Broad Plan to Neuter Canines Weighed

Times Staff Writer

A plan to crack down on pit bulls and Rottweilers -- aimed at reducing the number of dog attacks -- has mushroomed into a far more sweeping proposal that would require the spaying or neutering of most dogs in unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County.

About 1 million residents could be affected by the ordinance, which supervisors expect to revisit next month.

Other cities and counties around the nation are adopting similar measures, but few appear to be as broad as the one proposed by County Supervisor Mike Antonovich.

Although recent state legislation allows local governments to require spaying and neutering for some breeds, county animal control officials said they decided to push for a broader measure, in part because of complaints from pit bull and Rottweiler owners that it would be unfair to single out their dogs.


But officials also saw revising the proposed ordinance as an opportunity to help stem the daunting problem of pet overpopulation.

“We still get other dogs in. We get way too many,” said Marcia Mayeda, director of the county Department of Animal Care and Control, who is working on the proposal. “There was a point to be made. Why not all breeds? Why don’t we include everybody?”

Last year, Mayeda said, nearly 20,000 dogs were put to death in the county’s overcrowded animal shelters.

Most other jurisdictions that restrict dog ownership single out specific breeds considered dangerous.

San Francisco in January made it illegal to own an unsterilized pit bull or pit bull mix. Denver outlawed pit bulls altogether in 2005. Animal control officials in the city of Los Angeles also are considering whether to propose spaying and neutering requirements for all dogs -- and perhaps for cats as well.

It wasn’t until this year that local governments in California were allowed to create breed-specific ordinances to mandate spaying or neutering, under legislation written by state Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) that went into effect Jan. 1.

“I think it’s profound,” Speier said of the proposed Los Angeles County ordinance. “It’s a very positive building on my law. They’ve made it even better.”

After a 10-month-old girl in his district was bitten in the face by a pit bull Jan. 23, Antonovich asked county officials to come up an ordinance that would address what he called a “serious public safety threat.” Pit bulls and Rottweilers, he said, were the ones responsible for the majority of attacks.

But owners of those breeds disagreed and said the plan would perpetuate the stereotype that their dogs are dangerous. More than 50 dog owners, most of whom had pit bulls or Rottweilers, attended a recent Board of Supervisors meeting at which they protested the breed-specific proposal. Many wore badges that read: “Don’t blame them, train them. No bad dogs, just bad owners.”

“It is not the breed that is the problem,” Wendy Ruben, who runs a rescue kennel in Palmdale, said at the meeting. She noted that a Frenchwoman who made international headlines last year when she received the world’s first face transplant had been mauled by a Labrador retriever.

Susan Taylor, executive director of Actors and Others for Animals, said that what officials may “find wrong with one breed today will be another breed tomorrow.”

“It really isn’t the breed, it’s the dog,” she said in support of the revised proposal that would affect all dogs. The goal of Taylor’s organization, founded in 1971, is to curb overpopulation by subsidizing spaying and neutering.

Mayeda, of the county’s animal control department, said she had first suggested a breed-specific measure because pit bulls and Rottweilers were over-represented in the county’s six animal shelters.

“We selected those two breeds because they would decrease euthanasia in our shelters,” she said.

But after meeting with pit bull and Rottweiler owners, she recommended broadening the measure to include nearly all dogs.

The county charges $15 to license an altered dog and $30 for one that has not been spayed or neutered. Under the new proposal, which is still being drafted, a license for an unaltered dog could increase to $150.

Under the proposed measure, only dogs that were purebred, registered and equipped with an identifying microchip could remain unaltered. They also would need to pass health and temperament tests. Officials also would inspect the houses of the owners to ensure that the premises were suitable for breeding.

Mayeda said she expects that most of the people who will apply for unaltered-dog licenses would be breeders and those who enter their pets in competitions. But some of these people aren’t happy with the proposal.

“We ask that there be additional statutes in the ordinance for show dogs, so that we can continue to do what we do without being penalized,” said Jeremy Schuster, who competes with his Rottweiler. “A show dog is not likely to be a part of the shelter populace.”

Susan Romero, who competes in shows with her Brittany spaniel, would not be affected by the county proposal because she lives in incorporated Norwalk. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t alarmed by the county plan. She said she feared that the proposal would “filter into the city.” She is particularly bothered that pet owners might have to have their homes inspected before qualifying for an unaltered-dog license.

The American Kennel Club, which maintains a purebred dog registry and holds dog events around the country, also opposes mandatory spaying or neutering of dogs. Instead, the group supports better enforcement of laws against dangerous dogs, including increasing fines or jail time, which are already on the books, according to spokeswoman Daisy Okas.

The organization argues that the county proposal would be difficult to enforce and would be difficult for owners who keep their pets intact so they can participate in shows and other events.

Steve McNall, president and chief executive of the Pasadena Humane Society and SPCA, isn’t concerned about possible difficulty in enforcing the ordinance.

“An all-encompassing program for all breeds is a great idea,” McNall said. “In the end, it’ll definitely cut down on the pet population.”

And Mayeda said the proposed ordinance would address concerns about dog attacks. Sterilizing a dog could reduce, though not eliminate, aggression, she said, and altered dogs would be less likely to roam outside of the house or backyard -- because they normally roam to find mates -- and thus would be less likely to attack passersby.

Dr. Roger Mahr, president-elect of the American Veterinary Medical Assn., said spaying or neutering “does not really affect the disposition of the animal.” But he added that neutering of male dogs could suppress some behavioral traits, such as protecting territory. And there are health benefits, he said, derived from spaying and neutering dogs.

Supervisors asked Mayeda to consider several additional factors in the proposed ordinance. Antonovich requested some low-cost spay and neuter options and a component promoting responsible dog ownership. Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke wanted some special provisions for show dogs.