Pet lovers at odds over spay-and-neuter bill
10:00 PM PDT on Sunday, June 3, 2007
SACRAMENTO - A bill requiring most California dog and cat owners to sterilize their pets or risk $500 fines faces a key deadline this week, following weeks of debate about the wisdom of a statewide spay-and-neuter policy.
The measure, dubbed the Healthy Pets Act by supporters and the Pet Extermination Act by some opponents, divides animal control officials, veterinarians, breeders and pet owners in Riverside and San Bernardino counties and around the state.
"I've been involved with animal issues for 10 years. And I know people are passionate on all sides of the issue. I knew it was going to be contentious," the bill's author, Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, D-Van Nuys, said. "I didn't know it would be this big, but I knew it would draw a lot of people out who don't normally come out."
In recent weeks, both sides have flooded lawmakers' offices with letters, faxes and e-mails. Bloggers and talk-radio hosts have joined the fight.
Proponents contend that the bill would reduce the estimated 1 million strays who end up in pounds and animal shelters each year, many of them the offspring of ba
ckyard breeders or irresponsible owners who let their pets roam.
But critics slam the proposal as an ill-conceived government intrusion. They argue that the measure would punish legitimate breeders and pet owners, while doing little to reduce the number of abandoned animals.
Trying to lessen the opposition and win over skeptical members of his own party, Levine late last week introduced amendments that carve out clearer exemptions for dogs used by law enforcement, the blind, and as animal companions. They also restrict what cities and counties can charge the owners of "intact" animals.
Vote This Week
The bill has cleared two committees already. But it needs to pass the 80-member Assembly by Friday or else it's likely dead for the year. A vote could come as early as today.
Republicans, who opposed the bill in committee, seem ready to do so again on the Assembly floor.
"I appreciate that he's trying to address a problem but I just don't think this is the right way to go," said Assemblyman Bill Emmerson, R-Redlands, who voted against the bill twice in committee. "I just think it adds a lot more fees on legitimate breeders."
Some of Levine's fellow Democrats also seem skeptical. Assemblywoman Wilmer Amina Carter, D-Rialto, who backed the bill in committee last month, would not commit in a recent interview to supporting the measure on the floor.
Introduced in February, the bill would require cat and dog owners to get their animals fixed, or "altered," at four months of age.
The only exception would be for pets with special intact permits. People eligible for the permits include licensed breeders and owners or handlers of service dogs, police dogs, or pets too unhealthy for the surgery.
Animal control departments would enforce the law, with the help of tips from other agencies and residents.
Violators would be fined $500. The bill would take effect in April 2008.
Proponents estimate that it costs $250 million annually to house stray dogs and cats in California.
Cities and counties already can adopt spay-and-neuter ordinances. The city of San Bernardino recently approved a similar rule.
A spay-and-neuter ordinance has been on the books in Santa Cruz County since 1995. Officials there estimate that the number of animals in the counties' pounds has fallen by about two-thirds.
But supporters of the Sacramento legislation say there needs to be a state law, not a patchwork of local regulations.
"This bill would give us one additional tool to address those who breed irresponsibly," said Brian Cronin, program manager for San Bernardino County Animal Care and Control.
Animal-control departments in Riverside and San Bernardino counties have endorsed the measure. Government-run and private animal shelters in both counties house about 85,000 animals annually.
"We as organizations have basically exhausted all the post-impound strategies," said Dr. Allan Drusys, Riverside County's chief veterinarian. Many animals cannot be reunited with owners or adopted out, he said, and have to be put down.
Levine's office has received more than 5,000 letters on the bill. Messages of support have arrived from the band INXS, comedians Bill Maher and Kevin Nealon, actor Pierce Brosnan, actress Diane Keaton, and "the Dog Whisperer," Cesar Milan.
But opponents say the state proposal would fail to make a dent in the overpopulation problem.
Responsible breeders would comply with the law, they say. But backyard breeders -- those in California and out-of-state -- would continue to produce thousands of puppies and kittens.
"They're violating the law already. They're not licensing. They're involved in dog fights. I don't think they're all of a sudden going to say, 'We're going to get him spay and neutered,' " said dog owner Luisa Serrano, of Redlands.
Richelle Romano, of Riverside, shows her two Dalmatians and would be eligible for an intact permit.
The bill does not set a permit fee schedule; that would be up to cities and counties. But Romano said she fears that the permits would be too expensive for many legitimate breeders.
Organizations such as the American Kennel Club, which opposes the bill, have predicted that the law would discourage people from participating in dog shows held in California, costing the state millions in lost tourist activity.
"It's unfair to treat us that way and everyone else does whatever they want and gets away with it," Romano said.
Gov. Schwarzenegger has not taken a position on the bill.
Even if the measure fails, spay-and-neuter requirements still could come to the Inland area. Riverside County has held several hearings on a county ordinance and Cronin said he would recommend a San Bernardino County ordinance.
"Really, to have a healthy community, indiscriminate breeding is not acceptable," said Robert Miller, Riverside County's director of animal services.
Reach Jim Miller at 916-445-9973 or jmiller@PE.com
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