Pet owners gear up for spay-neuter law dogfight

POLL: Revised state bill still faces steep opposition, even after its bite is removed. Is this another ‘nanny’ law?

SACRAMENTO – The state Legislature has pet owners barking up a storm once again.

Nearly a year after controversy stopped the mandatory spay and neuter bill in its tracks, the proposal is back, this time in a watered-down form that hasn’t ceased the “nanny-state” howls in Orange County and across the state.

While the original version of Assembly Bill 1634 called for sterilizing all puppies and kittens in California at 6 months old, the revised proposal affects only pets impounded several times by animal control agencies.

Supporters say the amendments offer gradual steps to control pet overpopulation, but opponents maintain it’s a “punishment looking for a crime.”

“The bottom line is that the bill still requires mandatory spaying and neutering as a punishment,” said William Hemby, the leader of a board coalition of more than 42,000 pet owners and 800 dog and cat clubs opposing the bill.

Hemby and other pet owners oppose the bill as unnecessary and unfair, but their central criticism is that it infringes on their personal rights.

“You try to mess with my kids, my pets, my home, I’m going to be quite upset,” said Diane Amendola, a Huntington Beach resident who went from no interest in politics to leading a grass-roots campaign against the bill.

Her group, Pet Owners Want Equal Rights, or POWER, now has a mailing list of 200.

“Let each community deal with its own problem. It’s not something for the entire state to fund or be responsible for,” she said.

The amended bill calls for dogs to be sterilized only after they’ve been impounded three times, while cats may be fixed after the second offense. Owners whose pets have been impounded also would face fines of $50 to $100 if their animals are not fixed.

The bill also allows animal control officers to fine pet owners while investigating unrelated offenses, such as complaints of animal neglect.

Though not as dramatic as the original version, many supporters call the amended bill a “small victory” or a step in the right direction.

“This is much more incremental and will not create as big of a change,” said Judie Mancuso, an Orange County resident who helped author the original bill to address animal shelter overcrowding. “But it’s a tool that gives us something.”

Mancuso leads a coalition of animal control agencies, rescue shelters and veterinarians who are concerned about the cost of housing and euthanizing unwanted pets. The group says a dog or cat is killed every 63 seconds in California.

Orange County shelters spent nearly $322,500 euthanizing more than 13,000 animals from 2006 to 2007, according to a recent grand jury report. Statewide, half of the pets that end up in shelters are adopted, while the other half are euthanized.

The problem has become so wide spread that in February, the city of Los Angeles passed a law requiring that pets be spayed or neutered at 4 months old or their owners could face jail time or a fine of up to $1,000.

A similar law was proposed in Huntington Beach but it was defeated. The grand jury report recommends that Orange County cities adopt mandatory spay and neuter laws to address overpopulation.

“If anybody doubts the need for it, they ought to make an appointment (with their) local shelter official,” said Sharon Hayhoe, a Santa Ana dog owner who has volunteered at her local shelter for four years. “If they were to spend a few minutes with a shelter worker, they’d realize we need this law.”

Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, D-Van Nuys, the bill’s author, has done all he can to eliminate opposition to the bill. Recently, the assemblyman removed a provision about rabies counts, just to ensure it wouldn’t have to go before an appropriations committee that’s under pressure to keep costs down because of the budget deficit.

The bill now doesn’t have any fiscal impacts on the state, which means its next stop is to the Senate floor for a vote, probably in August. Until then, both sides are gearing up for a fight.

“We’re getting as many groups as (we) can get up here … to stop this bill on the Senate floor,” Hemby said.

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