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California and the West

Animal Shelter Law Creates Howls of Protest

Pets: Measure delaying killing of strays is meant to save dogs' and cats' lives, but it is creating havoc at overcrowded pounds, critics say.

July 27, 1999|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A new state law intended to save more cats and dogs from death at the local pound is rattling cages across California, prompting pleas for more funding, complaints of overcrowding and even the withdrawal of some organizations from the public shelter business.

The legislation, which took effect July 1, extends the amount of time that public and private shelters must hold animals before they can be killed.

It is, said a consultant for the bill's sponsor, state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles), a "very modest" attempt to reform shelters and find homes for the nearly 600,000 abandoned animals that are killed in California every year.

But it does not seem modest to shelter managers. While praising the measure's goals and the spotlight it has focused on their chronically underfunded, underappreciated efforts, many say that the Hayden bill is creating havoc in their world.

"We were so far behind the eight ball to begin with that this is taking us from the 18th century to the 21st in one big jerk," said Dan Knapp, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Animal Services, whose considerable problems provided the impetus for the Hayden legislation.

There have been so many concerns about the impact of the law that the Legislature recently approved another bill allowing about a third of the shelters in the state to apply for a year's delay in meeting the new requirements.

The Hayden law lengthens the old three-day holding period for strays. Now they must be kept for at least four days by shelters that have evening or weekend hours, and for at least six days by those that do not have such hours.

It bars pounds from immediately killing feral cats or animals brought in by their owners. And it mandates immediate medical treatment.

"The intent of the Hayden law is great," said Steve McNall, executive director of the Pasadena Humane Society and SPCA. "[But] it is literally having a negative effect on our shelter."

McNall's organization has had to put two and sometimes three dogs in a single cage and has converted its grooming room into a cattery for feral cats. "It's an absolute mess," said McNall, whose agency has a contract to run shelters for Pasadena and five other San Gabriel Valley cities.

Moreover, he said, because the society now has to hold animals it deems unadoptable--and previously would have immediately put to death--it has less space for adoptable cats and dogs and cannot showcase them the way it used to.

"In the last two weeks," McNall said, "we have experienced fewer adoptions and more euthanasia of adoptable animals."

In Santa Clara and Monterey counties, humane societies that have for decades contracted with local governments to run shelters are pulling out, forcing cities to scramble to open their own shelters.

Priscilla Stockner, executive director of the SPCA of Monterey County, said her agency would have had to increase its kennel capacity by 150% to meet the Hayden bill requirements. So last year, after the measure passed, the organization gave notice that it would no longer operate shelters for the county.

The decision was widely criticized, Stockner said, but the county and the city of Salinas recently opened their own shelters with greater capacity than the SPCA had.

"So really the plight of animals is much better than it was a year ago because of Hayden," Stockner said.

Even while they squirm under the new holding requirements, shelter managers acknowledge that the new law has brought them not only welcome attention but also more funding.

"It's kind of a byproduct that will mean more money one way or the other and that's wonderful," said Frank Andrews, director of Los Angeles County Animal Care and Control.

The county, which set aside an additional $400,000 this year for medical treatment at its shelters, is seeking reimbursement from the state. It has filed a claim, saying that the new law amounts to a spending mandate and thus should be partly funded by state government.

In the city of Los Angeles, $2 million was added to the budget of the struggling animal control department to hire more staff and improve facilities.

The department has been badly underfunded for years. Kennels are at 150% of capacity and it is not uncommon for seven dogs to be placed in a one-dog kennel. "Certainly they're not lonely," Knapp said.

Los Angeles shelters handle 80,000 animals a year and 75% of them are killed--a figure that dismayed animal activists and helped inspire the Hayden legislation.

Responding to criticism of the new law, Hayden consultant Kate Neiswender said that if placement rates go up, shelters can earn money from the adoption fees and save money on euthanasia.

"If we adopt out some animals instead of slaughtering them and putting them out the back door, it wouldn't cost so much," she said.

The requirement to bar immediate disposal of animals brought in by their owners was prompted by an informal shelter survey that suggested that as many as a quarter of such pets were left not by their owners but by disgruntled spouses and even--in one case--by a homeless person.

"The Hayden bill does nothing to cause more animals to come through the door. Nothing," Neiswender said.

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