Changemakers: Sonia Hernandez, ADLA Spay/Neuter Hotline (Arizona)
“Never give up on your goal and your mission. Always be open, respectful, and flexible to benefit animals of your organization and community. We’ve been talking about how to manage animal populations for years. We are proving we can do this, and we are collaborative. We have come a long way, and have a long way to go. Animals are now being saved by the thousands. It will take patience but it can happen…ending pet homelessness in your community.”—Sonia Hernandez
Sonia Hernandez is Project Manager for the Fix.Adopt.Save. (FAS) campaign, which encompasses seven local animal welfare organizations working together to end animal homelessness through increased adoptions, fostering, and spay/neuter services in Maricopa County, Arizona. Phoenix is the second largest city for pet homelessness in the United States. Sonia lives with her husband Joseph and their human and animal family members near Phoenix, where their three children have always seen Sonia working with animals as a veterinary technician. Joseph, who works from home, formerly served as an animal control kennel technician. Sonia sees the critical need and impact of spay/neuter on animals and people. The daughter of immigrants, her parents originated from Mexico: her mother from Hermosillo and her father from Aguas Calientes; they eventually met and married in California. Sonia, her sisters, and their parents lived in Byron, California before she moved to Arizona.
USpA: Sonia, what is your role and background in spay/neuter?
I manage projects for the Fix.Adopt.Save. campaign and am also deeply involved working with each member organization, event, idea, and execution from all angles: from executives to veterinary staff, event crew, maintenance, and all. Everyone is a part of the success! The Animal Defense League of Arizona (ADLA) and the Maricopa County Animal Care and Control (MCACC) are just two of the coalition members with which I work closely. During the previous 14 years, I served with MCACC as in-house Vet Technician, Assistant to Medical Director, Assistant to Medical Supervisor, and for our Neuter Scooter, offering free spay/neuter and vaccination services to communities. I also served 6 years with ADLA in Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) background support, volunteer coordination, and primarily as their Spay/Neuter Coordinator for Companion Animals.
ADLA is part of United Spay Alliance. It is a statewide animal protection organization that has worked for over 25 years on behalf of companion animals, wildlife, animals in laboratories, animals in entertainment, and farm animals. ADLA’s largest program, the Spay Neuter Hotline, assists the public with spay/neuter and TNR needs and referrals, here in Maricopa valley and statewide. It connects people with low-cost services for their pets, as well as being the lead organization for TNR. Through their TNR program, over 1,200 feral cats are sterilized each month in the Valley alone. It’s the only group that provides surgeries for feral and outdoor cats to this capacity.
USpA: How did your life turn to helping animals?
It’s the usual beginning of growing up, loving my pets. My dogs and cats were there for me. I recall thanking my dog for listening to me and having picnics with him when I was little! From the start of my career 14 years ago, I realized that pets are not things or objects, and that I was not alone in my feelings towards them. What plays into what I do now, is looking back, we did not have our animals fixed, as we did not have much money. My dad was a fieldworker and we lived in a rural area. And awareness of spay/neuter, its benefits and importance, was not there 30-plus years ago.
In March 2002, I began working in this field after moving to Arizona and responding to an advertisement with MCACC. I knew that this was my opportunity to help and learn, as I would be trained as a veterinary technician in the shelter field. If there was a turning point, it was after a few weeks of realizing that the influx of animals being turned into the shelter was not stopping. There was no lull. No pause. They just kept coming. Hurt, dropped off, found, and so on. With intake comes euthanasia. In the early 2000s, we would euthanize for space as there just were not enough homes, and more were being born than the shelters and community could handle.
At that time, community outreach was minimal. My fabulous supervisor allowed me to work outside the technician boundaries, because I was more effective that way. I had no idea then where I would be now! I assisted with community and fundraising events, working closely with all departments within our organization, including assisting with euthanasia. That furthered my determination to help the animals.
I wondered, what more can be done? In addition to what I saw, what hit me the most was that so many people seeking assistance for their pets were low-income. Another group had language barriers (things I grew up relating to). Yet we, as animal welfare organizations, were not reaching those groups to let them know that we’re there to help. And there is help! So, bridging those gaps became a primary focus in my work.
USpA: What is the big story about Fix.Adopt.Save. you want to share with readers?
The amazing progress that can happen with a collaborative group! FAS originally started as a 3-year campaign. The Alliance for Companion Animals formed in 2000 to address our serious pet overpopulation and high euthanasia rates. Since FAS launched in 2013, we have seen a 71% drop in euthanasia and a 38% decrease in intake.
Consider that 3½ years ago, about 90,000 dogs and cats entered Maricopa County shelters. Every day, 100 of those animals were adopted … and 100 were euthanized. The Fix.Adopt.Save initiative was designed to tackle animal homelessness in Maricopa County by increasing spay/neuter surgeries and adoptions, reducing euthanasia rates, educating the public about free and low-cost services, and encouraging responsible pet guardianship. We have more work to do and we are continuing in our mission as our efforts have proven to be effective and accepted by the community. Together, FAS is making a difference in the lives of pets and the community.
From my personal point of view, I want people to know that anything is possible. Never give up on your goal and your mission. Always be open, respectful, and flexible to benefit animals of your organization and community. We’ve been talking about how to manage animal populations for years. We are proving we can do this and we are collaborative. We have come a long way, and have a long way to go. Animals are now being saved by the thousands. It will take patience, but it can happen … ending pet homelessness in your community.
USpA: Clearly, collaborative partnerships are crucial for FAS.
The FAS campaign is based on collaboration. Each organization offers specialties that make our goals of ending pet homelessness reachable. Through the partnership of the seven-member alliance, we have: organizations that provide direct spay/neuter; spay/neuter by way of vouchers; vaccination specials; adoption services at their shelters, at events, and by mobile units; and we have a TNR-focused program. We all work together and market our services together, knowing we are there to help the public with any of their animal related needs. For example, an FAS spay/neuter event in August 2015 got enough funding for 944 free surgeries and vaccines, and vouchers for people in line, with 4 check-in locations and additional mobile units. Over 2,000 people showed up! We offered voucher certification. 91% of vouchers were given to folks in line that were redeemed in 45 days. On one event day, spay/neuter for ferals included 120.
USpA: What are your strategies to increase spay/neuter, reduce animals euthanized, and educate the public about responsible pet guardianship?
From 5 years ago, even when I first started, things have come a long, long way. Groups are really coming together in the valley, focusing on messaging, being in sync, and reaching out to the community in an understandable and approachable manner. More of the community has joined in to help raise awareness. We are seeing fewer surrenders (or shelter intakes) of owned animals. We have more community/business support, more volunteers, and more events than ever–adoption and spay/neuter.
Through multiple relationships and avenues, we are able to increase spay/neuter services and education about responsible pet guardianship, which, in turn, lowers euthanasia. The biggest change in the past few years has been involvement by local neighborhood businesses and school districts. We provide direct services to the public by bringing mobile spay/neuter clinics to neighborhoods. We provide vouchers at events that are geared towards low-income families. We work with food banks to distribute vouchers, literature, etc.
FAS as a project has raised funds to provide more spay/neuter surgeries, as has each of the Alliance members who provide spay/neuter services. For some of our funders, spay/neuter has provided us more money than any other aspect of our campaign, as it is the direct action that provides a permanent solution and an end to a cause of overpopulation. If they are fixed, that one cat will not become 15-plus cats in one year; that one dog will not become 7-plus dogs in one year.
USpA: What do you think about “free” spay/neuter? Or free adoption? Some say yes. Others say no, because it lessens the importance of the animals.
You have to know your community and your neighborhood. Free spay/neuter doesn’t devalue. Messaging is important. Headers of our flyers will contain a message about the love we have for our pets, so let’s ensure they have a safe, healthy life. This places more value on the animal’s life. The other messaging aspect is in the distribution of the offers. You must make that voucher appointment offer feel valuable and that this is their only chance. For our partners, offering free spay/neuter has proven to be successful, with an average of 20,000+ free surgeries per year redeemed here in the Valley. Today, we still have hundreds of people lining up for events.
As for no-cost adoptions, again, messaging is key. For those who express concern, we do explain that no-cost adoptions are still processed in the same manner as any other time. If there is a particular reason for the event or the special, we explain clearly as to why it is happening, to bring awareness to the pet homeless situation that is still happening.
USpA: Speaking of knowing your communities, tell us about the people you serve.
Though we target certain areas and communities–those with high intake, stray dogs, low income, for example–we will help anyone who needs assistance. We acquire and compile data from multiple organizations: those within FAS, like MCACC and the Arizona Humane Society for animal-related data, as well as outside sources that work with public health assistance. This data provides us a picture of where our efforts are needed. We also reach out to the Spanish-speaking members of our communities. We have a great partnership with the Cesar Chavez Foundation and focus on the Hispanic community. The Foundation has a local office and owns La Campesina radio station here in Phoenix as well as all other La Campesina radio stations around the country. Our show is called Mi Mascota (My Pet). There are still cultural differences in how animals are viewed, and with this partnership, those views are beginning to shift.
Sharing Cesar Chavez’ views and ethics about humane treatment of animals has been a great first step in conversations with many about the importance of pet guardianship and all associated topics. Since our partnership began, this campaign has been a major eye-opener for the station as they are now interacting with an untapped market. Their listeners are now more involved in social media posts and other communication efforts. The Foundation and La Campesina provide multiple forms of communication support for our contract, which include posting about us on their social media, attending three of our events with live radio and pre-record 3 interviews with call-ins in Spanish. Our analytics have shown more social media hits and engagement from the public since the partnership began.
USpA: Continuing on communications, how do you put a “face” on spay/neuter for the public to connect that the surgery is beneficial?
Putting a face to spay/neuter is difficult. It’s not fluffy. People love kittens and puppies. Folks fear Animal Control, and that spay/neuter will get rid of babies and end the ability to find dogs and cats. We try to communicate that we are working toward a population we can manage (not “control”) so that as animals come into the shelter, they can get realistically adopted in good homes with needed time, versus it being a life-or-death situation.
We aim for advertising messaging that’s fun, like “Hip 2 Snip.” When face to face, or by phone, I try to pull some type of feeling about their pet from people and have them picture a mental image and connection of longevity with the pet, for life. I remind them that with spay/neuter, a litter isn’t being born to end up homeless or euthanized. We bring up health issues in a warm manner. So now, spay/neuter is as important to them for the same reason they may be afraid to have their pet spay/neutered -– because they love their pet!
We also put numbers into reality. You start with one (really two) animals. Then, you add at least 4 offspring. Multiply that by 3 times (the amount of times a cat can have a litter here in Phoenix). Then you factor in that the first litter is now producing their own offspring. So, by the end of 12 months, because they can have babies by 6 months of age, you now you have 20-plus animals.
USpA: How do you track spay/neuter vouchers to know the procedures were actually done?
Through the spay/neuter programs our organizations provide, we use paper forms because many vets are not on an electronic system. All vets are reimbursed when we get the original form back. No copies. Paperwork consists of the actual voucher redeemed by the client, a checklist of surgeries provided, and a copy of the invoices. If an upfront allocation is given to a clinic, depending on the length of the agreement, reports with the above information are provided to the grant/project manager to ensure funds are being spent appropriately. It’s important to keep forms simple with consent info. And vouchers are only for publicly owned companion dogs or cats, not for rescues. This information is continuously updated and tracked by each organization and the grant manager to ensure proper statistics are being gathered.
USpA: Thank you so much, Sonia and continued progress! Lastly, how is Fix.Adopt.Save. financially supported?
When FAS was a budding idea five years ago, there was a staggering number of animals in Maricopa County. Eventually, all members came together in the Alliance for the FAS 3-year campaign, with PetSmart Charities and Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust funding $2 million each to help prepare, launch and carry the campaign through the initial 3 years. Other foundations, local charities, and private donors also joined in to help FAS and its mission.
Currently, as the first 3 years are coming to end, Nina Mason Pulliam Trust felt (as we all do) that we cannot stop the progress we are making. There is still work to be done, and we have proven our effectiveness by collaborating, therefore, Fix.Adopt.Save. will continue. I have a new two-year contract and am working on a strategic plan. Momentum is with us, and organizations are not stopping as we work in joint collaboration. This is a special project campaign that is not the typical “organization,” so sustainability for long-term falls under a different scope for us than others in United States.
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Animal Defense League of Arizona is located in Phoenix, Arizona, and is online at adlaz.org