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Speaking for Animals With One Voice

March 08, 2005|Jordan Rau | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — For years, Rich McLellan has been pushing a futuristic solution to the number of stray animals in California.

He wants to require everyone who sells a dog or cat to install a microchip beneath the animal's skin. The transistors, McLellan says, would make it easier to locate lost pets and would help authorities assess the sources of animal overpopulation.

"The fact that we don't have identities for dogs and cats other than a tag -- which can be lost -- or anything else is a crime," said McLellan, a retired Los Angeles emergency room doctor who runs an animal advocacy group. "We have identities for microwaves."

McLellan's idea has foundered in Sacramento, done in not just by unsympathetic legislators but also by other animal activists. His experience is not that unusual, but some animal groups are banding together to try to rectify the situation.

McLellan's proposal lost by one vote in the California Senate in 2002 after 35 animal groups, including some representing breeders, kennel clubs and veterinarians, opposed it.

California is known nationally for innovative laws on animal issues, measures alternatively hailed as farsighted or mocked as flaky. But some ideas are endangered by wrangling within the state's fractious animal rights lobby, whose diverse members often fight like, well, cats and dogs.

Groups last year were divided over whether to agree to a 7 1/2-year delay before a ban on force-feeding ducks to make pate would begin. They have clashed over spaying laws, how quickly animal shelters should be allowed to euthanize strays and whether cat declawing should be outlawed.

Such internecine sniping has contributed to the defeat of several proposals over the years. But it has long been accepted as inevitable; advocates are often zealous crusaders with sometimes divergent beliefs about what is best for animals.

This year, however, 17 advocacy groups are trying to evolve into a different sort of political species. They have formed their own coalition and hired Political Solutions, a Sacramento lobbying firm chosen not for its passion for creatures but for its connections to legislators in both parties.

Members of the California Animal Assn. have committed to jointly backing a few bills each year. And in a move that many animal advocates find heretical, the members of the group have pledged not to fight a measure the association has agreed to back even if they disagree with some of its provisions or compromises made along the way to winning legislative approval.

"We need to work together and not embarrass ourselves," said Teri Barnato, national director of the Assn. of Veterinarians for Animal Rights and one of the new group's founders.

Members have also pledged not to do anything illegal -- such as breaking into animal slaughterhouses to document conditions there -- as a way to push legislation.

Lawmakers who have carried animal bills in the past, often facing ridicule by colleagues and the public, are encouraged. "I think you're starting to see a changing in the guard from the old way to the new way," said Assemblyman Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys).

"The old guard was very limited in terms of professionalism," Levine said. "You could tell that they were the activists -- I love them, they're great people and we're on the same side -- but they were the people who smelled like cat pee. Their hearts are in the right place, but sometimes when you're lobbying, it's not very effective."

The alliance includes groups devoted to changing the treatment of animals in circuses and rodeos; to the way wildlife is trapped; to the manner in which farm animals are raised and slaughtered; to veterinary topics; to issues involving domestic pets and strays.

Still, a number of advocacy groups, including the influential Humane Society of the United States, have so far declined to join the coalition. Some have qualms about the groups' rules on dissent; others take umbrage at the idea that a professional lobbyist can be as effective as a passionate amateur.

"We've had quite a bit of good legislation passed without a professional lobbyist," said Eric Mills, coordinator of Action for Animals, based in Oakland.

He said that many of the members of the new alliance are from Southern California and aren't in the Capitol often enough to effectively lobby for themselves. "They don't really know the ins and outs of politicians, what works and what doesn't in Sacramento," he said.

For many years, there has been some attempt at coordination led by Virginia Handley, Sacramento's unofficial dean of animal activists. Handley has been around the Capitol since the 1970s and was tutored by the mother of California's modern animal rights lobby, the late Gladys Sargent.

Handley organizes a monthly legislative session for animal advocates, in which they critique one another's ideas. But joint positions are not embraced, and some activists have come to view the forum as a venue for Handley to press her favored bills.

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