and the retirement at Thanksgiving of Peggy Larson, 79, who closed her Cat Spay/Neuter Clinic in Colchester “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,” reported Chris Bohjalian of the Burlington Free Press.
“I’m not quite sure what people are doing, to be honest with you,” Poultney veterinarian Scott MacLachlan told Laura Krantz of the Vermont Digger.
Not many veterinarians have sterilized more cats than Larson, though she and her late husband Roger Prior, DVM did not even start the Cat Spay/Neuter Clinic until after retiring from long and distinguished careers in other branches of veterinary medicine.
The only obvious candidates to have fixed more cats than Larson are Feral Cat Spay/Neuter Clinic founder Christine Wilford, DVM, of Lynnwood, Washington; Planned Pethood Plus clinic founder Jeff Young, of Denver, who has worked worldwide; and Young’s mentor, former Los Angeles city veterinarian Marvin Mackie, now retired.
Wilford, Young, and Mackie have all operated chiefly in urban areas of five to 10 times more human and cat population than Vermont. Only Wyoming has fewer people and cats, meaning that Larson’s work has had an exceptionally concentrated impact. The impact has, however, been difficult to statistically assess, since in Vermont feral cats, barn cats, and free-roaming pet cats have traditionally been tolerated, rarely impounded, and mostly ignored.
Vermont shelters now kill only about a seventh as many cats as in 1991, when the Cat Spay/Neuter Clinic opened, but the most meaningful comparison would probably pertain to the numbers of newborn kittens drowned in buckets, had this ever been surveyed.
Larson, longtime Green Mountain Animal Defenders directors Sharon MacNair and Kathie Ludwig, and Vermont Volunteer Services for Animals founder Sue Skaskiw finally persuaded the Vermont state legislature to create the Vermont Spay/Neuter Incentive Program in 2004, more than two decades after the late Fay Abbott founded GMAD in 1982 as Vermont People for Animal Rights and began lobbying for such a program to be instituted.
Operating since 2006, VSNIP is funded by revenue from dog licensing fees. “The annual budget of about $250,000 a year fluctuates depending on the number of dog license fees collected each year and the number of spay and neuter applications VSNIP receives,” explained Krantz of the Digger, in a recent review of VSNIP difficulties.
Initially run by the Vermont Department of Agriculture, VSNIP was transferred to the Department for Children & Families in 2011.
Skaskiw had administrated VSNIP from inception until after the transfer, but “When DCF put the contract out to bid, it awarded it not to Skaskiw but to Vermont Companion Animal Neutering, a Middlesex low-cost spay and neuter clinic directed by Pamela Krausz,” Krantz summarized.
Alleging conflicts of interest were involved in the decision-making, Skaskiw sued. Washington County Superior Court judge Helen Tour “dismissed the case in January 2014,” Krantz wrote, “but Skaskiw’s attorney appealed it. The Vermont Supreme Court heard oral arguments this fall, but has not yet ruled on the case.”
Krausz meanwhile gave up the VSNIP management contract after only one year, during which the rates paid to participating veterinarians significantly increased. “In FY 2011, a vet was reimbursed $124 to spay a small dog,” Krantz reported. “The next year the rate was $137 and then in FY2013 it rose to $198 and then to $230.”
The number of surgeries performed by VSNIP had increased from just 33 in 2006 to 2,728 in 2013, Krantz said.
The Department for Children & Families took management of VSNIP in house for FY 2014, but “ran out of money because more people than ever want vouchers,” wrote Krantz. “Starting with fiscal year 2013, the fund’s year-end balance plummeted from $154,000 to $65,000 and then to negative $10,000. As bills poured in, the state in February 2014 shut down the program to give the fund time to replenish. In September it started issuing vouchers on a limited basis. There are now more than 600 people on the waiting list, representing $142,000 in requests,” Krantz wrote.
Deeming it “time for younger people to take over,” Larson will for the first time not be part of cutting down the backlog.
Larson wore many hats
“It’s hard to imagine Larson slowing down,” wrote Bohjalian of the Free Press. “The Colchester clinic,” now shuttered, “is only one part of her professional life. She founded the National Spay & Neuter Coalition in 1993, a group that now boasts 350 veterinary and shelter members. 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.
“The endgame for all of her work is pretty simple: stop animal cruelty wherever she sees it or hears about it,” Bohjalian assessed, mentioning that “Larson has assisted police and humane officers in animal cruelty and neglect investigations in California, Utah, North Carolina, Ohio, Utah, and Vermont.”
Among Larson’s many roles have been serving as expert commentator for the Humane Society Veterinary Association on veal farming, and as video analyst for Showing Animals Respect & Kindness, identifying injuries to animals in undercover footage of rodeos.
Among the heroes and heroines of animal protection are several ex-rodeo performers, former vivisectors turned animal rights advocate, veterinarians who do low-cost neutering, whistleblowers who challenge the meat industry, articulate writers and speakers, and attorneys who secure better humane enforcement.
Tough, skeptical, and able to debate any subject she addresses, Peggy Larson has over the past 60 years been all of the above and more.
Not always an animal advocate
“This feisty and outspoken woman wasn’t always an animal crusader,” wrote Kathryn Flagg for SevenDaysVT.com in 2012. “She grew up a self-described tomboy on a North Dakota ranch, and at 16 decided on a whim to take up bareback bronco riding––a rodeo sport dominated by men.
“I was crazy when I was young,” Larson told Flagg. “You really have a different mind-set when you grow up on a ranch,” Larson added.
Wrote Flagg, “She didn’t worry much about the spurs she dug into a bronco’s back, or the calves who were shocked repeatedly before a roping event––until she enrolled in veterinary school and found herself gobsmacked by just how much animals and humans have in common.”
Before that, Flagg recounted, Larson “married her first husband out of high school, and then worked to put him through medical school. She studied alongside him and was accepted to medical school herself on two separate occasions, but ultimately decided to enroll in the veterinary school at Ohio State University.”
Larson’s 50 years of professional research, activism, and advocacy had actually began five years earlier, with two years of neurophysiologic experiments on cats performed at the University of Minnesota in 1956-1957, as one of the first women to break into an overwhelmingly male-dominated field. This work, she recalls, “was horrible. Succinyl choline was commonly used at that time, which paralyzes the cat but does not anesthetize him.”
Two years followed as chief technician at the rabies diagnostic laboratory in Grand Forks, North Dakota; then came seven years of neurological studies and sleep research on cats and dogs at the Bowman Gray School of Medicine, 1958-1960, and Ohio State University 1961-1965, where she earned her veterinary doctorate.
Research in the same field by done John Orem of Texas Tech University and Adrian Morrison of the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1980s and early 1990s attracted the destructive attention of the Animal Liberation Front, becoming a national cause celebre. But Orem and Morrison took their experiments far beyond the ethical limits that Larson observed.
“The research I did on normal sleep patterns in cats and kittens was non-invasive,” Larson explained to me in 1993, about five years after I was introduced to Larson and her work by veteran Vermont political journalist Peter Freyne (1949-2009), then my editor at the Burlington-based Vermont Vanguard Press.
“The electrodes were glued to their heads in a manner identical with human EEG procedures. The cats were adopted by students,” Larson said.
Still, Larson had doubts. “I left medical research because of the way the animals were treated,” she said. “Reluctantly, I have served on the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee for the research facility at the Veterans Administration hospital at White River Junction. Things have changed for the better, but as long as animals are used for research, I will always be uncomfortable.”
For more than a decade, 1967-1978, Larson practiced veterinary medicine, dividing time between California and North Dakota, practicing in partnership with her second husband Roger Prior (1920-2010), a decorated U.S. Marine Corps veteran of World War II who had been born in Underhill, Vermont, and had practiced previously in Shelburne, Vermont.
Prior and Larson returned to Vermont in 1978. Prior worked from 1978 to retirement 1991 at the Brown Animal Hospital in Burlington, while Larson in November 1979 became a veterinary medical officer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Larson broadened her credentials with a stint as pathology specialist for the federal Marine Mammal Task Force in 1982. Then in 1983-1984, as one of the worst outbreaks of avian influenza that ever hit the U.S. poultry industry occurred around Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the versatile Larson helped fight it as a computer specialist.
“Grain haulers, inspectors, visitors anyone who may have been in an infected chicken facility can easily infect a clean chicken house,” Larson recalled. “The USDA was called in basically to slaughter all exposed chickens and potentially exposed chickens. If one chicken died of a virulent strain as shown by a blood test, the entire house was destroyed. Often as many as 30,000 chickens were killed and disposed of in landfills.”
That was bad enough, but the high and low point of Larson’s years with the USDA came in June 1984.
“I saw overwhelming corruption,” Larson explains, “which could not be changed because the abuses were at the supervisory level. My supervisor embezzled over $100,000 on his travel vouchers; his supervisor, the regional director, covered it up.”
When Larson raised the issue, she told me, and had told Freyne earlier, “the supervisory hierarchy turned on me. At the same time,” Larson added, “the state of Vermont was in great trouble with their meat inspection program. Governor Richard Snelling requested that the USDA temporarily assign me to the state to clean up the mess.”
Snelling wanted Larson not only for her veterinary skills, but also for her reputation as a take-no-nonsense personality. She lived up to it, coming on––as Freyne put it––“like a sheriff running the riff-raff out of a Wild West saloon.”
Showdown at the not okay corral
The Vermont situation, Larson explained, involved “a great deal of coziness between the commissioner of agriculture and the state veterinarian with the slaughter plant operators. Neither would back the inspectors assigned to the plants. The plant operators began breaking the law by processing unfit meat. One plant operator picked up dying animals from the farms. Some farmers even paid him to take their animals. These were being processed.
“Then one day this plant operator delivered some carcasses in a truck used for downed, diseased, dying, or dead animals. The inspector at the retail store refused to allow the carcasses into the store’s cooler. The state veterinarian ordered him to put the contaminated carcasses into the cooler. Reluctantly he conformed to the order. He then called the Vermont State Employees Association to cover himself for breaking the law.
“The VSEA called the attorney general’s office, who dispatched the state police to investigate. All hell broke loose. Governor Snelling launched an investigation. The state veterinarian and the deputy agriculture commissioner were fired. The ensuing investigation uncovered major flaws in the meat inspection program, one of which was a total absence of poultry regulations and outdated meat regulations. Another was abusive and threatening behavior by the meat plant owners toward the state inspectors assigned to their slaughterhouses.”
Larson herself was stalked and threatened by one operator, who learned the hard way that she was not someone to intimidate.
Exiled to Iowa
“I cannot possibly explain to you all that happened during those crazy four months,” she said, “because it would be too extensive, but I solved the problems by rewriting the state meat and poultry regulations, retraining the inspectors, getting the slaughterhouse operators to comply with the law, and splitting the state’s livestock and meat inspection departments into two separate departments, each headed by a specialist.”
All the while the USDA situation smoldered in the background. Allegations that Larson was paranoid, insane, and a closet animal rights activist were whispered to the media. Reporters conferred, compared notes, and decided that so many influential people were out to get her that if she wasn’t paranoid, she should have been.
Larson’s characteristic response was a counteroffensive.
“After I returned to the USDA,” she told me, “I filed a lawsuit over the personal abuse I endured subsequent to my acquiring the evidence of embezzlement. The USDA promptly abolished my position in Vermont and shipped me to Iowa,” where Larson served as acting chief of avian, equine and bovine diagnostic virology at the National Animal Disease Laboratory.
But with Prior still in Burlington, Larson didn’t stay out of either Vermont or trouble. “I stayed in Iowa for four months,” she recounted, “and then returned home. My lawyers advised me not to quit, but to force the USDA to fire me. Four months later I was fired, but not before both supervisors lost their jobs.”
Vindicated, Larson dropped her lawsuit, and “decided to enter law school,” she recounted. “At that time it seemed that my entire working world was corrupt and abusive. Legal knowledge would have given me the expertise to handle problems more effectively.
Larson earned her doctorate in law from the Vermont Law School in May 1988, after serving an internship working on consumer fraud cases, performed the duties of a deputy state’s attorney for five months, and returned to veterinary work in August 1990, when she and Prior became the volunteer staff veterinarians for GMAD.
Despite her background in the biomedical research and meat industries, “I have always been a softie when it comes to animals,” Larson admits, calling much of her occupational history “like serving a stretch in hell.”
The Cat Spay/Neuter Clinic evolved out of the volunteer work that Larson and Prior did for GMAD.
“I started doing a few cat spays and neuters at my house on the kitchen table,” Larson recounted. “They didn’t have any complications, and it was pretty easy, so I did more and more and more. We finally got too big for the house and in January 1993, we moved into a three-room commercial facility. My brother donated an anesthesia machine, we bought used instruments at a hospital auction, and we scrounged around for various other equipment and supplies. We also started asking for a $20 donation for each cat. For $20 we performed the surgery and vaccinated the cat for rabies and distemper. We began to be self-supporting, as most people can pay $20.”
Over the years the requested donation rose to $50, barely keeping pace with inflation.
Larson and Prior fixed more than 5,000 cats in their first two years.
“The really wonderful outcome of all this,” Larson noted with pride in June 1993, “is that the Burlington Humane Society has literally no kittens to place. And we have very few on our bulletin board. Our biggest problem continues to be the local veterinarians who mistakenly think we are taking business from them.”
In addition to doing spays and neuters at the Colchester clinic, Larson for many years did outreach sterilization work at pounds and shelters throughout Vermont.
Gradually the veterinary concern over “competition” from Larson subsided. Larson also demonstrated that doing high-volume, low-cost s/n meant doing things more safely and efficiently, not compromising on quality to rush through her work.
“We had a total of 11 deaths out of our first 4,000 cats,” Larson told me. “Two had leukemia found on necropsy. Two were allergic to the anesthetic and one was allergic to rabies vaccine. Several were in ill health and in an advanced stage of pregnancy and were too weak to survive. Two had clotting disorders. Since our patients are not always the best risks surgically, I think our survival record is outstanding.”
As procedures and standards improved, Larson kept pace.
“I think any veterinarian who states that mobile clinics provide inferior care fails to understand the procedure,” Larson opined. “M*A*S*H* units have saved thousands of young fighting men. Surgery in those units could not be any cleaner or more sterile than our mobile clinics. Granted, a mobile unit is not a full service veterinary hospital, but we are not providing full service veterinary care. We are providing limited surgical care.”
Larson’s summation for the jury: “Spay and neuter programs work!”
Now the question is whether the momentum Larson built will continue.