On trash pickup days in some parts of Los Angeles, neighborhood dogs are sometimes turned loose to forage so they can get enough to eat.
At local animal shelters, puppies and kittens are brought in for adoption--or eventual destruction--by people who say they wanted their children to experience "the miracle of birth," but now cannot find homes for the small creatures.
One county animal control worker says grimly that sometimes, he would like to show those people the chamber where thousands of animals are killed each year and tell them, "Now you can experience the miracle of death."
Despite the recent good news that pets can be good for one's blood pressure and that more Americans than ever before are living with pets, it is also true that more pets to care for mean more animal problems.
Now, animal control programs nationwide, pressed toward the bottom of civic budgets by new concerns for other voiceless constituencies such as latchkey children and homeless people and by the weight of Gramm-Rudman and revenue-sharing cuts, are beginning to think seriously about an old idea with a new application: taxing pet products to pay for the costs of animal care.
It is basically a user tax, and it already exists in various forms, like gasoline tax money channeled back into highway maintenance, or the "Lifeline" telephone tax to subsidize phone service to the poor.
A pet products tax--perhaps a 1% surcharge (one cent on every dollar spent on pet products)--could work the same way, financing low-cost spay and neuter clinics, inoculation programs and pet owner education projects that would help reduce the pet population and keep them healthy, animal regulation officials say.
Such a plan is under study in at least four states: California, New York, Illinois and Texas.
Waiting for Moment
It was first proposed here a decade ago as a statewide surcharge on pet food and accessories.
The proposal died, largely because of opposition from the pet food industry, but animal regulation officials feel that it would receive a more favorable reception now.
"The precedent has been set out there (with the acceptance of user taxes)," said Robert I. Rush, head of the Los Angeles Department of Animal Regulation. "We've been waiting for a time in which we could come back to the forefront. I think the time is just about here for something like this."
Sally Hazzard, director of the San Diego County Department of Animal Control, said she liked the idea of a user tax on pet products, but she said she would have to see a specific proposal before committing to support such a tax.
"It's a tremendous idea, but I don't know what all the ramifications are," Hazzard said. "Who's going to collect it? Who's going to administer it? What's it going to go for. I'd have to see what kind of bureaucracy it would create."
Hazzard said she didn't know how much money could be raised through the tax. An estimated $5 billion is spent annually in this country on pet food, and millions more on a myriad of pet care products, from leashes and collars to fish tanks and bird cages to accessories such as brushes, toys and feeding bowls.
A special tax on those products is "the only, only funding possible to adequately respond to the animal control problem, one that would not be subject to the exigencies of local government--the human needs precluding the animal needs every year," said John F. Kullberg, president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New York City. "It's an idea whose time has come."
Given the current pay-your-way, privatizing mood in the country, Rush said, the tax revenue could help make his department self-supporting, like Los Angeles' airport, harbor or building and safety divisions. It would keep licensing fees from being "prohibitive" and "free up some general fund money for other uses," as well as creating a more equitable system of paying for pet services, he said.
Hit by Proposition 13
Financial constraints on his department have increased since the measure was proposed almost 10 years ago, Rush said. "When Proposition 13 struck, we were hit pretty hard," he said, and when his department lost federal funds, 65 animal control officers were cut. Now 52 remain to patrol the city year-round, around-the-clock.
Faced with similar problems in San Diego, Hazzard has asked the county Board of Supervisors to consider collecting money from cities that contract with the county for animal control services. Such a move could add another $500,000 to the $1.8 million the county already collects in pet licenses and other fees.
As it stands, about $1.1 million of the department's $3.6 million budget comes from license fees on dogs. There are about 120,000 licensed dogs in San Diego, and maybe twice that many unlicensed, and about 350,000 cats in the county.
Some officials argue that the tax would be one way of making owners of cats and unlicensed dogs share more of the burden as well as the benefit of pet ownership.