Tina Parra's surprise when her teenage son brought home a boxer turned into shock when the Windsor waitress contacted veterinary clinics to see about getting the puppy spayed.
"It was going to be $250. I couldn't afford it at the time," said Parra, a single mom.
For a mere $30, Sonoma County's new mobile spay and neuter clinic performed the same service Wednesday inside a van parked at the Western Farm Center in Santa Rosa.
"It's a huge help," Parra said.
The debut of the mobile clinic, dubbed the Love-Me-Van, marked the county's latest attempt to utilize the specially equipped vehicle, which was purchased 12 years ago with dreams of bringing low-cost spay and neuter services to the masses.
That vision mostly went unrealized, but that has not deterred Animal Care and Control Director Amy Cooper from trying again to cut down on unwanted cat and dog births in Sonoma County by going to where the need for sterilization is greatest.
Among the 13 animals waiting their turn Wednesday to go under the knife was Mary Jane, a Maltese mix brought in by Dovie Camacho, who is homeless and found the dog.
The dog, who is about 3 years old, already has given birth to two litters of puppies. But Camacho could not afford the cost of having her spayed at a private clinic, said her daughter, who lives in Windsor and gave her first name as Desirea.
She predicted the county's service "is really going to help a lot of people."
The outreach service, which is being marketed as "Love Me, Fix Me," replaces a voucher program at the county shelter that Cooper said was "cumbersome" and "confusing."
She said the shelter has made strides in the number of animals that are adopted out or released to rescue groups. In the fiscal year ending last June, nearly 5,600 cats and dogs were brought to the shelter. Of those, just over 1,200 were euthanized. Cooper said those animals were unadoptable because of medical ailments or other problems.
By targeting areas where people struggle to afford spay and neuter services, Cooper hopes the numbers of unwanted animals will decrease.
"There won't be instant results," she said. "It will take time."
Such was the dream in 2000 when the county purchased the specialized van for $160,000 using public and private funds. Instead, the van was mostly idle amid bickering between the county and animal welfare advocates. The van even was the subject of a 2009 county grand jury report that criticized officials for not utilizing the service.
Cooper said as many as 2,400 sterilizations can be performed this year in the mobile van, nearly five times what the county shelter was providing annually through the voucher program.
She said the van will be in operation two to three times a week across the county. Areas to be targeted include those with a high number of low-income residents, those where surrenders of animals are common and rural areas where people lack the means of getting to Santa Rosa.
The county is using $104,000 from animal control's public education fund to help operate the mobile service. That amount was matched by the Salatko Animal Welfare Fund of the Community Foundation of Sonoma County. VIP PetCare Services and Compassion Without Borders also are providing support.
RJ Kamprath, a Santa Rosa resident and longtime shelter watchdog, said Wednesday it is "wonderful" that the county is utilizing the van. But she still has worries about the service reaching poor people and residents in outlying areas such as Cloverdale and the Russian River communities.
"So far, it's not going out to, and serving, the demographic who really needs it," Kamprath said.
The van will be in different locations in Santa Rosa and Windsor through March.
The county's cost to sterilize a cat or dog runs between $15 and $30. About 240 surgeries, or 10 percent of the anticipated annual total, will be offered at no charge to the county's poorest residents, based on a formula using the federal poverty level, Cooper said.
Microchips and vaccination vouchers also will be provided at no extra charge.
No one will be turned away based on their income level. That includes people who otherwise could afford to have the surgery performed at a private clinic.
Inside the van Wednesday, veterinarian Anne Castro and two shelter employees maneuvered in the confined space to perform the surgeries. Castro said having the surgery done in the van "doesn't change the quality of care. It's just tighter and cozier."
For more information or to make an appointment, call VIP Petcare Services at (800) 427-7973 or Sonoma County Animal Care and Control at 565-7100.
You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or email@example.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.