Spay or pay


Sacramento, Calif. - A controversial bill pushing the nation's first statewide mandate to sterilize dogs and cats pits California shelter leaders against breeders and spurs bitter debate among veterinarians.

SACRAMENTO, CALIF. — A controversial bill pushing the nation's first statewide mandate to sterilize dogs and cats pits California shelter leaders against breeders and spurs bitter debate among veterinarians.

The mere topic of pet overpopulation draws strong opinions, yet the California Healthy Pets Act has earned an explosively divisive reputation. Backed by the California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA), the measure takes unprecedented action to reduce shelter animals in a state that spent a reported $2.75 billion to house unwanted dogs and cats from 1995 to 2005. Of the nearly 9 million animals that entered California's shelter system during that time, 5.2 million were euthanized. Nearly half a million were destroyed last year, the California Department of Health Services reports.

AB 1634, set for hearing April 10 in the California State Assembly Committee on Business and Professions, is designed to cut those numbers. Yet despite CVMA's support, it attracts heavy criticism from those who deem it radical, including breeders and a faction of the veterinary profession.

Controversy stems from legislative language that bans state residents from owning an intact dog or cat more than 4 months old without a permit. An exemption would be offered to confirmed breeders. Local municipalities will be charged with setting permit fees and enforcement. Violators face up to $500 in fines, and only a veterinarian-authored letter relating to an animal's age, poor health condition or illness would allow a 75-day exception. Proceeds would fund low-cost sterilization programs for indigent pet owners.

"I think this is wrong; it's incredibly prescriptive," says Dr. John Hamil, former CVMA president and a longtime member of the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy (NCPPSP).

"This is an emotional issue, not a rational issue. I think the veterinary association's job is to provide that solid middle ground based on facts. It's a terrible mistake."

While Hamil argues that the initiative punishes breeders, CVMA Executive Director Valerie Fenstermaker counters that the bill, rather than catering to owners, is aimed at protecting animals.

Valerie Fenstermaker

"We've tried in California so many solutions to fix the pet overpopulation problem and nothing's worked," she says. "Our board discussed this thoroughly, and we all believe animal ownership is a privilege. I understand that breeders don't want to pay for permits, but at some point someone has to step up to the plate and speak for these animals."

Trendy initiative

Critics may claim mandatory sterilization is rash, but it's far from novel. Some communities, such as Santa Cruz and Lake County, already have enacted such laws and, at press time, a similar statewide bill died in the New Mexico legislature. In January, Virginia lawmakers tabled legislation that sought to require mandatory sterilization of dog and cats purchased from dealers or adopted from releasing agencies. Despite fee-based exemptions for breeders, American Kennel Club (AKC) leaders and their lobbyists bucked the measure, citing "undue government interference."

"This bill sets up the idea that breeders who have intact animals should somehow fund animal control," says Sarah Sprouse, manager of AKC's Canine Legislation Department. "We feel that is very unfair."

The debate

CVMA President Dr. Ron Faoro fields up to 30 e-mails on the topic daily and counters detractors' claims.

Dr. Ron Faoro

Yet the Santa Barbara practitioner recognizes there is room to tweak some of the measure's language as it moves through the legislature. While in committee, the bill remains in the negotiation stages, ripe for amendments.

"Yes, this is a restriction on the freedom of individuals to be able to breed their animals if they desire," Faoro says. "But if all people acted responsibly, we wouldn't need laws, period. I see the faces of the 400,000 dogs and cats that were euthanized in California shelters last year and think, 'We've got to do better.' Let's get started on solving this senseless slaughter."

That's the assessment of Dr. Jeff Smith, who in Middletown, Calif., already abides by a local spay/neuter mandate enacted last year. This June marks the law's one-year anniversary in Lake County, which had claimed the highest number of euthanasias per capita in the state.

"The law passed here with no great resistance or fanfare," he says. "Since then, the sky has not fallen. Animal control doesn't even ask for records from veterinarians. This is just a tool they can use to compel owners to be responsible. It's a huge cost to run our shelter and put our animals to sleep."

Fuzzy math

AKC challenges those costs while Hamil disputes the state's euthanasia statistics. "The claims they make in the numbers are interesting, considering most shelters keep very poor records," he says.

No neutrality: Dr. John Hamil, former CVMA president and long-time member of the National Council on Pet Population and Study, counters on California's proposed spay/neuter measure: "This is an emotional issue, not a rational issue... It's a terrible mistake."

NCPPSP, which says euthanasia numbers among U.S. shelters vary and that data collection is limited, is expected soon to release a report designed to index shelter dog and cat populations and provide an indicator of pet-population trends. Hamil insists that numbers of euthanized shelter dogs have declined during the last three decades, while other critics predict the bill's passage would ultimately eradicate mixed-breed animals.

"There is almost a national absence of puppies in shelters right now," Hamil says. "This problem is slowly being solved. Things have changed, and that's happened without the government being involved."

Bracing for battle

AKC builds its lobbying strategy on such statements, using similar rhetoric to defeat the initiative in other legislatures.

But the Golden State's political climate is more permissive than most, granting the bill better odds to outlive an assault from the opposition, insiders say.

That chance has kicked AKC officials into high gear, organizing what they call a "grassroots effort," urging members of the group's 482-affiliated dog clubs in California to position their lawmakers against the measure. "AKC is having a heart attack," Fenstermaker says.

High-profile proponents of the bill appear just as passionate. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa soon plans to schedule a press conference to back the initiative with CVMA in attendance. More than a dozen groups such as the California Animal Control Directors' Association and the Humane Society of the United States support the measure. The California Healthy Pets Act is even featured on the Internet networking site, allowing interested parties to blog about merits of the legislation.

Faoro acknowledges the emotional commitment from everyone involved.

"This is a groundbreaking bill, so naturally it's getting a lot of attention and deserves the utmost consideration," he says. "Am I guaranteeing this will work? No. But when I consider the tragedy of half a million euthanasias, I'd like to believe that we can make a difference."

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