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 demand.

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 results.

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 Delucchi.

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 cats. 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.

“We know we’re reaching a lot of people who probably otherwise wouldn’t be altering their animals,” he said.

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