For Animal Control : Pet Problems Grow; User Tax Suggested

Times Staff Writer

On trash pickup days in some parts of Los Angeles, neighborhood dogs are sometimes turned loose to forage so they can get enough to eat.

At local animal shelters, puppies and kittens are brought in for adoption--or eventual destruction--by people who say they wanted their children to experience "the miracle of birth," but now cannot find homes for the small creatures.

One county animal control worker says grimly that sometimes, he would like to show those people the chamber where thousands of animals are killed each year and tell them, "Now you can experience the miracle of death."

Despite the recent good news that pets can be good for one's blood pressure and that more Americans than ever before are living with pets, it is also true that more pets to care for mean more animal problems.

Now, animal control programs nationwide, pressed toward the bottom of civic budgets by new concerns for other voiceless constituencies such as latchkey children and homeless people and by the weight of Gramm-Rudman and revenue-sharing cuts, are beginning to think seriously about an old idea with a new application: taxing pet products to pay for the costs of animal care.

It is basically a user tax, and it already exists in various forms, like gasoline tax money channeled back into highway maintenance, or the "Lifeline" telephone tax to subsidize phone service to the poor.

A pet products tax--perhaps a 1% surcharge (one cent on every dollar spent on pet products)--could work the same way, financing low-cost spay and neuter clinics, inoculation programs and pet owner education projects that would help reduce the pet population and keep them healthy, animal regulation officials say.

Such a plan is under study in at least four states: California, New York, Illinois and Texas.

Waiting for Moment

It was first proposed here a decade ago as a statewide surcharge on pet food and accessories. City officials estimated that more than $5 million is spent locally each year on pet products, and the surcharge could provide Los Angeles with $520,000 annually.

The proposal died, largely because of opposition from the pet food industry, but animal regulation officials feel that it would receive a more favorable reception now.

"The precedent has been set out there (with the acceptance of user taxes)," said Robert I. Rush, head of the city's Department of Animal Regulation. "We've been waiting for a time in which we could come back to the forefront. I think the time is just about here for something like this."

An estimated $5 billion is spent annually in this country on pet food, and millions more on a myriad of pet care products, from leashes and collars to fish tanks and bird cages to accessories such as brushes, toys and feeding bowls.

A special tax on those products is "the only, only funding possible to adequately respond to the animal control problem, one that would not be subject to the exigencies of local government--the human needs precluding the animal needs every year," said John F. Kullberg, president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New York City. "It's an idea whose time has come."

Given the current pay-your-way, privatizing mood in the country, Rush said, the tax revenue could help make his department self-supporting, like Los Angeles' airport, harbor or building and safety divisions. It would keep licensing fees from being "prohibitive" and "free up some general fund money for other uses," as well as creating a more equitable system of paying for pet services, he said.

Hit by Proposition 13

Financial constraints on his department have increased since the measure was proposed almost 10 years ago, Rush said. "When Proposition 13 struck, we were hit pretty hard," he said, and when his department lost federal funds, 65 animal control officers were cut. Now 52 remain to patrol the city year-round, around-the-clock.

As it stands, 46% of the animal regulation department's $5-million-plus budget comes from license fees--dog licenses. There are 180,000 licensed dogs in Los Angeles, and perhaps another 70,000 unlicensed.

By contrast, there are about 300,000 cats in the city, and an unknown number of pet birds, and none of them is licensed. Since dogs and cats in particular use city services equally, cat owners would, via the tax, begin to share more of the burden as well as the benefit, Rush reasoned.

Robert Wilbur, a spokesman for the Pet Food Institute, said his organization opposes any such tax in part because "to make pet ownership more expensive for pet owners would be a step backward," especially for the elderly and poor, who might have to give up their pets if the costs of feeding them go up.

Wilbur argues that it is unfair to tax all pet owners to pay for the problems created by a few. "The stated purpose of these taxes is usually to fund animal control services, the necessity of which comes from improper pet ownership, the failure of some few pet owners to take care of pets properly," he said.

"The tax is obviously going to fall on all pet owners, most of whom are responsible, most of whom care for their pets responsibly, so you're going to be taxing the responsible to pay for the irresponsible."

(A survey by the Los Angeles Times' marketing research department showed that of households in Los Angeles and Orange counties that house a dog and/or a cat, nearly half of those questioned had an income above $35,000, and another 19% had incomes above $25,000. Sixty percent of pet owners surveyed had at least some college education).

Scoffs at Argument

The ASPCA's Kullberg said he often hears that argument, and he scoffs at it. "Some members of the citizenry call it a terrible idea: 'How can you put such a burden on those of us caring for animals?' It's such a shortsighted comment. . . . We're not talking about doubling the price of dog food or cat food. . . . It's ludicrous."

Dr. Dan Palmer, head of veterinary services in Chicago, where the proposal is also being considered, agrees. Such a tax "would be one of the few taxes in the country taxing the people who are responsible for the problem you're doing the work for," Palmer said.

"A lot of people are talking about not wanting to pay taxes for schools because they don't have any kids; if you're taxing pet owners for pet products, the people who are not pet owners have no complaint."

Palmer thinks most pet owners would not balk at the tax. "I'm sure everybody's against a tax of any kind, but I know I don't mind, as a dog owner, doing anything that benefits my dog, within reason. A one-cent increase on a can of dog food is not what you call exorbitant and if it's going to give my dog better protection and a better life style in this world, I'd be perfectly content to do that."

Animal regulation officials say that statistics bear out their claim that animal health and education programs are badly needed. Los Angeles alone destroys about 50,000 animals each year, of which one-third are saleable and placeable. Nationwide, Kullberg estimated, the pet population explosion means that 10 million animals are destroyed annually, another 10 million abandoned.

Los Angeles wrestles with a special problem related to animal care: endemic rabies and plague. It "is kind of a neat place to live--you can go out and see wild animals any day of the week," Rush said. But those animals--raccoons, opossums, falcons and hawks, squirrels, skunks, wild deer--can all transmit diseases to each other and to domestic animals, which is why free or low-cost inoculation programs are crucial, he said, to protect people and pets.

Across America, it is estimated that one person in 250 is bitten by an animal each year, the preponderance of them children, making the health of animals a public concern.

'Biggest Selling Item'

Officials optimistically hope that such a tax would not be passed along to consumers in the form of higher prices, since pet food is such a big seller and has a high profit margin, Rush said. "In some food stores it's the biggest selling item. . . . It's in the prime visibility spot--right at the door as you walk in."

And Kullberg speaks out for this effort with an argument akin to "pet rights."

"Pets are the last of the slave trade. We speak of ourselves as masters, owners. They're commodities we can get when we want them, and throw them away when we don't. . . . We have to legislate disincentives for people to have pets. It is a luxury, a privilege, not a right. We make it too easy in this country."

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