Cary Bernstein is in the prevention business. The organization she founded in 2011, Spay Neuter Charlotte, has played a significant role in helping control the animal population in Mecklenburg County. She professes that it’s not a very sexy part of the equation, but “keeping something from happening” is reducing the number of unwanted litters by the thousands. In just five years, her three clinics have performed fixes on 55,000 dogs and cats. She believes that everyone, regardless of their resources, deserves the opportunity to own and care for a pet. Meet Cary Bernstein, today’s FACE of Charlotte.
Tell us about how you founded Spay Neuter Charlotte.
I had been a volunteer at the Humane Society for a number of years, serving on their board and ultimately as the Chair of the Board. I walked away with an understanding about the landscape in our community where homeless pets were concerned and the role that spay/neuter played on the supply side. Back in 2010, our community had made good progress, but still more than 14,000 animals a year were being euthanized.
I was aware of an organization in Asheville called the Humane Alliance. I went to meet with their director to talk about starting a non-profit in Charlotte. We agreed that our community didn’t have enough resources, so I set off on a journey and became an affiliate of an organization called the National Spay Neuter Response Team. That led me to form a 501(c)3 and apply for a start-up grant from PetSmart. In August of 2011 I was awarded a grant for $80,000, and we opened our first clinic on North Davidson Street with a staff of five. Today we have three clinics, seven vets on payroll and a staff of 48 people.
Was there a tipping point in your growth?
A year after we opened, we got another small grant from PetSmart to fix pit bulls for $20. We had an avalanche of requests, I mean the flood gates opened! I realized we needed to expand our building on North Davidson Street and hire another doctor. There is a whole community of pet owners who don’t have financial resources to care for their pets. Most of the people we meet didn’t buy their pet — they were rescued, abandoned or left behind in a move. I believe that shouldn’t prevent people from the joy of owning a dog or cat.
How did you decide where to expand?
We kept a map of where people were coming from — so many were traveling a far distance. We decided to expand south because there was a need, and we found a space that was previously a vet practice so it made it really easy to open our Pineville location in 2013.
In February of this year we opened our Mooresville office. About that time, it was clear that North Davidson was too small. In May, we moved into a building purchased by a group of investors who believe in our business model. Here we are able to offer spay and neuter services as well as affordable vet practice to treat sick animals.
How do you charge for services?
First, we don’t qualify people. We don’t want to inhibit anyone from making an appointment. We charge $89 dollars for a large dog (varies by weight and gender), compared to around $300 for a large dog at a private veterinary practice. Also, with help from grants, we run specials throughout the year.
Tell us about PetSmart’s role in advancing your mission.
They have been a significant factor in our success. They provided us startup for our first office and later the expansion, then startup for Pineville, and they also give us grant funds annually to offer spay and neuter services for just $20 dollars, which we do four to five times a year. In June we ran a special and fixed 725 puppies and kittens. Think of how many litters we prevented?
What kind of impact has your organization been able to make in our community?
In the past five years since we started, we have performed 55,000 fixes. As a result, Mecklenburg County is down to 7,000 kills (from more than 13,000 in 2011). It’s a collective effort, and there are a lot of organizations doing great work. But we are making a significant dent in the supply side of the equation. I’m also proud that we can now see sick animals on an affordable basis and help educate pet owners on everything from heartworm prevention to offering vaccines.
Do you have a story that stands out in your mind since you opened?
The first year we opened, a woman drove two-and-a-half hours with a litter of kittens. I was helping her take the cat carriers to her car. I asked her why she came so far, and she said there was nothing nearby to spay and neuter these kittens. She explained that a momma cat dropped the litter on her porch and then got hit by car on the freeway near her house. This woman had been bottle feeding the kittens and all of her neighbors had been giving hard time about it. She told me, “God put me on this earth to take care, and this is what I’m going to do.” We serve people who want to do the right thing but don’t have the resources. The vast majority of our clients didn’t go buy a dog or cat — they inherited it.
Do you have pets?
I do! I have two dogs — Hazel and Tilly, both from the Humane Society, and three cats, all rescues.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I like to read, travel, work out and knit.
What is the best piece of advice that you’ve been given?
“When the judge rules in your favor, get out of the court room as fast as you can.”
What are three things, aside from faith, family and friends, that you can’t live without?
Purpose, laughter and Touche Eclat, my must-have beauty product.
Thank you, Cary, for your tireless efforts on behalf of the Charlotte pet population and its owners. Learn more about Spay Neuter Charlotte and how you can get involved here. And as always, thanks to the super talented Piper Warlick of Piper Warlick Photography for the gorgeous photos of Cary!
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