A retired game show host is vying with a famous canine film star this week over a proposal to require Californians to spay or neuter their pets, a bill that has sparked emotional debate and created the largest volume of public response of any measure in the state Legislature this year.
According to its author, Assemblyman Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys), the California Healthy Pets Act has generated debate on a level that exceeds even what he saw earlier this year on his now-shelved “Death With Dignity” assisted suicide bill.
The proposal aims to reduce the number of unclaimed cats and dogs put to death each year in California -- currently around 454,000 -- by imposing a substantial fine on pet owners unless they get their animals spayed or neutered.
The Senate Local Government Committee, which takes up the proposal Wednesday, has received nearly 20,000 letters, faxes and other communications from animal control experts and thousands of pet owners, with slightly more of them supporting the bill, said Elvia Diaz, a staffer for the panel who said she had never seen so much response to a piece of legislation.
Both sides have enlisted cultural icons for their campaigns: TV’s Bob Barker made the rounds at the Capitol on Monday in favor of the bill, while opponents say they have the canine film star who played Lassie, or at least the dog’s owner, Bob Weatherwax, to speak against the measure. Weatherwax and the collie, the ninth in the Lassie lineage, plan a tour of the legislative hallways today.
“I’m not an expert. I give away refrigerators,” joked Barker, the recently retired host of the game show “The Price Is Right” at a news conference Monday. But “there are just too many cats and dogs being born for all of them to have homes.”
Raising the noise level to an unusual pitch for a piece of legislation, opponents, calling themselves PetPac, began running television commercials in Sacramento against the bill, featuring pet owners saying the legislation is “misguided and irresponsible.”
Levine said he had received hate mail. Some animal breeders have threatened to move out of the state, and one of the largest dog shows in the country is considering a boycott of California if AB 1634 becomes law.
But Levine noted that the legislation would allow breeders to get permits exempting their animals from its requirements.
He has amended the bill repeatedly in an effort to keep it from being killed under the onslaught. The state Senate passed its version with no votes to spare -- and only after Barker traveled to Sacramento last month to personally pitch the bill.
The bill faces a vote in the committee Wednesday. Supporters say passage is uncertain.
Opponents say the bill is an example of the state interfering with pet owners’ rights, creating an unfunded mandate for cities and even discriminating against minority residents.
Levine, whom some have criticized for a spate of “nanny state” bills they say unnecessarily dictate how people should live, believes his proposal has merits as a humane measure and as one to save taxpayer money.
“We spend $300 million a year between state and local governments on the cost of intake, housing, care, feeding, euthanasia and disposal of dogs and cats at animal shelters,” Levine said.
He said agencies in Los Angeles County are spending $160 million more on a multiyear program of building new shelters to hold all the unclaimed strays.
“We should not be killing 500,000 dogs and cats per year. That is a tragedy,” Levine said. “But for those people who aren’t moved by the humane arguments, the amount of tax dollars spent is significant.”
The legislation would prohibit any person from owning or possessing any cat or dog over the age of 6 months that has not been spayed or neutered unless that person gets a special permit. The fine for failing to comply with the law would be $500, waived if the pet owner gets the animal spayed or neutered within a specified amount of time.
The cost of neutering or spaying varies by location, but the South Los Angeles Spay and Neuter Clinic will spay a dog under 50 pounds for $80, a heavier dog for $120. Discount coupons are available from the city.
Levine’s bill exempts police dogs and those that help the disabled, but Beth Shea, who represents the International Assn. of Assisted Dog Partners, said it does apply to the dogs used to breed future assistance pets.
The bill is opposed by many animal owner organizations, including the American Kennel Club, which has vowed to reconsider plans to hold its national competition in Long Beach in December and again in 2008 if the bill passes.
“We don’t believe government should be mandating what owners do with their pets,” said Lisa Peterson, a spokeswoman for the AKC, an umbrella group for more than 5,000 clubs and groups throughout the country.
Peterson said education programs and locally financed subsidies have helped to significantly reduce the number of dogs and cats put to death each year.
“We feel public education about voluntary spay-neutering is working,” she said.
In the city of Los Angeles, a heavily subsidized spay-neuter program has reduced the number of animals euthanized in shelters from 60,000 per year a decade ago to 18,100 during the last 12 months, said Ed Boks, general manager of the city Department of Animal Services.
The reduction has been accomplished through public education and a city program that pays to spay and neuter 40,000 cats and dogs each year.
Still, the bill for city taxpayers to have animals picked up, sheltered, killed and disposed of was $21 million last year, said Boks, who supports the Levine bill.
“This bill represents a long overdue common sense response to end the insanity of escalating animal control costs and animal euthanasia rates,” Boks said.
Charles Calderon (D-Montebello), one of 38 lawmakers to vote against the bill in the Assembly, said there is nothing preventing cities and counties from enacting such a measure on their own.
“They want to legislate it statewide to provide the cover” to locals from political fallout, Calderon said. “If it’s such a big problem, why haven’t the cities and counties done this?”
But mostly he worries that the bill would create a burden for low-income families that cannot afford a $500 fine or whatever fee cities and counties might set for permits to keep unspayed animals.
“I kind of saw it as a shot at minority communities, especially the Latino communities,” Calderon said. “Some of the people it will impact are the least capable of paying it.”
Peterson and Calderon say many people unable to afford the fine or fees may end up turning their pets in to the shelters, worsening the problem instead of lessening it.
The proposal has also created a stir among licensed animal breeders, including Allen Weinberg, president of the French Bulldog Fanciers of Southern California.
Weinberg called the Levine bill “draconian” and predicted it would not reduce the number of dogs going to shelters, because unlicensed breeders would simply go deeper underground.
“The solution to the problem is education, not legislation,” he said.
Barker said many opponents “in some way are prospering from the exploitation of animals.”
Levine, a bachelor, said he had a dog when he was in college but does not have a pet now because his job requires him to travel between Los Angeles and Sacramento a lot.
“Part of loving animals means knowing when not to have them,” he said.