Dog Busters 

If puppies are outlawed by Lloyd “Lightbulb” Levine, will only outlaws have puppies?

Tuesday, Jul 3 2007

WHEN THE GOVERNMENT “can come into our homes and decide whether our dogs can have gonads,” says Carol Hamilton, “that’s the day I leave California.” She is sitting in the dirt pulling tufts of undercoat from a slight, wheat-colored terrier, using sharp, decisive jerks. Clouds of beige fluff collect around her, emotion rises in her voice, and her fur-tugging gets more urgent. The dog, a Cairn terrier she has just met, lolls contentedly in her lap.

A taut, energetic 57-year-old in khaki shorts, hiking boots and a floppy hat covered with pins, Hamilton heads up the Great Western Terrier Club, which this day is hosting the Sixth Annual Earthdog Trials at the Canyon RV Park in Anaheim. Terriers — Borders, Jack Russells, Cairns and West Highland whites — bound about in portable kennels surrounded by humans in lawn chairs, feet propped on coolers. The air rings with yips and squeals, and cars in the parking lot sport posters and windshield screens bearing a single, unified message: “No on AB 1634.”

Amid all the activity, another portable kennel is filled with plush toys. For a $10 donation to the anti–AB 1634 Pet Pac, your dog can dive in and pick out its toy.

click to enlarge (Illustration by Ken Garduno)
  • (Illustration by Ken Garduno)

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Earthdog is a competitive sport devised by terrier fans to maximize the peculiar talents of their small, rat-catching terriers — headstrong, independent dogs that don’t do well in obedience trials but excel at digging rodents out of tight spaces. In this competition, each dog has to burrow as far as 30 feet into a tunnel, bravely make a couple of tight turns and find a live rat, which is confined to a cage for its protection. The dog has to “work” the rat by barking and scratching for up to 90 seconds.

At home, some of the dogs are highly effective rodent exterminators. “When the rat tried to jump up onto the counter to get away, Laci plucked it out of the air,” the owner of a Welsh terrier brags between runs. “By the end of the summer, all the rats were gone.”

Most of these dogs — which include dachshunds as well as terriers — were bred in the British Isles or Europe in the Middle Ages to replace wolves and other predators, which Great Britain extirpated by the 18th century and Europe nearly wiped out as well, leaving a swelling rodent population and deadly, rodent-spread human epidemics.

Hamilton, fearful that a mandatory spay-neuter bill will make its way through the California state Legislature in Sacramento and become law, asks, “You know what happened in Italy when they decided the cats were the consorts of witches and killed them all, don’t you? That’s right. The bubonic plague.”

EXTREME TALK, PERHAPS, but to many pet owners, these are extreme times. Seen by critics as a ban on puppies and kittens, AB 1634, which passed the Assembly in an unusually close 41-38 vote last month, would require the spaying or neutering of all dogs and cats in California at the age of 4 months — unless they meet a set of narrow but still unclear conditions. Under the law, purebred dogs and cats kept by professional breeders with business licenses and tax ID numbers would be exempt, as would show dogs and cats, dogs training to become guide dogs for the blind, police dogs and animals too old for surgery (a fuzzy category to be determined by vets).

San Fernando Valley state Assemblyman Lloyd Levine — whom critics call “Lightbulb” Levine for another of his attention-getting bills, to ban incandescent bulbs in California — originally drafted a more sweeping puppy ban. It could have wiped out some widely used, mixed-breed working dogs and utility dogs. But after extensive protests by animal lovers, and lobbying by the American Kennel Club, his law now would give just about any dog or cat owner the chance to seek an exemption.

That’s probably the messiest part of AB 1634. Levine would require city councils across California to decide which kinds of pets must get altered, granting enormous power over pet owners to a patchwork of municipal animal-control panels. This raises the specter of emotionally wrenching battles by animal lovers against hundreds of cities.

Aside from these neutering wars, dog “fanciers” — small, hobby breeders whose dogs produce at most one or two litters a year — argue that the law will make life the most difficult for them.

Critics like Hamilton, who keeps in her Riverside County house three “intact” Dandie Dinmont terriers, odd little sausage-shaped dogs with short legs, curly hair, huge black eyes and floppy ears, say the law won’t stop pet stores from selling expensive and often unhealthy pets, or shutter huge breeding operations in Missouri and Kansas that supply pet stores — and help to create the massive population of dogs left at shelters. Nor will Levine’s plan halt the well-documented smuggling of sickly pet-shop dogs and cats from Mexico.

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