TO APPEASE A RAUCOUS LOBBY with deep pockets, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Tuesday signed a citywide pet-neutering ordinance that critics say is impotent and could actually worsen tragic animal-euthanasia levels in Los Angeles.
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Touted by Villaraigosa as a dramatic way to reduce the annual killings of 15,000 unwanted cats and dogs at six shelters operated by Los Angeles Animal Services, the plan was embraced by the council this month in a 14-1 vote.
It requires Angelenos to neuter their pets at 4 months, but the measure, written by Council Member Richard Alarcon, is freighted with exceptions and has no serious enforcement mechanism. It starkly evokes a similar law created by the City Council in 2000, known as “spay or pay,” that badly backfired.
Animal-rights activists praise the new law as proof that City Hall is distancing itself from a history of bad decisions, including, they insist, Villaraigosa's hiring of Animal Services Manager Ed Boks, the nemesis of many local and often radical animal-rights groups.
But some veterinarians and other animal experts scoff at the new law because it is aimed at pets owned by the few Angelenos who already license them — not at seedy backyard breeders, not at pet stores, and not at the 76 percent of L.A. pet owners who ignore existing city licensing laws.
“Irresponsible people will not be made responsible by this law,” says Los Angeles Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals president Madeline Bernstein.
She supports the law in principle, but notes that only a fraction of the city's 1 million-plus dogs end up in shelters, where they are sterilized. Similarly, very few dogs and cats will come within the city's purview under this latest law, because it contains no serious mechanism for catching Angelenos who don't license their pets.
AT PET LOVE IN THE BEVERLY CENTER, a black-haired young woman holds a Pomeranian puppy. “He's so cute,” she says to a young salesclerk. The fluffy orange puppy's cellmates are stacked in more than a dozen glass boxes occupying a wall — lively Dalmatians, baby German shepherds with oversize paws, spindly little Chihuahuas. Pomeranians are advertised for $700, French bulldogs for $1,000.
“If you want, I can talk to my boss about getting the price down,” the clerk says. The young woman ponders the puppy in her arms. Asked if she'd ever consider adopting a dog from the pound, she responds, “What's the pound?”
Under the new law, a person who buys such a puppy is not required to get it neutered. A buyer has to voluntarily contact the city, voluntarily ask to be licensed, and then voluntarily submit the dog to a vet for neutering.
“We sell at least four or five dogs a day, every day,” 19-year-old Oscar Carrillo says, after the would-be buyer leaves Pet Love. He owns a mixed-breed pit bull — and doesn't sound as if he's planning to voluntarily hand the dog over to a neutering service: “I think he deserves his balls. I don't want anyone cutting them off.”
Alarcon, whose political career has been marred by endless job hopping and allegations of pandering to special-interest groups (see “How Alarcon Sold Out the Schools,” L.A. Weekly, February 28-March 6, 2007), insists that his new law “is hardly window-dressing.” He calls it “the strongest ordinance in the nation” — but quickly edits that dubious claim, saying he meant only that the law is the strongest “in terms of size and scope.”
Not in terms of actual enforcement.
Alarcon concedes that City Hall felt tremendous pressure to act, saying, “The animal-rights groups have been particularly boisterous and passionate. They have been a very difficult lobby to work with.”
Cities, counties and other jurisdictions spend more than a quarter of a billion dollars each year collecting, controlling and killing unwanted dogs and cats, according to the Humane Society of the United States. In 2007, more than 15,000 were put down in Los Angeles alone.
THE PROBLEM ALARCON DOESN'T WANT to discuss is that only 23 percent of Los Angeles dog owners bother to get their pets licensed (and far fewer cat owners pay the fee), a reflection of City Hall's history of approving pet-control ordinances that fall under the category of “the law of unintended consequences.”
In 2000, the council adopted its much-promoted “spay or pay” rules to tackle the crisis of unwanted pets and shelter euthanasias. Just as it is claiming now, the elected 15-member City Council claimed its “spay or pay” rule would finally reduce the number of unlicensed pets and animal euthanasias. Instead, pet licensing actually dropped in Los Angeles.
Westside Council Member Bill Rosendahl, the sole dissenting vote against the new ordinance, points out a simple reality: “Eighty percent of dog owners aren't even licensed. Those are the people we should be aggressively going after.”
Animal Services Manager Boks has stated that he will enforce the new law by hiring four new animal-control officers and extra clerical staff at a cost of $400,000. L.A. Weekly's calls to Boks were not returned, but a written draft of th e ordinance does not, in fact, include any plan to increase his enforcement budget — and City Hall is broke.
The notion that four animal-control officers could make a dent in freewheeling Los Angeles is questionable, but Alarcon insists he has an answer: an advisory committee of 15 volunteers who will oversee the administration of the ordinance. After a year, the committee will be disbanded, leaving the job to the Animal Services Department.
There's no evidence that the volunteer group will make any difference, however, and critics fear that with the city's extremely poor enforcement record, the ordinance could actually buoy shelter numbers and increase the number of dogs and cats euthanized.
“The bottom rung of the people affected by this are people who can't afford it,” says Pamelyn Ferdin, a spokesperson for the Animal Defense League. “They will end up dumping the animals back at the pound.”
The animal-rights movement is filled with emotionalism and friction, but its leaders appear to agree that Alarcon was making a showy act of appeasement, largely intended to assuage the activists' anger over Villaraigosa's hiring of Ed Boks to run the city's shelters.
Michael Bell, president of Citizens for a Humane Los Angeles, was a Villaraigosa supporter when he ran for mayor, donating thousands to his campaign and introducing him to other supporters. In 2005, Bell's organization, along with the Rescue and Humane Alliance of Los Angeles, hosted a convention at which Villaraigosa pledged to eliminate pet euthanasia in L.A.
Now, Bell says, “The [Animal Services Department] … has been turned into a killing field by a lousy manager [Boks] and a mayor that doesn't care.”
Boks was hired to assuage angry animal-rights groups who called for the firing of former Manager Guerdon Stuckey. Boks has earned some support, but holds what has become a thankless government post. He drew the ire of many activists after they learned Boks had been fired as an animal-services manager in Maricopa County, Arizona, and as animal-services director in New York City.
When he chose Boks, Villaraigosa stated, “Ed is committed to my goals of making L.A. a more animal-friendly city, increasing adoption and spay/neuter, reducing euthanasia.” But now, Ed Muzika, who once supported Boks, publishes a full-time Boks-bashing site, laanimalwatch.blogspot.com. He accuses Boks of allowing cats and dogs to die of natural causes to keep down euthanasia numbers — not an illegal practice, but one that animal-rights groups oppose. Muzika says, “He's likable, but he's a liar.”
In recent weeks and months, emboldened Animal Defense League protesters wearing facial bandannas have protested against Boks outside the homes of Villaraigosa's Chief of Staff Robin Kramer, Deputy Mayor Jimmy Blackman, and Villaraigosa's sister Deborah Villar.
Some City Hall observers say it is obvious that unnerved elected officials passed an ordinance that echoes the failed spay-or-pay ordinance of 2000: A law with few teeth is now added to a law with little bite.
Daniel Heimpel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.