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West Hollywood is a breed apart in passing laws that make it a haven for pets.

June 01, 2004|Sara Lin | Times Staff Writer

In West Hollywood, what began as puppy love has bloomed into true romance. In short, West Hollywood loves its pets.

Prompted by problems at a grooming shop -- two dogs died after they were left too long in a dryer -- the City Council is expected to vote soon on a measure that would slap strict safety rules on pet groomers.

If approved, it would be the latest in a series of ordinances that, when it comes to pets, has made West Hollywood a breed apart.

The first signs of the city's fondness for animals appeared in 1994, when the council passed a measure making it unlawful for landlords to forbid disabled and elderly tenants to have pets. The law also protected pet owners with HIV or AIDS.

The city famously declared in 2002 that there were no pet owners in West Hollywood -- only pet guardians.

Six months later, the city banned the declawing of cats and other pets, calling the procedure unnecessary and cruel.

The council will probably vote this month on the new rules for pet-grooming businesses. Among other things, groomers would be required to offer animals fresh water every hour, and grooming-related injuries would have to be reported to the city within 24 hours.

Animal rights activists and animal control officers agree that when it comes to legislating pet welfare, West Hollywood is top dog.

"I don't think there's any city south of San Francisco with the same sensitivity and approach to animal issues as West Hollywood," said Bob Ballenger of the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control.

Although West Hollywood's methods might not work in every city, he said, "They've done things that heighten public awareness of animal welfare issues."

It's true that most of West Hollywood's pet-friendly initiatives have more bark than bite -- they don't apply beyond the city's two-square-mile territory. But to city officials, that hardly matters.

"We see it as frontier work," said Mayor John Duran, who owns eight birds, including two lovebirds named Boris and Natasha.To Duran and other city officials, looking out for their pets just seems like the right thing to do. For years the city has amended old laws and passed new ones giving pet guardians and their companions privileges and protections.

At one time, city residents were free to put up "lost pet" posters in public places, exempt from restrictions against signs for garage sales and other events.

The exemption was accidentally dropped when the city revised its municipal code a few years ago, but officials say they're going to bring it back.

In fact, reuniting people and their pets will be the goal of new technology to be installed at City Hall. In April, the city accepted the donation of an electronic kiosk that allows pet lovers to post pictures of lost pets as well as browse snapshots of animals available for adoption from local shelters.

"They're our children," said Tom Benedetti, manager of the city's code compliance division, of pets. "We have a great big population of older people and a great big population of single people. Our pets become our extended family."

Wild critters have not been forgotten, as seen in 1997 when feral cats spilled into a West Hollywood neighborhood. Some residents called for animal control. The council called for an ad hoc Feral Cat Committee.

One of the committee's suggestions: requiring feral-cat keepers to obtain licenses for their colonies. In the end, the feral cats were trapped and removed, but city officials agreed that, in the future, how to deal with colonies of such animals would be discussed in public hearings before any action was taken.

City officials insist that they never set out to make West Hollywood an animal haven. They acknowledge the largely symbolic value of most of their actions, but activists say such gestures can have an impact.

"Sometimes the way to get things done on a state level is to do it locally and see how it works," said Madeline Bernstein, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Los Angeles. "I like how they take some initiative on things."

Although Bernstein does not come down on the same side as West Hollywood on every issue, she respects the city's diligence.

"Whether you agree with them or not, you have to tip your hat to them," she said. "They try."

Duran is quick to point out that most of his mayoral duties involve transportation, parking and economic development matters. The well-being of dogs and cats and their owners constitute "some of those icing-on-the-cake issues I get to dabble in from time to time."

So what's next, a ban on ear-cropping and tail-docking? City officials won't say. But one thing is certain: They haven't ruled it out.

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