A California bill requiring the sterilization of dogs and cats stirred up a hornet?s next of opposition, leaving its chief sponsor to come up with a less-divisive measure next year. Some 20,000 people protested to lawmakers, and the embattled California Veterinary Medical Association, an early co-sponsor, backed away after fielding thousands of complaints.
SACRAMENTO, CALIF. — The nation's first statewide spay/neuter mandate fell to opponents last month, quieting a controversy so deafening insiders likened its emotional impact to death-penalty and abortion debates.
Political incision: Dr. Ron Faoro former CVMA president and a practitioner in Santa Barbara, Calif., says bad blood surrounding a bill forcing the sterilization of dogs and cats has divided the profession.
The state Senate committee that turned the California Healthy Pets Act into a two-year bill now prompts its sponsor, Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, to come up with a less-divisive version next year. Yet despite the original's narrow passage in the Assembly, the bill's explosive reputation drowns its intentions and leaves in its wake an embattled California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA).
"Allowing a two-year bill only means that this will be the center of our lives for yet another year," former CVMA President Dr. Ron Faoro says. "It's interesting how much of an emotional issue this is to veterinarians who are opposed. I've never seen anything like it, not in my lifetime. This is as political as it gets."
Opponent of mandate: Dr. John Hamil cites an "almost national absence" of puppies in shelters and questions state euthanasia statistics. He led veterinary opposition against AB 1634 and the California Veterinary Medical Association, which once sponsored it.
Roughly 20,000 people sent protest letters to lawmakers, with thousands of the complaints fielded by CVMA, an original co-sponsor of the measure. The Act, or AB 1634, intended to reduce shelter-animal numbers in a state that spent a reported $2.7 billion to house unwanted dogs and cats between 1995 and 2005. Nearly half-a-million animals were destroyed last year, the California Department of Health contends.
But opponents, including the American Kennel Club and some CVMA-member veterinarians, rallied against the ban on owning intact dogs and cats more than a few months old. They complained the bill's exemption fee for breeders was unfairly punishing and wrongly excluded mutts, whose owners had no means for circumventing the mandate.
Bill adversaries like Dr. John Hamil, a former CVMA president, cited an "almost national absence" of puppies in shelters and challenged the state's euthanasia statistics. While proponents called AB 1634 groundbreaking, Hamil claimed the bill marks Big Government's involvement with a slippery-slope inference.
Even amendments attained by CVMA that exempted veterinarians from reporting illegally intact animals failed to satisfy disgruntled DVMs. On July 2, the association bowed to constituent pressures and withdrew its sponsorship status. Nine days later, Senate lawmakers nearly killed the measure.
Faoro, who since has reached his presidential term limit, says he spent up to eight hours a day on the issue, countering spin from opponents and defraying criticism that the association wedded activist groups such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society of the United States, which also backed the legislation.
San Diego practitioner Dr. Patricia Ungar outlines that connotation: "CVMA at this point ought to feel uneasy because they're partnering with groups that have known PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) connections. This is really an issue of morality, and you cannot legislate morality. I know a lot of people who are dumping their association membership if this thing is not fixed."
According to Ungar, a poll of regional veterinary medical associations throughout the state revealed a majority opposed the pet-sterilization mandate and CVMA's sponsorship of the initiative.
"CVMA was out of line doing what they did without consulting members," she says. "One of the best things they can do is get out of this."
That's exactly what CVMA did when its Board of Governors voted in late June to continue its support with a bevy of amendments. The group then ended its sponsorship when those revisions weren't realized.
That move signaled the bill's eventual demise, at least for now, insiders say. Faoro says all parties will be invited to contribute if it is reintroduced.
Levine, now tapped-out on Assembly terms, plans to run for a Senate seat in 2008, and controversial initiatives often aren't welcome during election years.
Faoro promises CVMA will be at the table if a sterilization mandate reappears.
"We want to get as many veterinarians as satisfied with this as possible," he says. "It seems people are more concerned about their civil liberties than population control. I think CVMA understands that if you have a strong opinion, even if it's in the minority, we're going to give great attention to it. We've upped the ante on listening to members, considering all the heat we've taken."