Appalled by the legions of stray dogs and cats destroyed each year, a Torrance group is calling on the city to require residents to sterilize their pets unless they obtain a special breeding license.
The controversial proposal has the backing of the Los Angeles Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which is targeting Torrance in its area campaign to persuade cities to institute breeding controls in hopes of limiting the pet population.
Supporters have gathered 950 signatures on a petition urging mandatory spaying or neutering in Torrance. As ammunition, they cite figures from the local SPCA shelter: Each year 600 dogs and 1,200 cats from Torrance are killed by lethal injection.
"So many healthy, social animals have to be put to sleep just because we don't care for them properly," said Nancy Sue Martin, a leader of the small group called Pet Overpopulation Prevention that is lobbying for controls.
Torrance officials are treating the topic gingerly.
Although they say they find the specter of killing dogs and cats distressing, they are leery of treading on pet owners' rights to breed their animals.
The debate encompasses two potentially explosive issues--euthanasia of animals and forced sterilization--and city leaders do not relish the prospect of tackling either one.
Even so, discussion is expected to accelerate at the City Council meeting Tuesday. Councilman Timothy Mock says he will ask the city Environmental Commission to study the feasibility of requiring people to spay or neuter their dogs before they can get a dog license in Torrance.
"I'm willing to look at it. There's a lot of questions I have on it," Mock said.
But Councilman Bill Applegate warns of what he calls a "Big Brother" syndrome of over-regulation.
"There are a lot of things that government has to control. I just don't think they have to control the breeding habits of your cat or dog," Applegate said. "From a visual standpoint, I don't see any real evidence of stray animals all over the city of Torrance."
Some think otherwise.
Told of Applegate's comments, Torrance resident Marilyn Poblasco retorted: "Good for him. Have him go right down to the animal shelter. I'd like (the council) to go down there and look into their little eyes and tell you there isn't a problem."
Torrance contracts with the Los Angeles SPCA for animal control and shelter services. Stray or abandoned dogs and cats are taken to the SPCA shelter on Yukon Avenue in Hawthorne and held there for five working days if they are unidentified and 10 days if they carry some form of identification.
Then, if the pet is unclaimed or not chosen for adoption, it is killed with an injection of sodium pentobarbital in the foreleg.
A total of 10,000 animals are destroyed each year at the Los Angeles SPCA's two shelters, said society President Edward C. Cubrda. Fully 54% of the dogs and 86% of the cats brought in from Torrance are killed.
Spurred on by these statistics, Cubrda wrote in February to Torrance and other South Bay cities served by the SPCA, urging them to consider regulating pet breeding.
"I can understand that a lot of people are looking at it from the standpoint of one more law laid upon us," Cubrda said this week. "But those of us who have to do this dirty work--we have rights, too."
The SPCA is recommending one or more steps to curb the South Bay pet population: a one-year moratorium on the breeding of dogs and cats, a requirement for a breeding license, a limit on the number of litters permitted and an ordinance mandating spaying and neutering.
The cities' response has not been encouraging, Cubrda said. Even so, he has targeted Torrance in hopes that it would take a "leadership role" on the issue, he said.
In December, 1990, San Mateo County in Northern California passed the first law in the nation requiring dog and cat owners to sterilize their pets or obtain a breeding permit. The move followed a grisly public relations campaign in which supporters showed photographs of barrels of dead cats and even held a "pet execution" at a press conference. Orange County appointed a committee in April to study a similar proposal.
Torrance officials say they are puzzled by how such an ordinance would work in their city, especially since the city does not license cats and has no means of regulating them.
The 13,500 dogs in the city are licensed with a two-tier fee system: Sterilized dogs cost $12 to license and unsterilized dogs cost $24. About 55% of the dogs are sterilized.
But the fee structure alone does not seem to be sufficient impetus for sterilizing dogs, Mock said. Perhaps owners could be required to show proof of sterilization before they could license their dogs, while those wanting to breed their dogs could apply for special permits, he suggested.
Councilman George Nakano said he agrees that the city should study some requirement for sterilization.
"I lean toward having something. I think it's a matter of being practical in terms of enforcing it," Nakano said.
Some remain dubious that regulating pet breeding is even feasible.
"It sounds pretty heavy-duty, kind of strong," said City Atty. Kenneth L. Nelson.
And the city's environmental quality administrator, Monte McElroy, said she wonders if an ordinance would be enforceable, "or if it could be done without terrible cost to the city."
But advocates remain convinced that cities have to regulate breeding, and that Torrance should lead the way.
"It's no big revolutionary thing," said Poblasco. "It's just that the supply (of pets) is outweighing the demand. And we'd like that to level out."