Animal lovers and municipal officials have decided that it's time to stop pussyfooting around the problem of unlicensed cats.
A growing stray cat population and the need for new municipal revenues is propelling a movement to make cat licenses almost as common as dog tags. A "kitty summit" is scheduled for next month to galvanize support throughout Los Angeles County for collaring the cats.
"Dog people for years have paid the whole bill, and it's time to be equal and fair," said Virginia Hogan, an animal lover and vice chairwoman of the Pet Population Committee in Lomita, where 43% of the calls for animal control services are for cats.
Lomita last month became the first city in the South Bay and the second in the county to begin licensing cats. La Verne was the first.
Torrance has been toying with the licensing idea for a year, and the Carson City Council is considering a licensing ordinance that was introduced last week.
"Why should dog owners have to pay the entire bill for animal control services when cats are the main problem?" said Edward C. Cubrda, president of the Los Angeles Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
"For our organization and with our contract cities," Cubrda said, "cats are the predominant animal we handle."
The SPCA provides animal control services to several area cities, including Torrance, Redondo Beach, Gardena, Hawthorne, Lawndale, Palos Verdes and El Segundo.
Forty-two other cities contract with the County Department of Animal Care and Control, which is organizing next month's summit. At the meeting, animal control experts are expected to tell city and county officials about the benefits of cat licensing. The exact date for the summit has not been set.
First and foremost among the benefits, said county director Frank R. Andrews, is the humane aspect of licensing. An "appalling" number of cats--nearly 32,000--go unclaimed and unwanted and must be put to sleep each year by the county, he said.
Ten years ago, Andrews said, the idea of cat licensing drew heated opposition from animal lovers, who saw licensing as an infringement to a cat's freedom. However, heightened awareness about the numbers of abandoned and unclaimed cats has changed people's attitudes, he said.
"Not only are cities in favor of it," Andrews said, "but the Humane Society of the United States, as well as the American Humane Assn., have both come out endorsing the need for cat licenses. They recognize that too many cats are being put to sleep, so we need to control the pet population."
In addition, city officials see cat licensing as a way to underwrite the cost of animal control.
Carson officials, for example, found that dog license fees this year offset almost $45,000 of their animal control costs. But nearly half of all the animals impounded in that city were cats.
In Torrance, the story is much the same, said Monte McElroy, city environmental quality control director. Animal control costs the city about $285,000; dog licenses and fines generated $210,000 this year.
Some Torrance council members, McElroy said, are reluctant to start tagging cats. But she said research on the issue has persuaded her that cats are more of a problem for cities than dogs are.
"If people don't want cats, they just have a feeling they can dump them anywhere and they will survive. And it is costly to the city," McElroy said.
McElroy said that many officials believe that if people pay to license their cats, they will be less willing to abandon them.
Existing and proposed licensing fees are set at $10 or $12 a year for unaltered cats and $5 or $6 for cats that have been spayed or neutered. For that price, the cat owner gets a tag and an expandable collar.
In an effort to ease cat owners into the licensing idea, Lomita's program is voluntary for the first 12 months. It does not become mandatory until next summer.
"I'm glad communities are addressing this issue," said Stephanie Erthein, a founder of People and Pets Together, a South Bay-based group that finds homes for unwanted cats.
Times correspondent Mary Guthrie contributed to this report.