In an effort to reduce the number of unwanted pets put to death each year, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday passed the nation’s first law requiring owners of dogs and cats to buy a breeding license or get their pets sterilized.
The action, which affects pet owners in the unincorporated area of San Mateo County, culminates a heated and emotional two-month effort by local humane society officials to educate the public about the problems of pet overpopulation.
Fed up with putting more than 10,000 unwanted cats and dogs to death each year, the Peninsula Humane Society launched a grisly campaign to generate support for the ordinance. First, the group bought advertising inserts in local newspapers and subjected readers throughout the Bay Area to pictures of trash barrels full of dead cats.
Then the society held a public pet execution at a press conference, injecting five cats and three dogs with poison from a bottle marked “Fatal Plus” as cameras whirred and reporters jotted notes.
While the humane society was flooded with complaints for its grisly public awareness campaign, it succeeded in generating support for the breeding ban. When the ordinance goes into effect in January, 1992, anyone without a breeding license will be prohibited from owning an adult dog or cat that has not been spayed or neutered. Violators will face fines of up to $500.
A task force of veterinarians, breeders and humane society officials will now be established to work out the details of the program, including licensing fees.
Supervisor Tom Nolan, author of the measure, said more than 50 local officials from throughout the country have requested copies of the ordinance. He said he expects other communities to pass similar legislation soon.
“At first, people thought this was just another flaky idea from the Bay Area . . . a supervisor from San Francisco told me we had actually out-flaked them,” Nolan said. “But when people became aware of all the unwanted pets killed each year, they realized this legislation made a lot of sense.”
Animal right activists--including rock star Grace Slick, who spoke at a meeting last week--supported the controversial ordinance.
However, some dog breeders, who strongly opposed the measure as an invasion of government into private lives, vowed to hire an attorney and challenge its constitutionality.
On Tuesday, opponents of the ordinance paraded outside the supervisors’ meeting with their dogs, carrying signs saying: “What Next, Puppy Police?” and “If the Humane Society had been in Hollywood, there would be no Lassie.” More than 100 people packed the supervisors’ small chambers and offered emotional testimony before the vote.
Dog breeders and show dog owners argued that they are not responsible for the problem, yet they will soon have to contend with endless layers of bureaucracy when applying for breeding licenses.
Betty-Anne Stenmark, founder of Responsible Dog Breeders of San Mateo County, called the humane society “radicals,” and the ordinance “way too extreme.”
“Every dog I own is a champion; I’ve never had a dog in the pound,” said Stenmark, who raises Dandie Dinmont terriers. “I even have a waiting list of people who want my animals . . . people like a music critic in Japan and a breeder in British Columbia.”
But Kim Sturla, executive director of the Peninsula Humane Society, which serves San Mateo County, said that the society has been trying for years to educate people about animal overpopulation, with little success. The time had come, she said in an interview, for a stronger approach.
“Come down to our shelter and pick one of the many dogs that we have to kill every day,” Sturla said. “She’ll be trembling as you drag her down the hallway to our euthanasia room. Hold her as technicians inject her with poison and you feel the life leave her body. Then look me in the eye and tell me that our methods or this ordinance is too extreme.”
Nolan decided to sponsor the ordinance after he learned from the humane society that it was spending more than $300,000 a year on animal overpopulation education, with few results. He said he has received more phone calls, letters and comments on this topic than on any other issue he has addressed in his six years on the County Board of Supervisors.
“Because of state budget cuts, we’ve had to cut our services to the sick, the elderly, the poor, the mentally ill . . . but there was nowhere near the outcry about that, compared to the dog and cat ordinance,” Nolan said.
Under the ordinance, all dog and cat owners--including professional breeders--will have to spay or neuter their pets unless they obtain a license.
The first part of the ordinance goes into effect in July, 1991, when there will be a six-month ban on the breeding of all dogs and cats in the area to reduce the number of pets housed in shelters. The licensing program will begin Jan. 1, 1992.
Those who do not have their animals sterilized will receive one warning ticket, and then will be fined up to $500. The ordinance will be enforced by both the Peninsula Humane Society and county animal control officers.
The society, which takes in thousands of strays a year, will refuse to return pets to owners unless they are sterilized. The organization will also contact individual dog owners after checking dog licensing records to determine which animals have not been sterilized. The group intends to push soon for a cat licensing program.
“Some people claimed we’ll be flying over the city in helicopters spying on pets,” Sturla said. “But this ordinance is clearly enforceable.”
Veterinarians in the community appear to be divided about the need for such an ordinance, said Steve Holmstrom, president of the Peninsula Veterinary Medical Assn. He said some veterinarians consider breeders extremely conscientious and view requiring them to have licenses as unnecessary.
But Susan Regan, director of the Assn. of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, spoke in favor of the ordinance Tuesday, arguing that the “current method of managing animal overpopulation by killing animals is unacceptable.”
The uproar over the ordinance and the Peninsula Humane Society’s tactics for publicizing the need for a breeding ban was the latest in a series of controversial campaigns initiated by the group.
The group fought for state legislation to allows high school students to decline to dissect animals in science classes. It helped push through another state law ensuring that all animals adopted from shelters eventually be spayed or neutered.
The society also sends county animal control officers to rodeos to determine whether animals are mistreated, has led a public crusade urging people not to wear fur, and has filed lawsuits against universities and hospitals that are involved in animal research.
“In the past, people viewed humane societies as just dog and cat pounds,” Sturla said. “But we see our role as more of an animal protection agency. We figure, if we don’t speak up about various animal rights issues in our county, who will?”