Richland woman finds home for mobile spay/neuter business, but needs public's help

By Dori O'Neal, Tri-City HeraldOctober 28, 2012 

For the past three years, Harriet Johnson has been as nomadic as most of her homeless four-legged patients.

Several times a month, she packs tubs of surgical equipment, medicine and bandages in the back of her aging minivan and hauls them around the Mid-Columbia.

"There is a definite demand here in the Tri-Cities for this kind of public service to help animals," Johnson said. "It's hard to keep up with the need sometimes."

Johnson, a retired Richland school teacher who tends to the needs of her aging parents in Connell when she isn't attending to homeless cats and dogs, is the tireless director of Prevent Homeless Pets, a nonprofit providing affordable or free spay and neuter services for owned and unowned cats and dogs.

"I've been borrowing or renting temporary space where I can find it since we started in 2009. We finally found a permanent place to rent in Benton City, which will significantly cut down on our traveling expenses," she said.

Johnson's devotion to animals spans her entire life, but her years as a volunteer with the Benton Franklin Humane Society showed her just how many homeless, abandoned and mistreated animals in the Mid-Columbia need help.

Her group isn't the only volunteer agency in the Tri-Cities that helps abandoned animals. Pet Over Population Prevention also is a no-kill pet organization that tenaciously works to prevent the suffering of stray animals, but Johnson's group is the only one that handles feral cats -- trapping them for spaying or neutering, which cuts down on the growing feral population.

But PHP's finances are in a constant state of flux, so Johnson is asking the community to help.

"Our funding comes strictly from public donations as well as the low-cost fees we charge for the services we provide," she said. The new facility still needs a washer and dryer and a surgical light, she added.

Fundraising is a struggle because Johnson and her volunteers spend most of their time helping animals.

PHP arranged 1,284 spays/neuters of cats and 89 dogs in 2009. Two years later, in 2011, the nonprofit handled spay/neuter services for 1,699 cats and 165 dogs.

On Friday in Pasco, PHP spayed 12 female cats and neutered 13 males -- "A good day," Johnson said.

Johnson estimates that by the end of this year, the total number of pets PHP will have helped will reach 6,500.

And it's possible the numbers could go up in the future now that the nonprofit has a home and has found a Puget Sound veterinarian interested in providing full-time spay and neuter services for PHP.

Dr. Sheila Doyle of Shoreline has been working at a small animal clinic in the Seattle area for a couple of years, but she plans to move to the Tri-Cities.

"Having Dr. Doyle come on board will be a huge help," Johnson said.

Doyle is looking forward to working with Johnson and is anxious to live on the east side of the state again, as she grew up in Spokane. And, she isn't concerned that working for a nonprofit agency won't earn her the kind of money private practice would.

"First of all, I certainly didn't get into this line of work for the money, and I've been wanting to focus on spaying and neutering for some time because so many animals are put down needlessly," Doyle said. "I heard about Harriet from some of the veterinarians I know that she works with and decided her organization was just what I was looking for."

She plans to be settled in the Tri-Cities by the end of December, and to have the new Benton City clinic operating before the end of January.

"The kind of work Harriet has been doing with PHP is very important because it actually saves the lives of so many animals, and that appeals greatly to me," Doyle said. "My hope is to spay or neuter as many (stray) animals as possible because that will decrease the number of abandoned pets from ending up being euthanized later."

Most animal shelters are overwhelmed with abandoned, lost or mistreated pets, and those that haven't been spayed or neutered usually are the ones that end up being put down, Doyle said. That is especially true for cats, she added.

Angela Zilar, director of the Tri-Cities Animal Shelter, said she works closely with PHP, POPP and the Humane Society. And she applauds Johnson's dedication to the neglected animal kingdom.

"Every agency that deals with animals does their best to help homeless pets, and Harriet has been phenomenal in getting feral cats fixed so they won't continue breeding more homeless cats," Zilar said.

Shannon Novakovich, board president of the Benton Franklin Humane Society, said Johnson inquired about turning an abandoned building on the shelter's new site in Finley into a spay and neuter clinic.

"We would have loved to have Harriet's organization here, but that old building requires quite a bit of fixing up to make it habitable, and that would have been too expensive for her and for us," Novakovich said.

The home for Prevent Homeless Pets will be a business storefront in downtown Benton City at 812 Della Ave. The clinic plans to be open at least three days a week, where Doyle will perform spay/neuter procedures for unowned cats and dogs as well as for low income pet owners at a reduced cost.

Cat spay/neuter prices through PHP for low income pet owners range from $20 to $40. Dog spay/neuter prices range from $58 to $70, depending on weight. Rabies shots are an additional $5 for dogs and cats.

Johnson said the new clinic needs about $75,000 a year to stay open. She has received a $10,000 grant from an anonymous donor, and she plans to lobby for federal, state and private grant money as well as community support, she said.

Johnson said Prevent Homeless Pets is grateful for any donations and always is in need of paper towels, laundry detergent, chlorine bleach, cat food, dog food, bottled water, fleece throws, heating pads and electric blankets.

Anyone who would like to contribute cash donations or supplies can contact Johnson via email at preventhomelesspets@gmail.com or send a donation to P.O. Box 3011, Richland, Wash., 99354.

Anyone wishing to report a homeless cat or dog can do so at www.preventhomelesspets.org or call 509-375-4024.

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