Looking out for shelter pets
February 8, 2012
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors this week weighed in on a narrow-but-emotional debate over euthanasia in animal shelters, urging the governor not to repeal a suspended law requiring shelters to wait more than three days before euthanizing abandoned pets and strays.
The mandate, suspended since 2009, is one of more than 30 that Gov. Jerry Brown has sought to eliminate in the wake of the state’s budget crisis.
Signed into law in 1998 by Gov. Pete Wilson, and named for its sponsor, former Santa Monica state senator Tom Hayden, it has extended the lives of lost and stray animals by requiring shelters to hold them from four to six days, rather than the 72 hours under the prior law. Local governments are supposed to be reimbursed by the state.
As California’s economy has struggled, however, the shelter law has been a target. In 2004, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger briefly tried and failed to repeal it, and five years later, it was suspended as part of a deal to balance the state budget. At the time, animal rights groups feared that shelters would begin euthanizing animals more quickly, but they continued to abide by longer waiting periods, making up for the lack of state reimbursement out of their own budgets.
In Los Angeles County, for instance, the Department of Animal Care and Control has spent about $600,000 a year of its $33 million budget to hold animals for five days before euthanization, says Chief Deputy Director David Dijkstra.
“As long as we have the ability, we like to make animals available for adoption or owner redemption for as long as possible,” Dijkstra says, noting that the county impounds about 90,000 animals a year and euthanizes fewer than half of them.
Some animal rights activists have argued that Hayden’s Law has worsened conditions for shelter animals because so-called “rescue holds” by hoarders and well-intentioned but disorganized animal lovers force shelters to house aggressive and diseased animals for weeks at the expense of more adoptable pets who then end up being euthanized for lack of space.
The state also points to a 2008 report from the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office that found no proof that the Hayden Law had led to an increase in pet adoptions, and therefore recommended repeal.
Still, Brown’s proposal to save more than $23 million a year by taking the mandate out of the state budget has drawn a fresh round of protest from some pet lovers and animal rights groups. Hayden recently spoke out in a YouTube video, and the Humane Society of the United States this week asked members to write to Brown.
The Board’s response, led by Supervisor Michael Antonovich, a longstanding advocate for pet adoptions, took the form of a 5-signature letter asking that the law not be repealed.
Quantifying the local impact of Hayden’s Law has been difficult because so many variables are involved in pet adoptions. For example, in recent years, Dijkstra says, shelters have become more crowded because owners have had difficulty caring for pets in this economy. Moreover, many of the 40,000 or so animals euthanized each year in county shelters are animals such as feral cats that can’t easily be placed for adoption.
However, he notes, by the most available measure—dog impounds—the suspension of Hayden’s Law has not increased euthanasia. In 2008-09, the county impounded 45,903 dogs, with 54 percent adopted or returned to their owners. In 2011-12, the projected number of impounded dogs stands at 48,823, with 57 percent returned or adopted.
About 80 percent of pets are claimed by their owners within the first three days, he says, but last year, about 1,100 lost pets were reunited with their owners on their fourth and fifth days in the shelter. In the past year, he adds, the county also has begun putting abandoned pets up for adoption sooner than they might otherwise have been made available.
“It’s very rare that an owner shows up after we’ve made a dog or cat available for adoption,” he adds, “but that has happened on a couple of occasions, and in those cases, the new owners are contacted and asked if they’ll give the pet back.”