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Ethical Dilemma: When Is It Time to Cut?

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On numerous occasions I have written to the New York Times Ethicist columnist with ethical dilemmas arising from my job and personal situations. They were never selected for publication. While failing to use my questions was not an ethical lapse on their part it was very disappointing on this end.

So, I have decided to post one of my quandaries here on the Huffington Post to solicit your opinions, which I hope will be more forthcoming than from our friends at the Times.

After watching the New York Marathon last fall, my wife, two little kids and I went shopping in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. And while we had planned to get a puppy in six or seven years when the kids were older, we came upon a 2-month-old puppy in the window of a pet store. An adorable little Boston terrier; prancing around and playing with another puppy.

I am well aware of the horrors of puppy mills and of buying dogs from stories. I would never get a puppy from a pet store -- yet I did. It was not an issue of right or wrong but about that puppy in the window that we all fell immediately in love with -- and he with us based on the volume of licks the kids received.

This is not my ethical dilemma. It's coming.

We named him Nucky, after the Steve Buscemi character in Boardwalk Empire. They both have buggy eyes and are thugs with sensitive sides.

When we took him to the vet they reminded us that he would need to be neutered. She also shared that the cost would be at least $600.

We had already dropped a lot of unexpected cash to get the little guy. Another $600 for a simple operation? Really?

I was lamenting the situation at a dog park when another dog owner told me the ASPCA has a mobile unit that does neutering for $130. The trick is that you need to get there at 6:30 a.m. and wait in line for 90 minutes to get an appointment. Only the first 20 animals are served each day.

Online there was more information about the service. They listed the locations where the unit would be parked this month. It was $30 for owners on public assistance and $125 for others (plus $5 for that weird cone they put around their necks after surgery). Cash or check. They did take 20 pets per day but large dogs took two spots (need more room) and owners could bring two pets at a time.

A few weeks later I set the alarm for 5 a.m., took a shower, got ready, woke Nucky and drove 30 minutes to Williamsburg to the spot where the unit was scheduled to arrive. It was in front of a Metro PCS store under the subway and across from a department store called 'Fat Albert.'

We arrived at 6:15 and there were already three pet owners lined up. One had brought pen and paper to start the list. The first woman had a female cat and a small male dog. Both in kennels under blankets on a motorized wheelchair. The second had a small dog that was waiting in a car around the corner. The guy in front of me had a male cat in a kennel that he said was 2 and bites.

Nucky would be fifth in line. When Nucky went near the kennel with the aggressive cat, the cage lurched forward as the cat tried to bite him. Nucky began shaking with anxiety which he kept up for the next two hours while we waited.

Two of the owners were regulars and began to tell stories about the mobile sterilization van. One had tried three times to get an appointment but had missed the 20 pet cut off. The woman at the front of the line had waited three hours once only to call and find out it was cancelled.

Over the next 90 minutes the line grew. I met a man with an eight pound dog named Nina who had already had two litters. He told his wife they couldn't have any more dogs in their small one bedroom apartment. He has demanded Nina get spayed.

Finally the mobile unit pulled up. It was like a cross between an RV and a Mister Softee ice cream truck. Two ASPCA staff set up shop. The two of them divided the responsibilities of van driver, cashier, crowd control, nurse and surgeon.

They took the list and logged us in. We made it! Nucky was still shaking.

Not everyone was so lucky. There were more pets than they could take that day. Disappointed owners who had taken the day off to take care of their pet were turned away. They had showed up too late to make the cut.

They explained all the rules -- as they had been written on their site. They did add one detail. The van's power often goes out and if that happens they would need to call us to come pick up our pets immediately. They might also call if there is an emergency.

They gave us forms to fill out with our names, the patients' names and the services requested. They also gave instructions on how to prove you are on public assistance to get the discount.

We were called upon in order to ascend the metal stairs into the unit. They called my name after about 20 minutes. I picked up Nucky and we made our way inside.

There were 20 kennels lining the wall. Two dogs and two cats were already secured. In the back of the van was the operating room. A big metal table. Lights. A harness. Rather than the bowl of mints you would find in most waiting rooms, they had a bowl of small syringes ready to go.

The cashier/surgeon asked me if I was on public assistance. I answered honestly. She paused. I asked what percent of their clients were on public assistance and paying the reduced rate. She said 95 percent.

Simple math. That means 19 out of 20. I was the only one.

OK. Here is where I finally get to my ethical dilemma. I was the only one. I was the cheap SOB who wouldn't pay retail and had gone to this mobile service that it now appeared was designed really to help those on public assistance.

Worse yet, I had taken a spot for a service while others who clearly needed the service and were statistically likely to be on welfare were turned away.

I was embarrassed. I explained that the vet wanted $600 and that seemed crazy, didn't it? She wasn't sympathetic. Vets need to make a living too.

What was the ethical thing to do at that moment? Remove Nucky from the list and give his spot to a needier pet? Treat my morning as a sunk cost and take him to the $600 vet?

On the flip side, I got there at 6:15. And, if they didn't want to serve those of us not on assistance, they wouldn't offer the option. If the other people had been there at the suggested time they would have been on the list. Plus, the unit would be back in a month or in another area in Brooklyn later that week.

What would you have done?