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The political education of Judie Mancuso

August 31, 2008 |  2:01 pm

Judie_mancuso_at_shelter_2Laguna Beach animal welfare advocate Judie Mancuso spent a year and a half trying to get the state Legislature to pass a law requiring that pets be sterilized.  A week ago, the bill, AB 1634 -- alternately reviled and cheered -- was finally rejected in the state Senate.

On the tortured road to its death, the bill was amended almost a dozen times, watered down and even name-changed. Breeders and opposition groups howled in protest and said legislators were taking away their rights to handle their animals as they saw fit.

But in the end, says Mancuso, the bill's defeat came down to friction and squabbles in the Legislature and -- the final blow -- what she called a surprise vote a week ago in the Senate, where it was trounced 27 to 5.

"The bill could have said the sky is blue and the ocean is deep, and they would have voted against it," said Mancuso, 45, as she and her husband packed up her Sacramento apartment, the command center for the citizen coalition she spearheaded to convince the public and lawmakers that this was the right thing to do.

Mancuso, whose voice sounds as though it belongs to a plucky girl cartoon character, had created the original proposal along with Los Angeles city staffers and L.A. Animal Services general manager Ed Boks. Assemblyman Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys) became the bill's author and legislative torchbearer. The goal was to stem the euthanasia of hundreds of thousands of animals in the state's shelters annually by mandating people alter their pets. Fewer animals being born meant fewer strays and owner-surrendered pets being housed in the shelters, Mancuso and company contended. "You're just trying to prevent animals coming in the front door," said Mancuso, pictured here smooching a pooch in the Central Valley SPCA shelter in Fresno.       

Remy_in_sacto

Despite passing the Assembly last year, the beleaguered bill never had an easy road. Sterilization exemptions for many dogs and cats in the original bill (show dogs, service dogs, etc.) still didn't please opponents. The service dog pictured below that showed up last year in Sacramento with its owner to protest the original bill was actually never in any danger of being altered.

The final version of the bill required sterilization only of pets that were cited for being unlicensed, running loose or impounded, and they had to be guilty of those violations several times.

But Mancuso says the real problem was the backstage battling between some senators and bill author Levine.  Some senators were against any bill from the get-go. (One Democratic senator told Mancuso's people working the Senate that there were folks in his district who ate dogs -- and not to count on his vote.)

Mancuso says she might have been able to persuade more senators to vote for it if she and lobbyists had gotten a heads-up that Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), the Senate manager of the bill, was going to take it up Friday morning a week ago. "Lloyd would have been on the floor to answer questions. The lobbyists would have been working it," she said.

Padilla's chief of staff says Padilla was following Levine's instructions. "To say that Alex took it up at the wrong time -- he was responding to the will of the author," Chief of Staff Bill Mabie said.

And Levine, who was in an Assembly committee meeting when his bill came up in the Senate, says, "It's all confusing. I don't know who talked to whom. The last conversation I had with Alex the day before, I said, 'Go ahead and bring it up.' . . . I don't fault Alex for bringing up the bill. Frankly, the votes weren't there. "

Levine says it costs the state $300 million a year to shelter and euthanize animals. "I'm disappointed the Senate didn't deal with this," Levine said. "Just because breeders say there isn't a problem out there doesn't mean it's not there."

Mancuso, for her part, isn't done trying to get the state to pass a mandatory spay-or-neuter bill. "I've been to all these shelters around the state. I've seen all these dead animals piled up. Barrels and barrels of them. And I'm going to walk away? No way."

There was one victory along the way: the Los Angeles city spay-neuter law. "When we went to the Los Angeles City Council to get their support for the state bill, Richard Alarcon said, 'Why wait for the state? This is a great idea.'  Now, the second-largest city in the country has a mandatory spay-neuter law. "

The L.A. city law went into effect in April.  The grace period on enforcement ends Oct. 1.

Note: Comments that have inaccuracies or unsourced statistics will not be posted. Also, the LA city mandatory-spay neuter law is untested because it has yet to be enforced.

--Carla Hall

Photo of Mancuso: Mohr Productions

Photo of service dog: Brian Baer, the Sacramento Bee

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