The worst moment of her day was the best moment of her life.
Spunky lay on her back Wednesday afternoon, belly shaved, front legs stretched over her head, out cold. The young tan-and-black tabby was about to cross the line separating problem from solution. An operation that took veterinarian Jennifer Graf six minutes made sure that Spunky -- part of a brood owned by an older woman -- will never be a mother.
The small victory is repeated dozens of times a day, thousands of times a year, in the Operation PETS clinic on a strip-mall stretch of South Park Avenue in Lackawanna. The more animals that get "fixed," the fewer cats and dogs will die at the end of a needle.
My visit was prompted by the problems at the SPCA of Niagara. A handful of former staffers or workers say animals there are mistreated and accused Executive Director John Faso of neglect. They contend that hundreds of dogs and cats were euthanized in recent months, many unnecessarily. As the owner of three cats, who knows the easy companionship they bring to a home, I found the story especially disturbing.
Barbara Carr of the SPCA Serving Erie County is heading an investigation. Although some have questioned Carr's independence, my sense -- having known her for years -- is that she will overturn the rocks in a report expected to be released today.
I don't know what the problems are at the SPCA of Niagara. But I know this: The larger answer isn't just better animal shelters. It's pet owners finding their Inner Adult, landing on Planet Responsibility and getting their animals spayed or neutered.
Animal rescue groups, SPCA satellites in malls, foster programs and mandatory sterilizations of shelter-adopted animals save lives. But nothing can do as much as pet owners getting their animals "fixed."
Graf -- 39, wearing blue scrubs, standing barely 5 feet tall -- is a one-woman sterilization army. Since Operation PETS opened at 3443 South Park Ave. four summers ago, she has "fixed" about 13,000 animals. Most of the owners were lower-income folks, who can get Mittens or Rover "done" for as little as $10 (www.operationpets.org).
"There wouldn't be an overkill problem at shelters if people got their pets sterilized," said Graf, who is not familiar with the SPCA of Niagara. "There are only so many animals you can place [in homes]. Shelters get overburdened."
Meowing cats provide a soundtrack from dozens of cages in three small rooms. By Wednesday's end, 36 cats -- 24 of them females -- were sterilized, along with two pit bull terriers. With three vets and a handful of techs, the place is a sterilization assembly line.
The nonprofit clinic, backed by the Maddie's Fund foundation, sterilized 7,498 animals last year. Most of them were adoptable cats. Others were feral cats trapped by cat-lovers, brought in, then returned to the neighborhood. If nothing else, they were spared the ordeal of giving birth to doomed kittens under a porch or behind a wood pile.
Tracy Parker stopped in Wednesday with Dusty, a tan-and-white Pekingese/Chihuahua mix, to make an appointment. Last summer, she had her black cat, Casper, "fixed" at the shelter.
"There are too many unwanted animals, I don't want to contribute to that," said Parker, 28, who recently lost her job at a garden center. "This is the only place I could afford to get this done."
There are more cats than homes, partly because lower-income owners can't pay the going rate -- upward of $65 -- to get pets "fixed." At this clinic, they do not have to.
"We cater to people who otherwise couldn't afford to get this done," Graf said.
At $10 a pop, everyone can be part of the solution.