Editorial: Self-defeat in Los Angeles

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2000:

On March 22, 2000, the Los Angeles City Council at urging of the Coalition to End Pet Overpopulation adopted what In Defense of Animals spokesperson Bill Dyer called “the nation’s strongest spay/neuter ordinance.” It boosts the licensing fee for unaltered animals from $30 to $100. Owners of unlicensed, unaltered dogs found at large––if identified––will get two warnings to license over a 60-day span, before being fined up to $500.

Los Angeles Animal Services Department manager Dan Knapp and local activists celebrated victory. They should have mourned a self-inflicted defeat, not least because the new ordinance killed any chance a local coalition might have had at funding a five-year drive toward no-kill animal control with help from the $200 million Maddie’s Fund.

As Maddie’s Fund executive director Richard Avanzino reminded, on the eve of the L.A. vote, “Maddie’s Fund does not pay for government programs, including state and local animal care and control mandates.”

Clarified Avanzino, in a follow-up statement to ANIMAL PEOPLE, “If Los Angeles is making people fix their animals, by law, then if the legislative approach works those animals are going to be fixed anyway. It would be a waste of our resources to go there and fix animals, instead of going to some other city where our participation might become an incentive to fixing animals who would not get fixed otherwise.”

Avanzino’s remarks reflect his experience in making San Francisco the first no-kill U.S. city, effective since April 1994. As president of the San Francisco SPCA, 1976-1998, Avanzino recognized that if government can pass animal control expense to the humane community, it will, with the result that donated resources will not be left to provide services chiefly benefiting animals rather than taxpayers.

Progress in San Francisco began when Avanzino returned the pound contract to the city, to quit subsidizing the slaughter, and put the money formerly spent on impounding and killing into free and low-cost neutering.

Avanzino doubts that investing in a legislative neutering mandate, including enforcing it, could have brought comparable results, partly because when neutering is compelled, private practice veterinarians have less incentive to discount their rates. Avanzino suspects that access to low-cost neutering will decrease in Los Angeles as result of the new ordinance, except at city-subsidized clinics whose clients must pass a means test.

“But Maddie’s Fund supports the right of every community to determine its own path,” Avanzino said.

Los Angeles has tried legislation before, more than 30 years ago, as one of the first cities to use differential licensing, i.e. collecting a higher licensing fee for unaltered pets. Then, when under half of all owned pets were neutered, and five times as many animals per 1,000 humans were killed in U.S. shelters, differential licensing helped––in combination with low-cost neutering clinics opened around L.A. by humane societies beginning in 1971, and by the city itself beginning two years later.

However, L.A. residents have never licensed more than 25% of their dogs, and license practically none of their cats, consistent with the tendencies of pet owners everywhere.

That puts a low ceiling on what differential licensing can reasonably be expected to do. It can help persuade some law-abiding, responsible pet owners to alter their animals more expeditiously than they otherwise might. But it has no effect on irresponsible owners, who don’t license their pets no matter what the fees are.

After neutering pets became the norm, which in Los Angeles was achieved by 1980, differential licensing had no more discernable impact. The volume of animals killed in the L.A. shelters fluctuated during the past 20 years chiefly in proportion to the amount of lowcost and free neutering done by a variety of public and charitable programs.

The lesson should be obvious: just fix the animals. Never mind the licensing laws. Few communities achieve even the 24% licensing compliance that Knapp estimates is the current L.A. norm, unless they do door-to-door canvasing––and canvasing tends to cost a lot more per animal fixed than just spending the money to subsidize neutering.

Further, as reams of data from around the U.S. illustrates, the higher the cost of licensing, the less compliance there is, even with door-to-door enforcement.

Maximum licensing compliance comes only when the fees are low, like the $10 Los Angeles charges to license altered animals, and licensing is promoted as a service for recovering lost pets, not as a means of funding animal control or punishing “irresponsible” owners. Then, more license sales can result in enough more returns of strays to owners to significantly cut shelter killing. But trying to make licensing more than just a service to pet owners can build self-defeat into the program.

Low-income pet keepers are especially likely to dodge licensing and deny ownership of stray animals if the cost of compliance with a neutering mandate becomes too high. They are also the pet keepers most likely to have unaltered animals––big dogs, in particular. And the more the unaltered, unlicensed dogs they often depend upon for security are impounded, the greater the demand for replacements will be from the unaltered, unlicensed breeding pool.

Los Angeles councillor Mark Ridley-Thomas introduced the Los Angeles ordinance, he said, because “The overpopulation of dogs and cats in this city is a threat to the public safety and public health of residents, particularly to children.”

Apprised that similar ordinances have already failed to achieve much elsewhere, Knapp claimed that the other ordinances were inadequately enforced––and announced a plan to send five animal control officers door-to-door in the parts of the city believed to have the most unaltered and free-roaming dogs and cats. They will distribute coupons for low-cost altering at participating clinics, along with multilingual brochures promoting the advantages of altering, and explaining where the low-cost clinics are.

The Knapp plan resembles the two-year-old Spay L.A. 2000 program introduced by Leo Grillo of DELTA Rescue. But Spay L.A. 2000 and other such projects carried out by nonprofit humane societies succeed precisely because they are not part of law enforcement. They operate, rather, as “Welcome Wagons” for pet owners.

Animal control officers going door-to-door with the power to fine, confiscate, and kill animals will be perceived as an anti-pet Gestapo.

Elsewhere, attempting to enforce similar laws, animal control officers have been evaded, resisted, and eventually taken off the streets, as occurred after the passage of similar neutering mandates between 1987 and 1992 in Fort Wayne, Indiana; San Mateo, California; King County, Washington; and Montgomery County, Maryland.

The Fort Wayne and Montgomery County ordinances are no longer enforced as adopted because annoyed voters and their elected representatives dismantled the enforcement apparatus, putting animal control under police departments. The San Mateo and King County ordinances appear to have had little visible impact.

Resistance to change

The most tedious aspect of the new Los Angeles ordinance, however, is that L.A. was close to becoming able to go no-kill, and has now indefinitely postponed getting there.

The number of animals impounded and killed in Los Angeles is now a third of what it was in 1970, half of what it was in 1980, and comparable to what it was in 1990, even as L.A. human population and pet ownership have risen since 1970 by 29%.

Los Angeles ordinance supporters claimed that the L.A. shelter killing rate was 8% above the 1999 U.S. average. In truth it was in the lower third of all U.S. cities, at 14.4 animals killed per 1,000 human residents. San Francisco killed only 3.9 animals per 1,000 human residents, but the U.S. and California norms were circa 18 per 1,000.

This brings up the crux of what went wrong in Los Angeles, and is going wrong in other communities all over the world, wherever activists, animal control departments, and elected officials mistakenly believe that “irresponsible owners” are the cause of dog-and-cat overpopulation, and are vulnerable to legal penalty.

As a poll of 517 Los Angeles pet owners commissioned by Humane America in December 1999 affirmed, even finding an “irresponsible owner” is difficult. Humane America found, as pollsters usually do, that unaltered pets tend to belong to the people with the lowest incomes, who have the least access to services in their own language and part of town, and also have the least pet-keeping experience. Programs such as Spay L.A. 2000 help those pet owners. Punitive licensing and fines they can’t pay just make them harder to locate.

But activism responds to a crisis, and demands a quick fix. Activist groups have correspondingly little interest in supporting longterm solutions, and prefer legislative “victory.” Animal control agencies, meanwhile, crave the status of doing law enforcement over the stigma of dogcatching, and in order to do law enforcement, they need laws––whether or not the laws actually do anything to reduce the amount of dogcatching left to be done.

Similar motives underscore the alliance of activists and animal control agencies opposing the 1998 Hayden Bill in the California state legislature.

The Hayden Bill required that shelters alter animals before adopting them out, and hold all impounded animals for at least five days to facilitate owner reclaims––a requirement imposed on shelters selling animals to research by the federal Animal Welfare Act since 1966.

Without even attempting to implement the Hayden Bill, traditional shelters are blaming the bill for causing overcrowding. Activists are duped into supporting the catch-andkill crowd by the bogus claim that the Hayden Bill is causing more killing.

Indeed, traditional shelters may be killing more animals on the first day after holding times expire, to free cage space for new arrivals––but they used to kill many new arrivals almost immediately, as suspected ferals or allegedly poor adoption prospects.

The major change in animal control procedure mandated by the Hayden Bill is that now every animal life is supposed to be handled with care. If adoptable animals are killed immediately after five days pass, the blame lies with the shelter administrators for failing to expand their adoption market share––for instance, by working in partnership with rescue groups and pet supply stores such as PETsMART, whose Luv-A-Pet Adoption Centers are already placing more shelter animals than the animal control shelters in many leading cities.

The bottom-line problem, in California and elsewhere, is that too many animal control departments and humane societies which still hold animal control contracts have a vested interest in doing what they have always done. Going a different and more successful way would mean accepting some of the blame for causing barrels to fill, day after day, with furry bodies. Complain though many animal control and humane society people might about the stress of killing, they still find killing animals easier than doing what is necessary to stop it.

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