May 13, 2008

Pet Sterilization Grows Controversial

For some pet owners, spaying
or neutering their animals is no longer a choice - it's the law.

Nearly 40 mandatory
sterilization bills have been introduced this year alone in cities and counties
nationwide, including Dallas, Texas
and Palm Beach, Fla. So far, only a handful has passed.

During local hearings, the controversial
proposals attract legions of animal enthusiasts who pack rooms to voice their
strong opinions. The issue is also being argued online in chat rooms where
spirited discussions fill electronic page after page after page.

Supporters believe these
"fix it or ticket" laws will ultimately reduce the millions of animals
abandoned and destroyed annually in shelters . But opponents say such measures often
lack funding to subsidize the surgery and rely heavily on voluntary compliance,
allowing for easy evasion of the law.

The Los
Angeles model

Earlier this year the City
of Los Angeles
passed a universal spay-neuter ordinance requiring most cats and dogs over the
age of 4 months to be altered. Pet owners who don't comply by October could
face fines up to $500.

But animal control officers
won't be knocking on doors and peaking under pets' legs to see if they've been
fixed. Instead the law will largely be enforced when officers encounter
nuisance animals. Ed Boks, general manager of Los Angeles Animal Services, says
the public agency receives 600 complaints daily, mostly involving intact (unsterilized)
dogs chasing kids, biting people and fighting with other dogs.

"There's little we can do,"
he explains. "We can write a leash law warning and try to educate people - that
sort of thing - but we've been doing that for 34 years and it just doesn't
solve many of the problems."

The new ordinance is a
valuable tool in making city neighborhoods safer, he says, because altered dogs
are less likely to cause problems to which his officers must respond. In many
cases sterilization reduces canine aggression and roaming.

Other California
cities may soon join Los Angeles.
A statewide bill, which stalled last year in a Senate committee, is expected to
be heard again in late June, says a spokesperson for the bill's author,
Assembly member Lloyd Levine.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles has opened two low-cost
spay-neuter clinics for financially strapped pet owners and plans to operate
seven more by the end of the year. And Boks says he's flooded with calls from
other cities interested in enacting a similar ordinance.

Quick recovery

Spaying and neutering is a
fast, simple surgery that stops animals from reproducing. Spaying refers to the
removal of a female's ovaries and uterus; neutering removes a male's testicles.

Puppies and kittens 4
months-old or less not only recover faster but experience virtually no pain or
complications, says veterinarian Marvin Mackie, an early spay-neuter specialist
who has performed 250,000 surgeries during his 32-year career.

"The youthful patients are
truly resilient," he says. "Their anesthetics are metabolized more rapidly and
they are up quicker than their [older] counterparts. They are pretty much
totally unaware of their surgery."

An educational effort
nationwide by public shelters and humane societies pushing people to alter
their pets has largely paid off, particularly in the Northeast where there's
now a puppy shortage. To fill the void, young dogs from overcrowded shelters in
Southern states are transported to facilities in communities where they're in

Most animal advocates agree
spaying and neutering is one of the most effective tools in reducing the number
of unwanted and stray animals in a community, but it's not a silver bullet.
Other types of programs are also needed to stem the flow into shelters, such as
animal training to stop frustrated owners from relinquishing unruly pets.

In some cities, feral and
free-roaming cats
are bigger problem for shelters than dogs, requiring humane
workers to take a different approach in controlling populations including a
popular yet controversial method called Trap-Neuter-Return.

Not a new idea

Forcing people to fix their
pets is only now being hotly debated - and sometimes legally challenged - but
it's not a new legislative idea. A handful of communities have quietly had such
ordinances on the books for years, although it hasn't always produced desired

Since 1996, the northern California cities of San Mateo
and Belmont, as well as unincorporated areas of San Mateo County, have required sterilization of
most dogs or cats over six months of age.

The thinking at that time
was if a few cities passed the ordinance, they'd see wonderful results such as
increased pet licensing, which in turns boosts city revenue, as well as fewer
animals entering shelters and euthanized, said Scott Delucchi, president of the
Peninsula Humane Society and SPCA, which provides animal control services for
all 20 cities in San Mateo County.

But that never happened.

"There was no A causes B
relationship that they could prove," he says.

In fact, in some cases,
Delucchi says, the Pet Overpopulation Ordinance, as it's dubbed, had just the
opposite effect. Consequently other cities weren't interested in passing the
statute and the effort was largely dropped.

Subsidized surgeries

Fast forward to today. PHS/SPCA
in San Mateo County
isn't in favor of California's
statewide spay-neuter bill (AB 1634) because
it lacks a good enforcement component and doesn't subsidize spay-neuter, said

If the bill passes, he thinks
irresponsible and ignorant owners - the root of pet overpopulation - will
simply ignore it.

A better way is to provide
low-cost or free surgeries to the community, he said, something PHS/SPCA has done since the 1970s. Back then, the shelter took in 45,000
unwanted dogs and
. Today that number has plummeted to 9,000 animals, despite the area's
increased human and pet population.

The organization also
operates a spay-neuter mobile clinic that targets low-income neighborhoods, and
last year fixed 1,000 cats and dogs countywide.

know we're reaching a lot of people who probably otherwise wouldn't be altering
their animals," he said.