Proposed ordinance to enforce pet neutering hits a nerve in San Mateo, Calif.

March 23, 1992|By Jane Meredith Adams | Jane Meredith Adams,Contributing Writer

SAN MATEO, Calif. -- Politicians sometimes wonder what it takes to rouse the public. San Mateo County Supervisor Tom Nolan found out: Try to control the reproductive organs of their pets.

More than a year ago, Mr. Nolan proposed an ordinance requiring that all cats and dogs older than six months be spayed or neutered. He was outraged, he said, by the 10,000 unwanted cats and dogs that are put to death each year by the county humane society.

Nothing prepared him for the furor that followed.

Hearings in this county just south of San Francisco drew 400 agitated residents at a time. Neighbor railed against neighbor; dog people criticized cat people.

Men voiced concern that castration would reduce their male pets to flaccid, overweight creatures.

What emerged from the maelstrom was a compromise ordinance that went into effect March 1.

Spaying and neutering is encouraged, but owners can keep unaltered pets if they pay $10 extra for a permit. Owners also must sign a statement that their unaltered animal will not be allowed to breed unless the owner first obtains a $25 breeding permit.

As the ordinance enters its first weeks as law, strong feelings continue to surface.

"With some of my clients it's like the abortion issue," said Dr. Rex Urich, a local veterinarian. "They say: 'It's my birthright to breed the dog.' "

During debate over the law, the local Peninsula Humane Society tried to counter that viewpoint by euthanizing five cats and three dogs live on television news.

The society also ran full-page newspaper advertisements showing dead cats stuffed in trash barrels.

"We had to come clean about what's happening in humane societies across the country," said Tricia Gallegos, director of development at the society.

But pet breeders argued that the ordinance would penalize law-abiding pet owners without stopping stray cats and dogs from reproducing.

Protesters marched with signs reading, "What Next, Puppy Police?" and "If the Humane Society had been in Hollywood, there would be no Lassie."

Since the law went into effect, the humane society reports a surge in demand at its spay-neuter clinic.

Still, some men are skittish about castrating their pets, said James Daugherty, a breeder of two Abyssinian cats, Pronto and Julian May. "It's a macho thing," he said. "They think: 'I wouldn't want this happening to me so I'm not doing that to my cat.' "

And then there is the issue of enforcement.

The San Mateo County supervisors have jurisdiction over a rural unincorporated region of beaches and Brussels sprouts farms that is home to 60,000 people and 8,000 cats and dogs.

"Are you going to crawl around on your belly and check for spay and neuter marks?" asked Wayne Cavabaugh, spokesman for the American Kennel Club, a dog registry association that has kept close track of the San Mateo ordinance.

Its backers admit enforcement will be tricky.

The county's Animal Control Division will rely on neighbors' complaints.

Violators will be issued "fix-it" tickets. Every attempt will be made to keep penalties low so that pet owners don't disappear from the licensing system, said Donna Vaillancourt, program service manager of the Animal Control Division.

Only in rare cases will fines, of up to $500, be enforced, she said.

Much of the enforcement will occur when stray animals are picked up by the humane society.

Their owners will be required to buy a permit for an unaltered pet or place a $35 deposit toward spaying or neutering.

Supervisor Nolan said Seattle, Denver and other cities are studying the San Mateo County ordinance as a way to deal with their own animal overpopulation. He is not surprised, though, that politicians in nearby communities have backed off from the issue.

Mr. Nolan, who is running for Congress and owns a spayed cat named Zoe, said he is being watched to see if his political career can survive the neutering controversy. He is not yet certain. He remembers all too well one protester's sign: "Neuter Nolan."

"Now that's a little extreme," he said.

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