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As California budget talks draw to a close, whether lawmakers will shorten animal shelter hold requirements for strays is up in the air

July 15, 2009 |  5:17 pm

Gov California legislative leaders have announced that a final state budget deal is probably imminent and that they've reached agreement with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on most points of contention in closing California's budget deficit

Still, they have declined to give details on the negotiations that lasted late into Tuesday night, and the governor's spokesman was quick to point out that there "are still some very difficult decisions to make," our colleague Evan Halper reports.

California animal lovers may recall that the state's government-run animal shelters were among the programs on the chopping block as state lawmakers tried to close the $26.3-billion budget gap. A budget-cutting proposal from Schwarzenegger calls for the suspension of a mandate specified in a late-1990s piece of legislation called the Hayden bill -- a mandate that required shelters to increase the minimum number of days they held stray dogs and cats from three to, in most cases, six. 

If approved by lawmakers, the suspension of the six-day mandate would mean that shelters could euthanize stray pets after housing them for only three days. (A report from the California's Legislative Analyst's Office lists the budgeted cost to pay for the additional three hold days at $24.6 million for the 2009-10 fiscal year.) 

Animal advocates were understandably dismayed by the proposal, and a coalition of groups including the Humane Society of the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the California Animal Control Directors Assn. joined forces to state their opposition.  "The 'savings' generated by suspending this mandate is a paltry 0.1% of the $24-billion deficit," said Jennifer Fearing of the Humane Society.  "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 noted that the proposal would cut the state government's funding of animal shelters at a time when they were seeing increases in the number of surrendered pets due to the effects of a faltering economy.  The groups suggested an alternative to cutting the funds entirely, in the form of a one-year assistance program they termed an "animal safety net." The specifics of the safety net plan were in doubt, but one idea involved the state paying each shelter a small amount (perhaps $30) for each pet adopted, rather than reimbursing it for the additional hold days required by the Hayden bill.  This, they suggested, could save the state money while still providing local shelters with the funds they need to stay afloat.

Shelter It's unclear what effect, if any, the groups' request for a safety net has had on budget negotiations.  And, if the governor's plan to suspend the funding passes, exactly what effect it will have on local shelters is unknown.  According to some experts, there's a big difference between the amount budgeted by the state for reimbursing shelters for the extra days and the actual amount the shelters receive -- so it's possible the effect of losing the funding may not be as dire as many fear.  

Although the Hayden law specifies a minimum number of days shelters are required to hold pets (this minimum varies between four and six days, depending on factors like the shelter's hours of operation), "it does not mandate a maximum," says Patricia Learned of the L.A. County Department of Animal Services, which operates six shelters in the greater L.A. area. "Therefore, a shelter may hold an animal as long as they can or wish to do so. We believe on average, we currently hold animals for 7 to 8 days, but in many cases, we hold animals longer than even that."

L.A. County animal services director Marcia Mayeda added that, if the Hayden funding were suspended, L.A. County shelters "would not revert to the three-day holding period because the public outcry would be too outrageous." 

Elsewhere in Southern California, Dan DeSousa of the San Diego County Department of Animal Services concurred.  "We will lose money," DeSousa acknowledged to San Diego News Network, but "if we have to choose between money or an animal's life, we’ll always err on the side of the animal. This isn’t going to be a death knell for animals in our facilities."

"Our in-house philosophy is no healthy, adoptable animal should be euthanized," John Welsh of the Riverside County animal services department told the Palm Springs-based Desert Sun newspaper.  Riverside County's shelter system receives about $1.1 million from the state each year, Welsh said, adding that if the funds were no longer available it would be simply "one more difficult fiscal hardship for us to deal with."

Schwarzenegger's recent proposal to suspend the Hayden mandate is not the first time he's floated such an idea; he made a similar proposal in 2004.  But according to USA Today, the idea was unpopular with constituents and was quickly withdrawn.

As the budget hearings draw to a close, animal lovers will have a lot to watch for.  In addition to a decision on the minimum hold requirement issue, a finalized budget deal will mean that debate on a number of bills related to animal welfare, which were postponed so lawmakers could focus on the budget crisis, can resume.  When an official deal is reached, look for legislators to consider issues like the docking of dairy cows' tails, the so-called Pet Responsibility Act (which would require pet dogs in California, with a few exceptions, to be spayed or neutered), and a bill, A.B. 1122, that would ban roadside and parking-lot sales of pet animals.

Humane Society, ASPCA condemn Schwarzenegger plan to shorten animal shelter hold requirements
California budget cuts could mean faster euthanizing of strays in shelters

-- Lindsay Barnett

Top photo: Gov. Schwarzenegger responds to a question concerning budget negotiations while talking with reporters Wednesday. Credit: Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press

Bottom photo: A dog waits in a cage at the North Central Animal Shelter, one of six shelters operated by the L.A. City animal services department. Credit: Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times

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