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Pet Lovers Howl, So Governor Rolls Over

Schwarzenegger quickly drops a plan to save money by letting shelters euthanize strays in 72 hours. "That was an oversight," he says.

June 26, 2004|Robert Salladay and Jason Felch | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — The hectoring barks of animal lovers convinced Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to reverse himself Friday and keep California's law protecting stray dogs and cats at shelters.

"That's not me. I have three dogs. And of course I grew up with every animal you can think of," said Schwarzenegger, who credited his own daughter for persuading him to change his mind. "I'm an animal lover."

Schwarzenegger's about-face came a day after animal rights groups began besieging the Capitol upon learning that the governor wanted to cut back a six-day holding period for animals at shelters.

To save $14 million, the governor had proposed allowing dogs and cats to be euthanized within 72 hours.

Former state Sen. Tom Hayden, who wrote the law for dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, turtles, potbellied pigs and other creatures trapped at shelters, said if the governor is true to his word, he will call off the dogs.

"It shows that the governor has a disarming ability to confess a mistake and reverse course, which I find in few, if any, politicians," Hayden said.

"So, I'm going to put my barking dogs on their leashes and I'm going to counsel the owners of potbellied pigs to call off their intended assault."

The law requires shelters to hold animals for a minimum of six business days; four days if they stay open on weekends or one night a week. The act also forces people convicted of animal cruelty to pay for veterinary costs and remain pet-free for at least three years. And it requires animal shelters to look for adoptive homes instead of killing wayward pets with haste.

In an interview, Schwarzenegger described himself as a lover of animals who owns three dogs: Sarge, a cockapoo; and Sammy and Spunky, yellow labs.

He said the plan to repeal the six-day holding period was a mistake made when he hastily put together his original budget proposal after taking office last year. "That was an oversight of mine in December when we were trying to put the budget together in two seconds," he said.

Schwarzenegger likened the policy snafu to his aborted attempt last year to cut benefits for the developmentally disabled. He wound up reversing that plan, which would have saved $274 million over 18 months. Both moves, he said Friday, were borne of quickly assembling a $103-billion state budget.

"I came in here Nov. 17 and, all of a sudden, there I was the following week, sitting there, and I was bombarded with a lot of detailed information about the budget, and those two were oversights," he said.

"So there were certain mistakes like this that I made, including for the mentally disabled people. This was one of those things.... So animals will be kept in the shelters for six days and so everything will stay exactly the same. We are not going to take anything away from the shelters."

The governor's aides were talking to animal rights experts Friday afternoon. The groups want to make sure the entire law is retained, not just portions of it, so they are being cautious until the deal is sealed.

The issue over which government agency funds animal shelters has been a controversy since the Hayden Act was signed by former Gov. Pete Wilson in 1998. A state commission has ruled that the state owes local governments a total of $79 million for the costs of complying with the Hayden Act over the years, but the final figure remains in dispute.

Schwarzenegger's plan would have allowed shelters to euthanize dogs and cats within 72 hours, regardless of whether the facility was open to the public during those three days. Shelters would have been allowed to kill any other captured animals immediately, an idea that enraged potbellied pig owners, among others.

Despite the governor's reversal, tens of thousands of pets will continue to be euthanized at shelters throughout the state every month.

Los Angeles, for example, puts to death about 34,000 animals a year. They are among the 600,000 pets estimated to die annually in California shelters because owners cannot be found or the animals are vicious or sick.

Jennifer Fearing of United Animal Nations, which organized a protest against Schwarzenegger on Friday, said she was impressed that the governor confessed his mistake so quickly.

She said she was optimistic that the Legislature would remove the governor's proposal from the state budget plan before it was passed.

"I've very relieved and very thankful," Fearing said. "This felt like a mistake all along, but we had to assume otherwise because we didn't have anything to go on."

Throughout the state on Friday, Schwarzenegger's plan had unleashed animal lovers. They said they were like pit bulls on the pant leg of the "pet terminator." His plan, they said, would have caused thousands of dogs and cats to be unnecessarily killed at shelters.

On a lush Capitol lawn that looked like dog heaven, a King Charles spaniel barked Friday as a photographer snapped away at a sign around its neck: "Don't Kill Me, Arnold."

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