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Riverside County Considers Cat-License Law

Proponents say it would encourage sterilization. Foes say it would do little but create a new county bureaucracy.

September 09, 2003|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

Saying Riverside County is overwhelmed by thousands of stray cats each year, the Board of Supervisors today will consider requiring felines to be licensed.

Supporters say the move will help motivate owners to spay or neuter their cats, but opponents call it an unnecessary tax on pet owners that does little more than create more government bureaucracy.

"I don't think it's a practical idea," said Supervisor Marion Ashley, a cat owner. "They say we're cat owners. We're not really. The cats really own us."

Both sides agree on the scope of the problem; last year, more than 9,000 cats were euthanized in the county's three animal shelters.

Earlier this year, the supervisors created a committee to study the effectiveness of licensing cats, a proposal that has created controversy in communities across the nation.

The panel, comprising animal-rights advocates, businesspeople and others, is urging the board to pass the licensing ordinance.

Similar laws exist in unincorporated Los Angeles, Sacramento and Contra Costa counties, and locally in Lake Elsinore.

The committee and the staff of the county Department of Animal Services believe that licensing will increase the neutering of cats.

Licenses for sterilized cats would cost $8 annually, while licenses for unaltered felines would cost $50.

The prices are identical to dog registrationfees, and multiyear licenses would be offered at reduced rates.

Additionally, lost cats taken to the pound would be identified more easily if their owners' names and addresses were on file.

Currently, 86% of cats that arrive at the pound are euthanized, said Tina Grande, a legislative assistant in the office of Supervisor Jim Venable.

Venable supported creating the committee because of the cost of dealing with stray cats.

Sheltering an unidentified cat for six days -- the required waiting period -- and then euthanizing it costs more than $80 per animal.

But his office has recently received calls from concerned citizens who oppose the measure.

Primary concerns include how the measure would be enforced, as well as a concern that people could get into trouble for feeding unlicensed stray cats, she said.

Venable has not decided whether to support the proposal, Grande said.

Animals-rights advocates lauded the goals of the measure, but questioned its effectiveness.

"From an identification standpoint, I would love to see all cats identified in some way, because people continue to let them out, thinking it's a good idea," said Madeline Bernstein, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

"There's no way of knowing whether they belong to someone or they're stray."

But she said enforcement of a licensing requirement is far more difficult for cats than for dogs.

Other communities that have passed such ordinances have had mixed results, with only a fraction of their cat owners licensing their pets.

"When all was said and done, it came down to enforcement," Bernstein said.

"You don't walk a cat. There's no way to tell how many you own. There's no way to follow up."

Bernstein added that she sympathizes with dog owners who feel they are unfairly paying the bill for all animal services in their community.

State law requires that revenue from dog licensing pay for emergency medical services for animals hit by cars, rabies-control programs, as well as investigations of animal abuse or cruelty.

Her organization has supported unsuccessful legislative efforts to tax pet foods, so owners of cats, hamsters, lizards and other creatures share in the cost.

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