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Dog Busters

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.

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.

 

Levine admits the proposed law isn’t 100 percent enforceable. “We’re not going to go into everybody’s home and lift their dogs’ legs to see whether they’re altered,” but he says, is any law enforceable? “People still speed. . . . Should we remove the speeding laws?”

LEVINE’S MESSAGE falls particularly flat with people like Mary Bradley, the president of the West Highland White Terrier Club of Southern California, who scoffs, “It’s gotten so watered down it’s hard to see how it’s going to do anything about overpopulation in the shelters.”

Bradley, who acts as a liaison between breeders and potential new pet owners, is nervous about her spokesperson role. But she predicts, “All it’s going to do is make life hard for responsible breeders.”

Unlike Levine, she makes a clear distinction between big, professional operations and smaller hobby breeders like those her group represents. “None of the breeders I work with are professional breeders, for the simple reason that they don’t make any money,” Bradley explains. “They aren’t running a business. They’re just dedicated to bringing healthy purebred dogs into the world they can place in good homes.”

These dogs, she says, don’t end up in shelters. “We have a waiting list two years long,” she says. “We just don’t have that many puppies.”

She is adamant that “The professional breeders are the puppy mills. And these are the people the law says can pay a fee and pass go?”

Next to Bradley stands a tall, honey-blond woman holding a small white Westie with pointed ears and a face like a tiny bear. “It took me 10 years to get to Nikki,” she boasts. “It was a lot of work — we try to breed for temperament so they can still do what they were bred for.” She admits to keeping five intact female dogs in her home, for which she should already pay Los Angeles County $60 per dog per year.

In fact, L.A. County in March launched a mandatory spay-neuter ordinance roughly similar to AB 1634 that requires neutering at four months and exempts police, guide and show dogs. Few dog owners seem to even know about it, and many who do disregard it — just as they ignore a state law requiring anyone who sells more than two animals yearly to obtain a breeder’s permit. On the other hand, breeders care so deeply about their dogs that they visit each home that acquires one. “Once someone gets one of my dogs, they’re part of my family,” says the outlaw Westie breeder. “We never let them go.”

But she worries AB 1634 will force her to alter her dogs or leave the state.

“You can’t use my name,” she says. “If AB 1634 passes, I’m going underground. If they know who I am, they’ll come after me.”

ALSO CALLED the “California Healthy Pets Act,” AB 1634 got broad support from animal-protection groups, including the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Humane Society and numerous animal-rescue organizations. Originally sponsored by Orange County animal-rights activist Judie Mancuso, it seeks to reduce the pets flowing into shelters at taxpayers’ expense, more than half of which are euthanized.

Mancuso is a vegan who has relied heavily on emotional appeals. In one video promo, a fashionable, heartbreakingly cute poodle mix fights the shelter worker leading it to its “final journey” — the euthanasia room.

The bill is “a tool that can help animal-control officers address the serious pet overpopulation problem,” Mancuso says. She explains that the bill evolved out of an earlier attempt to force pet stores to spay and neuter pets for sale, “but the pet-store industry is a huge lobby with huge money. Getting this spay-neuter bill through is like moving the Earth — but [the earlier bill] was impossible.” She has repeatedly insisted, “There’s no such thing as a ‘hobby breeder,’ ” and when asked about them, she laughs out loud. “Don’t let them fool you,” she says. “They’re all one in the same.”

Earthdoggers insist she’s wrong and believe their beloved broods prove it. In the Strongdog event, Piper, a 20-pound Westie, pulled a weighted badger carcass that “was as big as she is,” says her owner. “But she wouldn’t let go.”

You have to think that Piper, if still roaming Scotland, could have been one of those legendary dogs to lose their lives to their intended prey. Back East, says Cairn terrier aficionado Dennis Broderick, “It’s not unusual for a dog to get into trouble with a woodchuck and find out the woodchuck is bigger . . . I have a friend who lost her dachshund that way — but she was glad that the dog went doing what it was bred to do.”

 

Broderick’s story — harsh by some standards, noble by others — gets at the deeper philosophical issue that accounts for some of the muddle in AB 1634’s ambiguous language about “working dogs” and “professional breeders.”

Those terms have no clear definition in the dog world. In one sense, the conflict isn’t over who makes money, or the shelter population, or even the high cost to taxpayers of animal shelters — by some estimates, $250 million a year in California.

It’s about the purpose of pets and livestock — it’s about, in other words, what animals mean.

People like Mancuso, who belong to such groups as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, consider animals autonomous beings and oppose any attempt to use them for work. But Earthdoggers see dogs as working companion animals — they may have rights, but they also have jobs.

IN THEIR BROAD-BRIMMED HATS and wading boots, Cairn terrier owner Broderick and his brother, Terry, look like they themselves might have wandered off the Scottish moors in the sleet with little ratting dogs under their arms. Their Cairns love to work, and they cultivate dogs with that in mind.

“They’re not that good at [Earthdog], because they won’t come out [of the tunnel] when you tell them to,” explains Dennis Broderick. “They have their own agendas once they get in there. But they love it.”

No one at the Earthdog trials disputes that something needs to be done about the 800,000 pets in the state’s shelters, but they argue that 25 percent of those animals are pet-store rejects (and many are from private pet owners who allow their animals to have puppies and kittens) and that the state can ill afford to lose the few dedicated breeders that survive the already tough existing ordinances.

As the bill moves on July 9 to the Senate’s business committee, Hamilton voices a belief many dog lovers share: “We need to educate people, not invade their homes and cut up their dogs. Lloyd Levine should’ve had a better education himself. Then he’d know better.”


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