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Pet spay and neuter vouchers: pony up, city council

March 18, 2009 |  8:45 am

Pit_bull_pound_dog_2 The good news is, the city council wants the city to reconsider the shortsighted hacking of the city's free and subsidized spay and neuter program for pets.

That's the part that goes on in front of the cameras. But how about the harder part, the deal-making to find the dollars to keep the program going?

The vouchers have provided free and discounted sterilization services to residents -- an enormously important program intended to operate in sync with the city's ratcheting-up of license fees for un-fixed dogs to $100, versus $10 for sterilized pets.

The impact of pet overpopulation is devastating -- first on the pets, who wind up unwanted, on the streets, stuck in shelters and then maybe euthanized. It's also devastating on the civic pocketbook. Across California, public agencies spend a quarter of a billion dollars a year to euthanize pets. Fewer unwanted pets means taxpayer savings....

The budget for LA's animal services has been cut by nearly 20% over the last two years. I simply can't imagine that department head Ed Boks would cut the voucher program unless he had nowhere else to cut. The pressure is too great -- the animal services workload has more than doubled. Mayor Villaraigosa once told me that animal services is the one city department whose personnel hits might be worse in this crisis than other departments, because the skills of the workers there can't be easily transferred to other departments. I might beg to differ. I've seen those people handling some pretty difficult four-legged cases; by comparison, bureaucrats might be easy.

The foreclosure crisis has made matters even worse, as people lose their homes and give up their pets. One recent Sunday,  I was at a city shelter that maintains six cages for pets brought in over the counter, mostly by owners giving them up because they couldn't keep them. On that single day, a shelter worker told me, those cages had been emptied and refilled four times. And it was only midday.

Spay and neuter vouchers held out the promise of making a dent in these numbers. As budget cuts go, cutting these vouchers is especially short-sighted. It's like not spending the money to fix a flat tire, and running on the rim instead -- it winds up costing ten times more than fixing the tire in the first place.

Not spaying and neutering pets now means that, six or seven months or a year hence, there will be that many more unwanted animals coming into the shelter, that many more unwanted pets unable to find homes, that many more to kill. And it costs a lot more to shelter a dog or a cat, and more to euthanize a dog or a cat, than to sterilize them.

So I'm delighted that City Council members like Dennis Zine, Eric Garcetti and Jack Weiss are saying, "Not so fast" to the program cancellation. Hearings into this are set for next week. But they shouldn't waste time railing against the cuts unless they're willing to do something themselves and put some money where their mouths are. The voucher program costs $150,000. How very interesting. It's almost some kind of cosmic message that the number can be divided neatly by 15 -- the number of city council seats.

If the council is indeed as agitated by these cuts as their animal-loving constituents are -- several council members joined in the call for the hearings -- why can't each put up $10,000 from his or her office-holder account to cover the costs? The office-holder account is money that each council member (like other elected officials around the state) gets to raise and keep for pet projects.

And if there ever were a real pet project for them to step up to the plate for, this is it.

Photo: Animal care technician Stephanie Webster with Bluebell, a 1 1/2 year-old pit bull, at the Southeast Area Animal Control Authority Animal Shelter in Downey. Credit: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

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