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Curbing an Excess of Pets

With the national debate over animal control fueling emotional clashes, the Los Angeles City Council is poised to consider new strategies to control the problem.

March 17, 2000|MARTHA L. WILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Animal-control and leash laws have existed in the United States for nearly as long as farmers' dogs have ravaged the neighbors' chickens and rabies outbreaks have threatened human populations.

But never before has the national debate over pet control reached such a fevered, emotional peak as at present, with animal advocates pushing for legislation to reduce the number of unwanted animals euthanized in the nation's shelters.

Aided by the speed and scope of the Internet, animal rights groups are gaining footholds in hundreds of communities, calling for anti-breeding laws to counter what they see as the cause of overpopulation. On the opposite side of the fence are animal breeders, who say proposed laws would infringe on basic freedoms.

Next week, the debate reaches the Los Angeles City Council, which will deal with a long-standing problem: too many dogs and cats running loose or ending up at shelters with death warrants if they are not adopted.

The city's proposals, developed after a year of debate and public hearings, were unanimously recommended by the Animal Regulation Commission in January. They are based on a simple plan to stop the surplus of animals: discouraging breeding and teaching owners how to properly care for their pets.

The proposed solution involves a multi-pronged approach emphasizing enforcement, assistance and incentives.

"This marks the first time that we will have aggressively addressed this problem," Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas said at a news conference this month after the proposals were forwarded to the City Council for action. Alarmed by increasing reports of stray dogs running in the streets and dog attacks on people, the council had ordered city leaders to come up with a solution.

Under the proposal, the fee for owning an unaltered dog would increase from $30 annually to $100. A breeder's fee, to be charged for each cat and dog that produces a litter, would rise to $100 from $50. The increase is designed to encourage owners to spay or neuter their pets. License fees for altered dogs would remain at $10. No license fee is required for cats, but those that are not altered would have to be kept indoors.

Animal regulation officials estimate that license revenues would remain about the same because they expect higher fees for unaltered animals to be offset by increased sterilization of pets to qualify for the lower rate.

The proposal would increase the number of enforcement officers from 51 to 66, with a five-member team assigned solely to enforcement of breeding rules. Dozens of volunteer organizations have pledged to help with massive education programs and low-cost and free spaying and neutering services.

Dan Knapp, director of Animal Services, said the proposal is designed to educate owners and enable them to comply with the rules rather than to penalize them. A six-month amnesty period is proposed before any fines or penalties would be levied. After that, owners would be given a 45-day warning period to comply or face $500 fines. Continued disobedience could result in a misdemeanor charge with a penalty of as much as six months in county jail and/or a $1,000 fine.

Although the City Council unanimously endorsed Ridley-Thomas' call for a mandatory spaying/neutering law last year, it is uncertain what the final scope of the measure will be.

Many cities and counties around Southern California say they are awaiting the outcomes of the heated debate in Los Angeles and statewide legislative efforts in Sacramento before tackling their own pet overpopulation problems.

Orange County officials said they have been reading news accounts about proposed changes in Los Angeles, but have no plans to follow suit.

Riverside Fees Increased

Among the most recent rule changes in the region was one made last summer in Riverside County, where dog-license fees were raised for both altered and unaltered pets. A $3 increase, from $5 to $8, was initiated for a spayed or neutered dog, with discounts for licenses bought for two- or three-year spans. But the fee for unaltered dogs was doubled, from $25 to $50 for a one-year license. No discount is granted for multiyear licenses for unaltered animals, said Janis Upstone, Riverside animal care director.

No statistics are available yet on the impact of the Riverside change, which affects individual pet owners only and has no effect on breeders, who pay a flat annual fee for a kennel license that remains unchanged at $50 or $100, depending on the size of the operation.

Upstone said the increased fee for unaltered animals is designed to persuade owners who do not intend to breed their animals to have the pets neutered. "If they don't see the apparent health benefits of spay/neuter, they certainly will see the benefits because of the savings," she said.

The city of San Bernardino also recently doubled its annual license fees for unaltered dogs to $50, $41 more than the cost for an altered animal.

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