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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: Thank you for bringing the SPAY/USA program to the attention of your readers. Almost 12,000 calls were received in the first three weeks after the column was published. We hired a 24-hour answering service to take the calls, and our most experienced staff people worked seven-day weeks to keep up with the referrals. The number of calls is down to about 250 a day now.

Many of the inquiries were for more than one animal -- often three or more cats, and sometimes up to 30! As of Nov. 17, there were 3,019 cat spays, 5,459 cat neuters, 3,085 feral cat (sex unknown) alters, 3,084 dog spays, 2,279 dog neuters and 882 dog (sex unknown) alters.

The biggest problem we have now is cats. Taking into account that a male cat can be responsible for many litters per year, and a female can have three litters per year, we are being conservative when we take the total number of cat surgeries (11,563) and estimate that each of them could have produced 10 kittens in one year -- or 115,630 cats. A year later, if each of those had been responsible for 10 more kittens, there would be well over a million. The dog numbers are not quite as dramatic, but nonetheless, we will see the difference at shelters next spring.

I wish we could persuade people to keep cats indoors, to put IDs on them in case they slip outside, to adopt them with the understanding that they live 15 to 20 years, and to spay or neuter them.

At this time, there are literally tens of millions of homeless cats. People get cats because they are "easy to take care of," then leave them outside with no identification, unaltered, where they multiply like rabbits. The cat crisis today is what the dog crisis was 20 years ago.

Thank you, Abby, for all of the good you have accomplished with a single column. -- ESTHER R. MECHLER, DIRECTOR, SPAY/USA

DEAR ESTHER: No need to thank me -- that's what I'm here for. I'm delighted to know that your program, which resolves the problem of homeless, unwanted pets without destroying them, is making a difference.

For those readers who missed the original letter back in October, SPAY/USA is a program that provides referrals to veterinarians who offer low-cost neutering and spaying. The SPAY/USA phone number is 1-800-248-SPAY (7729).

DEAR ABBY: From time to time, you've published letters from people who had found money. One woman bought a pair of jeans at a yard sale and found $5 in one of the pockets. A high school student found a wallet on the pavement. When I read those letters, the correct behavior was evident. Then something similar happened to me, and I wasn't so sure anymore.

I had finished shopping in a drugstore that is owned by a local family. When I got outside, I discovered I had been given $10 too much in change, so I went back in and said, "You've made a mistake in my change." Assuming I meant I had been shortchanged, the owner angrily interrupted with: "Once you're outside the door, we don't do anything about it!" and he walked away. I replied, "You gave me $10 too much, and I was going to return it."

I turned around and walked out with the $10. Abby, what would you have done had that happened to you? -- OVERCHANGED

DEAR OVERCHANGED: I would have insisted that the owner accept the money -- and in the future, I would take my business to another drugstore.

DEAR ABBY: One more for "Annoyed in Minnesota," who was offended by people who responded to questions by saying, "I don't care":

My mother tells the story about my grandfather who was driving his buggy down the road and came across a man who was walking.

Grandpa asked the fellow if he wanted a ride, and the fellow replied, "I don't care."

Grandpa said, "I don't care either. Giddyup!" -- LYNN BARTEAU, ST. CHARLES, MO.

What teens need to know about sex, drugs, AIDS, and getting along with peers and parents is in "What Every Teen Should Know." To order, send a business-sized, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $3.95 ($4.50 in Canada) to: Dear Abby, Teen Booklet, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, Ill. 61054-0447. (Postage is included.)

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