The first phone call came a couple of years ago. A man was on the line, recalled Ellen Lavinthal, president of the rescue group Animal Alliance, and he said, "I have a litter of kittens. I need to get rid of them."
She picked up the kittens and dropped off a voucher that would allow the owner to get the mother spayed at a low cost.
Six months later, the man called back.
"He said, 'I've got another litter. Are you going to come get them?' " Lavinthal did. And she dropped off another voucher.
Last spring, he called again. Another litter. Could she take them? "I said, 'Yes, but this time I'm going to take the mama cat, too. I'll give you $50.' "
Private rescuers exhaust their resources trying to collect and place animals. "We cannot do this all," said Lavinthal, who appeared before a Los Angeles City Council committee Monday.
In the meantime, public shelters in Southern California try desperately to get animals adopted and euthanize the tens of thousands they cannot.
Shelter officials and many activists maintain that the only way to stem the tide of unwanted animals is to require people to spay and neuter their pets.
They may get as close as they've ever come to a sweeping mandate when the council today takes up a proposed ordinance that would require pet owners to spay or neuter their dogs and cats at the age of 4 months or older.
If it passes -- and it has a good chance of doing so -- the measure would make Los Angeles the largest municipality in the country with a mandatory sterilization law.
There would be numerous exceptions: police dogs, service dogs, breeders, dogs and cats on the show circuit or even aspiring to the show circuit, and animals whose veterinarians deem the procedure to be medically risky.
Enforcement would be low-key. City officials prefer to talk about educating pet owners -- passing out so-called "fix-it" tickets for violations that allow plenty of time to get the animal sterilized. "I think that's better than cold turkey and throwing a heavy fine on them," said Councilman Richard Alarcon, the sponsor of the measure.
Alarcon and Ed Boks, general manager of LA Animal Services, say enforcement will be complaint-driven. So if your unaltered animal lives quietly -- kind of like, 'don't ask; don't flaunt it' -- it's unlikely that animal control will show up at your home.
But if a neighbor calls about a noisy or aggressive dog and it happens the animal has not been sterilized, the owner should expect to receive an official notice to comply.
"If people are afraid we're going to go door to door enforcing this, we have neither the resources nor the inclination," said Boks. "We're trying to stop the serious inflow of animals into our shelters and the killing in our shelters."
The County of Los Angeles passed such an ordinance two years ago, but it covers only dogs and governs the unincorporated areas of the county.
A similar state bill (which the L.A. City Council unanimously voted to support last year) faced enormous opposition last year but passed the Assembly. Without enough votes to get the bill through the Senate Local Government Committee, the bill's author, Assemblyman Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys) requested the vote be deferred. The bill, with some amendments, is expected to come up for a vote in the spring.
The city bill seems to have flown a bit under the radar -- until today. Supporters and opponents are expected to appear before the City Council this morning when it meets in Van Nuys.
If animals invoke passions in people, no animal issue seems to stir more passionate debate than mandatory spaying and neutering.
"If our city shelters had glass walls," said Haze Lynn, who rescues boxers, "everyone would be for spay/neuter. It's heartbreaking to see the healthy dogs brought into shelters."
On the other hand, Louis Krokover, president of the Los Angeles-based Concerned Dog Owners of California, says his group opposes the bill. "Let's clarify this," said Krokover. "We are not opposed to spaying and neutering. We are opposed to the word 'mandatory.' "
Enforcement of all animal regulations is daunting. Boks said only about 20% of L.A. dogs have their required licenses. But any law, supporters argue, gives officials something to work with.
"By requiring spaying and neutering, it gives us more effective tools to go after the backyard breeders," Alarcon said. "I think Los Angeles as a whole has to be more socially responsible and humane."
Alarcon says he may be among the first to line up to comply. He says his wife's two Chihuahuas, Corazon and Chico (father and son, respectively) are not sterilized. He promises he will have them neutered. "I've already talked to my wife. If the messenger can't act in a way that's consistent with the message, then they shouldn't do it."
LA Animal Services would add four more animal control officers to deal with enforcement as well as clerical staff for a cost of roughly $400,000, Boks estimated. He added that the shelter system spends about $2 million a year on animals that are euthanized.
Last year, although the city saw a drop in euthanasia, the shelter system still killed 8,960 cats and 6,049 dogs -- healthy animals neither retrieved by owners nor adopted by new ones.
The cost of a spaying or neutering operation for a cat or a dog at a veterinary clinic or office can range from $50 to $400, said Jeff Smith, president of the California Veterinary Medical Association.
The city of Los Angeles offers free and low-cost spaying and neutering vouchers to people who qualify. They can be redeemed at two mobile facilities or veterinary offices that partner with LA Animal Services. Critics of the city proposal argue, variously, that mandatory spaying and neutering for 4-month-old animals is unhealthy, medically risky, punitive and, ultimately, ineffective in helping the problem-ridden shelter system.
The American Kennel Club's website posted an "urgent advisory" to its members about the bill and drew up a sample letter of opposition they could send to council members.
Krokover, who contends that dogs should mature before being sterilized, said he would prefer the age cutoff be one year rather than four months. "It means 'leave my family pet alone and come knock on my door at 1 year of age.' "
He says dogs owned by members of his organization "aren't the ones in the dog shelters. The purebred dog owners are the ones taking the brunt of the problems with the inner city. Our dogs are not the ones running in the streets attacking people."
Smith, the veterinarian, said he supports mandatory spay/neuter legislation. "It's worked in our county," he said, referring to Lake County in Northern California.
However, his organization switched from supporting the state measure to maintaining a neutral position "because of some amendments we wanted that didn't make it in." It takes no position on the Los Angeles ordinance.
"But I think most veterinarians are pro-spaying and neutering to alleviate the problem of about half a million [dogs and cats] killed in California each year," he said.
Smith echoed the proponents of the measure who say that unsterilized dogs are often more aggressive. "Typically, intact animals, especially males, are going to be more aggressive," Smith said.
Some animal welfare groups oppose such legislation. The No-Kill Advocacy Center argues that punitive legislation hurts people who care for homeless animals (people who don't exactly own a wandering cat, for instance, but help feed it) and says the problem is management of the shelters, not the animal birthrate.