SACRAMENTO — A bill to require Californians to spay or neuter their pets or face stiff fines was pulled from consideration for this year by its author Wednesday after it ran into strong objections from members of a state Senate panel.
Assemblyman Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys) said he hopes to resurrect the idea in January.
Levine said he would consider amending the legislation, as suggested by a member of the Senate committee, to limit a proposed $500 fine to owners whose unaltered dogs and cats are picked up while running loose by animal control officers or are discovered at homes during investigations into other violations.
"I think we can get to a solution," Levine told the Senate Local Government Committee and an overflow crowd at a Capitol hearing room. "But the first thing opponents must do is to acknowledge that there is a problem and work with me to solve it."
Levine's legislation, AB 1634, had cleared the Assembly with no votes to spare June 6, but ran into opposition in the Senate after about 10,000 pet owners, breeders, guide-dog owners and police officers objected that it would infringe on their rights and use of animals.
A similar number of pet owners and animal control experts had lobbied for the bill, making it one of the most hotly contested pieces of state legislation this year.
About 20 people testified for or against the bill Wednesday.
Backers said the mandate for dogs and cats to be spayed or neutered at 6 months is justified because 454,000 unclaimed cats and dogs are put to death each year in California shelters at a cost of about $300 million.
Despite previous amendments to allow work dogs, show animals and breeder animals to obtain exemptions from being neutered, it became clear to Levine that the five-member committee was not prepared to vote it out to the full Senate.
Sen. Gloria Negrete-McLeod (D-Chino), the committee chairwoman, told Levine that her family has cared for stray dogs and cats for years and has always acted responsibly and had them spayed or neutered.
"I don't think I appreciate being charged with something that I already do naturally," she said.
Sen. Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach), another member of the panel, said his family has had hunting dogs for years, and that the proposal to require dogs to be spayed or neutered at 6 months would interfere with the breeding of hunting dogs that are often not selected until they are more than 18 months old.
"There needs to be something in the bill for those working dogs," he said.
Sen. Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego) suggested the amendment that would limit the fine and the spay-and-neuter requirement to those animals picked up by shelter workers.
"One of the fear factors around this bill, and there are a lot of them, is that it's too broad, that responsible owners would be subject to having to take action on their pets, that it's not fair," Kehoe told Levine.
The assemblyman offered to accept the amendment if the committee would vote the bill out of committee, but there did not appear to be the votes.
"If you are talking about taking amendments this morning on the fly, that's not acceptable," said Sen. Dave Cox (R-Fair Oaks).
As a result, Levine asked that the bill be shelved until January.
"We'll take our time," Levine told reporters afterward. "We've got six months to work to educate the committee and work on the amendment.
"The amendment would have just said if you are in violation of other animal laws then you have to spay or neuter your animal. It would not have penalized otherwise law abiding citizens," Levine added.
However, opponents, who have formed the group PetPAC, will continue to organize in preparation for any attempt next year to resurrect the legislation.
"We're very pleased" that the bill was withdrawn, said Bill Henby, chairman of PetPAC.
"We will regroup and continue to grow our coalition so that by the time this comes back in January we hope to be representing over a million dog and cat owners."
Asked about the proposed amendment that would narrow the legislation, Henby said, "We are still concerned."
Wednesday's hearing was not without its light moments. Attendees included the ninth generation of the film star Lassie, and the collie's owner, Bob Weatherwax, an opponent of the bill.
When told of the dog's presence, Negrete-McLeod said to the bill's opponents, "OK, but if Lassie is going to talk it's going to count against you" for time.
The chairwoman also found humor in a mistake in the text of a written argument submitted for the bill.
"I don't think you meant that you want 'spay and neuter programs for low-income individuals,' " she quipped.
Still, at the conclusion of the 1 1/2 -hour hearing, Levine said he ended this year's fight for the bill with a bitter taste in his mouth.
"I've been personally attacked and vilified," he said. "I am very upset. I will stipulate that my opponents love their animals. We have different approaches to how to solve the problem. But I don't like the fact that it's gotten personal."