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City Resumes Hearings on Pet Overpopulation

Animals: Large room is booked after earlier session drew overflow crowd. Limits on breeding are among issues.

September 13, 1999|MARTHA L. WILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hundreds of animal activists are expected to turn out Tuesday for a hearing on one of the most contentious issues before Los Angeles officials: pet overpopulation.

The hearing before the Animal Regulation Commission, to be held in the large Community Center at Los Angeles Mission College in Sylmar, will be the first since a rowdy, overflow crowd forced abrupt cancellation of a similar meeting in August.

A heated debate pitting animal rights and rescue organizations against breeders and owners of purebred dogs has mushroomed since the City Council in March ordered that steps be taken to curtail animal overpopulation. The commission is considering a law that would make it illegal to own a dog or cat that has not been sterilized, unless the owner pays hundreds of dollars for a license and permit.

"Animal issues are incredibly hot-button issues and this meeting will be particularly incredible," predicted Gini Barrett, western regional director of the American Humane Assn., based in Sherman Oaks. Barrett, said the group has remained neutral about the city's current proposal.

"We have taken a strong stance that something needs to pass," Barrett said. "But we think there is a broad range of options that can work."

The debate over animal overpopulation has raged for decades in a city where last year nearly 60,000 animals--74% of those that entered the city's shelters--were euthanized.

The humane association estimates that there are 1.8 million owned dogs and nearly 2.2 million owned cats in Los Angeles County. But there is a huge population of domestic animals without homes--about 45,000 dogs and 2 million cats countywide, the association says.

Animal Services General Manager Dan Knapp, who took over the post last year, is a no-kill advocate who has vowed to find ways to deal with the overpopulation issue.

He said other cities, including San Mateo and Santa Cruz, have seen "significant drops in shelter populations" after implementing strict rules and high fees on owners of breeding animals.

The latest proposal would require owners of all cats and dogs to spay or neuter the animals before they are 5 months old. Owners who refuse will be charged a $100 annual fee for each unaltered animal. In addition, those owners also would be forced to pay another $200 yearly for a breeding permit, even if they don't breed the pet.

Breeders, on the other hand, would be limited to producing only one litter per year, a provision that has many dog and cat fanciers upset.

Jim Walsh of Sylmar, who breeds and shows purebred English bulldogs, said provisions in the ordinance would destroy serious hobbyists who breed their pets responsibly.

"I absolutely agree there is a pet overpopulation problem," Walsh said. "But it is not purebreds and to say this is going to solve the problem is a joke."

Because of the controversy surrounding the issue, commissioners had scheduled hearings from July to October in each of the six shelter districts in the city.

About 60 people, roughly evenly divided between proponents and opponents of the crackdown, participated in the first hearing, held at Los Angeles City Hall. The crowd grew to more than 100 at the second meeting, at the Peck Park Community Center in San Pedro.

But no one anticipated the turn-out at the third hearing Aug. 25 at the Mid Valley Regional Library in North Hills. More than 150 people crammed into the facility, while an estimated 200 or more outside clamored to be heard. Fire officials ordered the meeting canceled shortly after it began, said Jackie David, spokeswoman for the Department of Animal Services.

Al Avila, acting commission president, asked department officials to seek larger facilities for future hearings. In addition, the time allotment for hearings was extended from 90 minutes to four hours. Tuesday's hearing will be conducted from 5 to 9 p.m. at the college center, 13356 Eldridge Ave., which has a capacity of 900.

Avila said he expects the commission by the end of the year to reach a recommendation on rules to curb animal overpopulation. The recommendation will then be sent to the City Council's public safety committee prior to a hearing before the full City Council.

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