Bob Weedon hopes Florida House bill HB 719 might help
POLK CITY, Florida––Just a little over three years ago, as COVID-19 hit the U.S., killing 1.1 million Americans to date and initially all but shutting the country down, feline spay/neuter specialist G.R. “Bob” Weedon of Polk City, Florida was among the few veterinarians who continued sterilizing feral cats for neuter/return practitioners, vowing to ANIMALS 24-7 to continue come hell or high water for as long as he could.
Instead of helping veterinarians to win exemptions from shutdown orders, as providers of essential services to society, the American SPCA, just ahead of April Fool’s Day 2020, urged U.S. animal shelters to sidestep or seek suspension of requirements that dogs and cats be spayed or neutered before adoption.
None of the big organizations sidestepped the panic-driven stampede
ANIMALS 24-7 warned at the time that the ASPCA advice combined with mandated veterinary clinic shutdowns could bring about half a million additional puppy and kitten litters nationwide during the 2020 puppy and kitten season.
ANIMALS 24-7 published the math supporting that claim.
Nationally recognized spay/neuter and neuter/return experts Ruth Steinberger of SpayFirst!, Jeff Young of Planned Pethood Plus, and Bryan Kortis of Neighborhood Cats, among many others, backed up the ANIMALS 24-7 warning in guest columns and social media postings within 48 hours.
But neither the ASPCA, the Best Friends Animal Society, the Humane Society of the U.S., Maddie’s Fund, nor any other major national humane organization sidestepped the panic-stricken stampede to shut down, and instead helped to keep veterinary clinics open, especially spay/neuter clinics.
Worst-case scenario happened
The worst case scenario followed, almost exactly as ANIMALS 24-7 predicted.
Now, with animal shelters throughout the U.S. filled to bursting with dogs and cats, and perhaps more animal care and control agencies actively delaying or refusing to take in owner-surrenders and found strays than still accept them, G.R. “Bob” Weedon is trying to undo the damage.
For more than 30 years the U.S. had already been suffering from a growing shortage of trained high-volume spay/neuter specialists even before COVID-19 hit.
Following the peak of the COVID-19 crisis, thousands of veterinarians and veterinary technicians who had been forcibly idled or reduced to part-time work for a year or two decided to either retire or remain semi-retired.
“Engage retired or semi-retired vets in the effort”
Explained Weedon to ANIMALS 24-7, “I am on a task force convened by the United Spay Alliance to address the shortage of veterinary manpower generally, in the area of low-cost spay/neuter specifically.
“One of the conclusions that our task force has come up with regarding the shortage of high-quality, high-volume spay/neuter surgeons would be to engage retired or semi-retired veterinarians in the effort.
“As Florida has a large population of ‘snowbirds,’” Weedon continued, meaning people who winter in Florida while living in northern climates the rest of the year, “it seems reasonable to engage this group of veterinarians, many of whom spend half of their year in our state.
“Unfortunately,” Weedon added, “Florida makes it difficult for veterinarians to obtain a license to practice veterinary medicine by endorsement,” meaning obtaining recognition within Florida for veterinary education and experience obtained in other states.
How difficult is “difficult”?
“To obtain a Florida veterinary license by endorsement,” Weedon told ANIMALS 24-7, “the application alone was $605, and I had to provide veterinary school transcripts, even though I had been previously licensed in four other states. I had to have every state I had ever been licensed in provide a letter saying that I had not had any disciplinary action taken against me. Finally, I had to take a Florida laws exam.
“All of these things had a financial and time cost attached to them. It took me about three months altogether, and cost approaching $1,000,” Weedon recounted. “I suspect that the hoops I had to jump through would be a deterrent to someone wishing to do spay/neuter a couple of days per week.”
Sam Killebrew & Colleen Burton
“I have been working with a couple of Florida legislators,” Weedon said, “exempting veterinarians licensed and in good standing in another state from needing a Florida veterinary license in order to do spay/neuter and preventative wellness services at the time of sterilization.”
The couple of Florida legislators include Sam Killebrew of Winter Haven, a Republican member of the Florida House of Representatives since 2016, and Colleen Burton of Lakeland, a fellow Republican who served in the Florida House of Representatives from 2014 to 2022 before winning election to the Florida Senate in November 2022.
Killebrew on February 10, 2023 introduced HB 719, a Florida House bill that “Exempts certain out-of-state veterinarians who provide specified services under responsible supervision of a veterinarian licensed in this state from certain regulations governing veterinary medical practice; provides supervising licensed veterinarian is responsible for such services; specifies that such out-of-state veterinarians are ineligible for premises permit,” meaning that they cannot operate their own veterinary practices without obtaining a Florida veterinary license.
Florida Veterinary Medical Association?
Burton is imminently expected to introduce a companion bill in the Florida Senate.
The current party balance in both the Florida House and the Florida Senate tilts heavily toward Republicans––84 to 35 in the House, 28 to 12 in the Senate.
If the future of HB 719 is decided along party lines, therefore, it may be on a fast track to passage; but the politically influential Florida Veterinary Medical Association has yet to weigh in.
How much difference might HB 719 make?
Aging vet population
“Not long ago,” Weedon told ANIMALS 24-7, “it was estimated that approximately 13% of U.S. companion animal veterinarians were over 65 years old,” meaning about 9,000 veterinarians, “and another 26% were between 56 and 65,” meaning about 18,000 veterinarians, or a combined total of 27,000.
“Many of these veterinarians are likely retired or semi-retired,” Weedon said. “They might spend part of the year here in Florida, and while here they might be enticed to work part-time to spay/neuter local animals.
Guesstimating that at least 600 veterinarians with valid licenses in other states winter in Florida, and that perhaps 10% might be “moved to participate in spay/neuter activities due to this exemption,” if passed by the Florida legislature, “that’s sixty veterinarians who might be motivated to do spay/neuter one, two, or three days per week.
“Let’s say that they could be trained in high-quality, high-volume spay/neuter techniques, and could do 20-30 surgeries per day,” Weedon speculated, “if we pick an average number of two days per week, then during the six months that these snowbirds spend time in Florida, that would have the potential to amount to roughly 60,000 spay/neuter surgeries. I would say that that is a significant impact.”
How significant? Weedon cites “a paper published in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science entitled, ‘COVID-19 associated reduction in elective spay-neuter surgeries for dogs and cats.’”
According to that article, “It is estimated that in the U.S., there is a deficit of more than 2.7 million spay/neuter surgeries that animal welfare organizations have yet to address,” over and above the annual ballpark average of spay/neuter surgeries actually done.
2.7 million might be far low
“The article concludes,” says Weedon, “that as ‘ongoing workforce shortage of veterinarians and staff threatens the spay-neuter recovery, conditions are ripe for an increase in unwanted litters.’ If you spread that 2.7 million number over all fifty states, that means that Florida has a backlog of 54,000 spay/neuter surgeries.”
The Frontiers in Veterinary Science estimate of the spay/neuter deficit is based on a survey comparing spay/neuter surgeries actually performed pre-and-post-COVID.
It does not account for additional spay/neuter surgeries needed pre-COVID to get the U.S. dog and cat population down to zero “pet overpopulation.”
Eight million might be more like it
Weedon’s guesstimate of the Florida “spay/neuter deficit,” based on the Frontiers in Veterinary Science article findings, is barely half the estimate for Miami-Dade County alone offered by Pets Trust founder Michael Rosenberg to Douglass Hanks of the Miami Herald, published on January 25, 2023.
Said Rosenberg of Miami-Dade Animal Services, one of the most notorious “turnaway” animal care and control agencies in the state, if not the whole U.S., “They’re not attacking the root of the problem, which is over-population. They have to spay and neuter 100,000 animals a year to get on top of the situation.”
Miami-Dade projected to U.S. as a whole
The Miami-Dade human population of 2.7 million is about 0.8% of the entire human population of the United States. Projecting Rosenberg’s guesstimate to the whole of the U.S. suggests that the nation has a post-COVID spay/neuter deficit of at least 8.2 million dogs and cats.
Bannered ANIMALS 24-7 in April 2020, responding to the ASPCA advice to animal shelters to relax spay/neuter requirements, ASPCA advice to shelters could increase puppy & kitten litters by about half a million.
Figuring that half a million dogs and cats not sterilized during the panic-driven COVID-19 spay/neuter shutdown in 2020 each had four surviving descendants that year, and that these surviving descendants each had four surviving descendants during the next two years produces the sum of eight million.
Model for other states?
Finished Weedon, “I really believe that this legislation, if enacted, could go a long way to improving access to spay/neuter and preventative wellness services, and as such, could serve as a model for other states.”
Weedon, mentioned Bryan Kortis in praising his determination to keep doing spay/neuter for neuter/return practitioners during the 2020 shutdown of veterinary services, “is an accomplished spay/neuter surgeon who retired in 2018 as a clinical assistant professor and service head of shelter medicine at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, where he trained veterinary students in high quality, high-volume spay-neuter techniques. If he believes spay/neuter can be done safely, we should listen and consider carefully.”
Losing decades of gains
Observed ANIMALS 24-7 then, “In only one ‘puppy and kitten season’ during which the spay/neuter volume drops to the level of 35 years ago,” as appears to have happened, “we as a nation can lose all of the gains against dog and cat overpopulation made since then,” when U.S. animal shelters killed more than 17 million homeless dogs and cats per year.
“Of course the animal welfare system may not elect to kill the surplus animals this time around,” ANIMALS 24-7 continued. “Indeed, current trends suggest that animal shelters and rescues will mostly choose to limit and refuse intakes, while feral cat neuter/return programs, already working at their capacity, will be even less able to trap and sterilize every cat than they are now.
“The ‘no intakes’ scenario would take us all the way back to circa 1950,” ANIMALS 24-7 projected, “when a third of the U.S. dog population––more than half of all dogs in the South––were essentially homeless mutts, like the street dogs of the developing world, and there were as many free-roaming feral cats as owned cats.”
Heading toward developing world norms
The U.S. as a whole is not there yet, since many veterinarians––like Weedon––did keep their clinics open through the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, enabling neuter/return practitioners in some regions, anyhow, to continue working full speed ahead.
Nonetheless, the scenario for cats is getting worse, and for dogs is heading rapidly toward developing world norms.
Perhaps most vividly illustrating that reality is that dogs, chiefly packs and pit bulls running at large, are now killing more Americans per year than canine rabies verifiably kills these days in India.
(See “Return-to-field” = animal control neglect of duty, two cases allege; New study finds: India rabies deaths & therefore world toll far exaggerated; and Dogs killed 62 Americans & three Canadians in 2022; pit bulls killed 41.)