GRASS VALLEY, Calif. — In a controversial bid to spur more responsible pet ownership, animal control officials in tiny Nevada County will televise a documentary tonight showing the euthanasia of six stray dogs and cats at the local pound.
Showing of the half-hour film, intended to boost adoptions and encourage owners to sterilize their pets, is believed to be the first instance of an animal shelter in California using such a blunt tactic.
The documentary will be shown at 9:30 p.m. on a public-access cable channel available to 11,000 households in this rural area straddling the Sierra. The show features a disclaimer warning parents that the scenes of pets being killed by lethal injection as well as inside a carbon monoxide gas chamber might not be suitable viewing for children.
Though it has yet to air, the film has already stirred controversy. It also could reignite a national debate sparked last summer when similar footage of animals being euthanized was aired in North Carolina, reportedly boosting pet adoptions there by 50%.
Dozens of angry callers have phoned the Nevada County shelter and the cable channel that will air the documentary, titled "Killing Shelter Animals: The Shame and Failure of a Community."
"Shame on you, shame on you for ever showing euthanizing pets on TV," one woman said angrily in a phone message left at Foothill Community Access Television.
"I think people will turn it off," said Nevada County Supervisor Fran Grattan. "I don't think anyone would want to watch that. I wouldn't. There are more positive ways to encourage people to deal with the overpopulation of pets we have. People seem appalled by it."
Producers of the program hope the film will help end public apathy toward the sterilization of animals.
"Our motivation is to generate conversation up here," said Teresa Bryerton, the Nevada County shelter's volunteer coordinator, who helped produce the program and serves as its straight-talking narrator: "Let's sit down, let's see if this is the way we in this county want to be going."
In Nevada County, about 2,000 animals are killed each year at the shelter; 1,000 are reclaimed by owners or adopted. Workers at the shelter say they welcome anything that could improve the odds for the animals.
"I'd rather deal with 100 angry calls about this show than euthanize another dog or cat," said Cheryl Tufts, one of six animal control officers. "I think every owner of an unaltered pet needs to work the gas chamber. They need to see what happens."
But several animal control officials around California and elsewhere criticized the film, saying it could easily be misconstrued by viewers and send a wrong message--that dogs and cats have no hope if they land in the pound.
"It does have a certain amount of shock value, but it's not going to have any long-lasting impact," said Bob Ballenger, a Los Angeles County animal control department spokesman. "It's not going to change the way people behave. Instead, it will enforce the stereotype that an animal that is turned in is destined for death. We don't see any point in that approach."
Though more than 70% of the 100,000 animals that end up each year in Los Angeles County shelters are euthanized, Ballenger said, thousands of mistreated dogs and cats are adopted by loving owners and given a new start on life.
Jim Weverka, president of the National Animal Control Assn. and manager of the city shelter in Lincoln, Neb., is concerned that unsupervised children might see the film. He also doubts it will change stubborn animal owners who refuse to have their pets spayed or neutered.
"Animals do get euthanized at shelters. It's a fact of life," Weverka said. "But is it something you want to show on TV? I guess if it was me, I wouldn't do it. At best it seems a short-term thing. And if you keep showing it, it loses its impact."
Many national animal rights groups, however, applauded the Nevada County effort, saying it will give a shove to members of the public unwilling to help curb the nation's pet overpopulation problem.
"We're hoping that this sort of approach is going to catch on," said Lisa Lange, a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "If people are reckless and lazy enough to not spay or neuter their animals, thereby causing an overpopulation problem that leads to the death of millions of animals each year, they should see exactly what happens at the end."
In the early 1990s, animal control officials in San Mateo produced a brochure inserted in local papers featuring pictures of dead animals stuffed in containers for disposal. The officials invited reporters to witness the euthanasia process.
"The biggest obstacle is the public's complacency," said Kim Sturla, the San Mateo shelter's former executive. "We've got solutions--affordable sterilization is widely available. But people have to be educated. And some people have to be hit over the head with a two-by-four."