We can make the tragic death of 9-year-old Emma Hernandez the last time a child is lost to a dog attack. She can be the catalyst for change.

It is natural for community leaders to want to do something right now. This, however, is not an issue with an easy fix. This is not a light switch that can be flipped. This is not a plague on our community that can be cured overnight.

This is a complex issue.

Mandatory spay and neuter of dogs in Detroit may appear to be an easy solution. Unfortunately, it oversimplifies the issue and will, in fact, compound the problem.

Detroit is a community that struggles with poverty. We are a city that struggles to provide the core services that protect our citizens. That is the reality.

Imagine you are a family with a dog and you live in Detroit. It is now law that your dog be sterilized. Studies show that you already do not have the ability to access—or be aware of—a local veterinarian. You probably see law enforcement and animal control as punitive. There are nonprofits who are committed to helping provide services for your pet—but you likely do not know who or where they are.

The reality is that you will start to disengage from any services. If you did consider going to the veterinarian or perhaps a vaccination clinic, you then decide against going, out of fear they will find out your dog is unsterilized. You stop calling police or animal control for fear they will find out about your unsterilized dog.

We are not alone in our stance against mandatory spay and neuter:




It is easy to argue, “We offer free spay and neuter, and people still don’t show up.” The logical next step is to assume that the lack of participation in a free spay and neuter program was a conscious choice, so if you make it mandatory, they have to show up.

That is flawed logic, and it minimizes the impact of poverty on animal welfare. It is not free for the person you are looking to help. Our experience in working in these communities shows that transportation is an issue. They may not even be able to get to the clinic or shelter that would help. Even when the transportation issue can be solved, individuals struggling with poverty cannot afford to miss work to care for their pets, and choosing to miss work—even for a couple of hours—can make the difference in whether or not they eat.

The only proven way to have a long-term impact on animal populations is through making services voluntary and accessible—it is an issue that impacts human health just as it does animal welfare, and it is now becoming much more complex.

So we are back to what drives us all—what can we do right now?

We can work together to address the problem of accessibility to resources and information. So, how is the Michigan Humane Society addressing this right now?

In multiple ways, with one being our Pets for Life program currently underway in two zip codes within Detroit. Modeled after a community-based program created by the Humane Society of the United States, Pets for Life is a door-to-door community engagement program that creates true connections and relationships with those we hope to help most. Currently, we are in the process of mapping an entire community and its pets. With that data, we can become predictive in addressing animal welfare issues and smarter as to where best to deploy our services and resources. Further, a true connection to families allows us to understand what other social services may benefit them.

Another way is our Judith Caplan Phillips Pet Food Pantry, which creates individual relationships with families and their pets and allows us to support them better. Although this program primarily addresses food insecurity, it also looks at other areas where we can address needs to improve the quality of life for both people and pets.

Yet another way is our cruelty investigations and rescue division—core to who we are and have been for the past 142 years. While the more egregious cases of neglect and cruelty top the headlines, those are not the majority of our work. Most of the work completed by this team is meeting people where they are—helping people with resources, knowledge, and, sometimes, just an ear—to listen to their concerns, what they need, and not to prescribe what we think they need.

It is not an overnight fix, which may feel empty. However, it is the most effective solution. We need to work collectively to create stronger relationships with people in the community and to address the issue of access to care. These are the programs in which we need to invest. They can have an impact right now, and they can drive long-term generational change in the thoughts and minds of the people of Detroit.

Photo Credit: Michigan Humane Society