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Humane Society, ASPCA condemn Schwarzenegger plan to shorten animal shelter hold requirements

June 9, 2009 |  5:30 pm

Shelter

Last week, we learned that California's animal shelter system is among the programs facing cutbacks as a result of the state's budget crisis.  If a proposal from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is approved, strays in California's shelters could face euthanization in as few as three days, down from the six-day minimum hold generally applied in the state's shelters. 

The governor's proposal seeks to suspend the six-day mandate specified in a late-90s piece of legislation called the Hayden bill.  The bill aimed to increase pet adoptions and reduce euthanizations throughout California, but a Legislative Analyst's Office report says there's little evidence that it accomplishes that.  And with a cost estimated at $13 million annually, the report suggests the funds could be better spent elsewhere.  [Correction: The Humane Society notes that the $13 million figure is significantly less than the amount currently budgeted for the 2009-10 fiscal year.  That figure is noted as $24.6 million by the Legislative Analyst's Office.]

Animal advocates, understandably, disagree with this assessment.  And late last week, a coalition of animal protection groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the State Humane Assn. of California, and the California Animal Control Directors Assn., stated their opposition to suspending the six-day mandate.

Jennifer Fearing of the Humane Society testified at a budget committee hearing Thursday that cutting funds to animal shelters would make dogs and cats the victims of recession -- and would do so without even making a significant dent in the budget deficit.  "If shelters are no longer reimbursed by the state for holding animals, they will be forced to cut services," Fearing said. "The 'savings' generated by suspending this mandate is a paltry 0.1% of the $24-billion deficit. These funds are the only state dollars that presently go to assisting local governments with the costly problem of pet overpopulation." 

Jill Buckley of the ASPCA agrees.  "Animal redemption and adoption rates had been steadily rising in California until the tidal wave of home foreclosures dramatically increased the number of surrendered and abandoned animals," she said, adding that in the current fiscal year, Los Angeles County's animal control department took in nearly 10% more dogs and cats than in the last fiscal year. 

The groups urge an alternative to the proposed cut: a yearlong program to help shelters survive budget cuts in the short-term.  "While we strongly prefer not to face a suspension of the stray hold provision, we understand the grave circumstances the state is facing and encourage lawmakers to consider creation of a one-year 'animal safety net' program to promote the adoption of as many animals as possible," said Kathleen Brown, president of the California Animal Control Directors Assn.  With local shelters forced to cut their budgets even as they face an increase in the number of surrendered pets, Brown and others argued, such a program would go a long way toward helping homeless animals over the next year. 

But what, in terms of specifics, would the "safety net" entail?  Even the groups themselves aren't sure. 

"What we're trying to do is make lemonade out of lemons," Buckley said of the still-amorphous plan.  Its advocates say they do know a few things about the safety net: It'll cost less, and could yield more positive results than the current system installed by the Hayden bill. 

Buckley explained that, with the structure of the current stray hold policy, state government is expected to reimburse local governments for the cost of caring for stray pets during the minimum hold period.  (It's generally six days, but under some conditions can be as few as four.)  But owners who reclaim their lost pets at shelters pay a fee to do so, and those who adopt shelter pets pay an adoption fee -- so the cost of caring for those pets while they're in a shelter is offset by owner-paid fees.  That means, Buckley says, that the state-provided funds are essentially reimbursing local shelters for the cost of caring for the dogs and cats that are eventually euthanized.

Does it make sense for the state to pay local governments to kill dogs and cats?  Maybe not, but the Humane Society and ASPCA assert that the fault for that lies in a misguided funding formula, not in the basic policy of the state offering financial support to local shelters.

The groups argue that the state's funding of local shelters shouldn't be cut entirely, but hope the funding formula can be amended to do more good with less money.  One option to retain some funding, they suggest, is for the state government to grant funds to local shelters on a reward basis, such as paying shelters a small amount (perhaps $30) for each dog or cat successfully adopted.  This, they say, would save the state money while helping to provide the shelters with much-needed funds.  

If all else fails and lawmakers see no option but to suspend the stray hold requirement, the groups urged them to craft the legal language with extreme caution "so as to avoid inadvertently suspending important provisions unrelated to the three-day stray hold requirement."

RELATED:
California budget cuts could mean faster euthanizing of strays in shelters
California state assemblyman introduces bill to create tax deductions for pet adoption

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: A chihuahua meets a potential adopter at a Santa Barbara County shelter.  Credit: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times

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