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Pet Lovers Irate About Governor's Idea for Strays

He wants to save money by making it easier for municipal shelters to put animals to death.

June 25, 2004|Robert Salladay | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — In his brief political career, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has challenged powerful state unions, prison guards and wealthy American Indian tribes alike. But now he is up against a group with far greater numbers and a louder voice: animal lovers.

Schwarzenegger wants to repeal California's comprehensive law forcing animal shelters to hold stray cats and dogs up to six days before killing them, a budget-cutting move that has enraged pet adoption groups.

As a favor to the state's cash-poor counties and cities, Schwarzenegger has asked the state Legislature to reverse the 1998 law, which makes adoption of wayward pets the first priority of shelters instead of quickly putting them to death. The law is dubbed the Hayden Act, after former Santa Monica state senator and activist Tom Hayden.

"This is an issue that affects the care and protection of tens of thousands of stray animals, and will inflict heartbreak on a lot of owners and people in the animal adoption world," Hayden said Thursday.

The governor proposes a change in the law to allow birds, hamsters, potbellied pigs, rabbits, snakes, turtles and other animals that are not cats and dogs to be put to death immediately if the shelter favors that approach, animal rights groups said.

Schwarzenegger also would eliminate a requirement that people convicted of animal cruelty be prohibited from owning a pet for three years and be forced to pay for medical care for the animals they have mistreated.

Shelters no longer would be required to search for owners who have embedded microchips in their pets that store addresses and phone numbers.

Few issues can incite animal lovers more than the abuse or killing of pets. Los Angeles' animal services director, Jerry Greenwalt, retired in April after protesters vandalized his house and spray-painted "murderer" on his car. Claiming the city killed too many animals, protesters also picketed the San Pedro home of Mayor James K. Hahn (only to be targeted themselves by Hahn's neighbors, armed with squirt guns.)

Many experienced politicians say it is best to either be an advocate for animals or stay clear of the issue.

"There is no organized constituency of cats and dogs, but certainly the pet owners of America will find this reprehensible," said Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Cal State Sacramento.

"Cats and dogs are like mom and apple pie. Don't mess with the pets. Most people prefer them to other people."

Hahn, in fact, announced last year that the city would stop killing animals by 2008, but Los Angeles continues to put to death cats, dogs and other animals that are not adopted. The city handles more than 60,000 animals each year and kills about 34,000, or 54%. An estimated 600,000 dogs and cats are put to death each year statewide.

The Schwarzenegger administration said repealing the Hayden Act could save local governments up to $14 million. As proposed, shelters would be allowed to kill dogs and cats after holding them just 72 hours, regardless of whether the shelters are open to the public during those three days.

But animal rights activists believe cats and dogs should not be sacrificed in an effort to save money amid the state's budget shortfall.

"It's sad they would put a price tag on the animals," said Kathy Riordan, a member of the Los Angeles Animal Services Commission and daughter of Schwarzenegger advisor and former Mayor Richard Riordan.

There are signs that Schwarzenegger has a growing understanding of how volatile the issue of animal protection can be.

Amid complaints from animal rights groups, the Schwarzenegger administration said it has been working to keep portions of the Hayden Act that do not cost local shelters money, such as requiring pets to be offered to nonprofit rescue groups before they are killed.

Schwarzenegger's aides are expected to meet soon with animal rights groups and local governments to reach a compromise on the issue before the 2004-05 state budget is approved by the Legislature, perhaps as soon as this weekend.

H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the state's Department of Finance, said the administration would like to cut costs for local governments but also fix an unintended consequence that local governments said came because of the Hayden Act: overcrowding because shelters must hold even vicious dogs for up to six days. Subsequently, Palmer said, shelters have been forced to kill animals to make room for new animals than come in every day.

"Because of space limitations, the shelters are being forced to euthanize animals who are otherwise highly adoptable immediately after the holding time," Palmer said, "whereas before that they could use some discretion and delay that."

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