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Healthy Pets Act won't be forgotten

Press Telegram, by Tom Hennessy,Staff columnist  07/14/2007

Ten weeks ago, life was a joy. Birds sang. Flowers bloomed. And except as a bit of blight on the legislative landscape, I had never heard of Lloyd Levine.

Then an e-mail arrived from a friend and former co-worker, John Zappe.

"I want to pitch you a column idea," he wrote.

The idea that weighed on John's mind and on the minds of thousands of other California pet owners like him was a piece of proposed legislation called AB1634; otherwise known as the Healthy Pets Act.

For the next two months, it virtually consumed that part of my life devoted to writing columns.

Sponsored by Levine, a Democrat from Van Nuys, and promoted by an acid-tongued activist named Judie Mancuso, AB1634 was a proposal, which, among other things, would have required every California dog and cat to be spayed or neutered by the age of four months.

After being passed by the Assembly, it was killed last week by a state Senate committee. As Bill Shakespeare would have said, "'twas a consummation devoutly to be wished."

Alas, the bill, or something vaguely like it, will probably be back early next year. Before that happens, however, I want to write about it one more time; mostly to coax those of you who supported it to see that the bill got as far as it did on lies, misinformation and raw emotion.

Harsh question On May 10, I wrote my first column on the bill and on its provision to spay or neuter animals at age four months.

The column generated a lot of e-mail, but the most eye-popping was from Texas, where a similar bill had been introduced. The message was from a dog breeder named Pat King.

"Do the legislators and/or governor realize this is like giving a 2-year-old girl a hysterectomy or a boy a castration?" King asked.

Thanks to Al Gore's invention, the Internet, pet owners sent me other startling e-mails from throughout the United States. From them, I learned that shelter numbers are declining, not increasing, as Levine and others were saying.

I learned that dogs were being transferred from shelter to shelter in order to swell their input numbers. I learned that several breeds of dogs are endangered. I learned all that and more.

The pet lovers who wrote those letters, and poured their hearts into them, were terrified that this legislation might be enacted. They were also appalled that the issue, at the time, was not getting more coverage by the media. Eventually, it did.

But the publicity was not always what the pet lovers had hoped for. For example, the Press-Telegram's entry into the issue was an editorial supporting Levine's bill.

This was understandable, however. One problem with the new legislation is that it had been crafted by people who thought they understood the problem of pet overpopulation, but really do not, and by people using false figures to make their case.

Misnamed The very name, the "Healthy Pets Act" - opponents called it the "Pets Extinction Act" - gave the legislation an aura of do-goodism. I found myself talking to many people who sincerely believed they were on the right side of this issue. And who clearly were not.

Thankfully, there were those who saw through the bill.

"This is simply a feel-better bill that, in the end, will have no effect whatsoever," an opponent of the bill wrote me in June.

In the end, opponents of the bill sent about 20,000 letters against it. AB1634 may well have been the most contentious piece of legislation this year.

By the time the debate died in the Senate, the bill personally cost me a couple of friendships within the animal rights community. I was as appalled with their stand as they were with mine.

The bill also cost me any remaining faith I had in the Legislature, especially when two local members of the Assembly told constituents they were opposing the bill, then voted for it - all in the same day.

The bill will return There were other arguments against the bill:

It did nothing to deal with the problem of puppy mills, which are run in other states and which ship in sick and diseased animals to California pet stores.

While decrying pet overpopulation, backers of the legislation ignored the fact that 59 to 70 percent of the animals euthanized in state shelters are feral cats or kittens, wild animals living in colonies.

Much of the public supporting the bill was simply unaware of what it would do.

"Why are you against this bill?" one reader asked, and said flatly, "It will save animal lives."

In point of fact, it would not have done that.

Alas, the bill will return in some form or other after the first of the year. It will have to be fought all over again.

Through these contentious 10 weeks, one shining moment stands out. Supporters of the bill brought retired quiz show host ("The Price is Right") Bob Barker to Sacramento to drum up votes for the bill.

Opponents countered with Lassie (actually the ninth edition of the famous dog) and actor Jon Provost, who played his master, Timmy, on TV. In terms of popularity, Lassie and Timmy carried the day.

One last note. Perhaps feeling the effects of the outcome, Rep. Levine lamented that foes of the bill see him as "the devil incarnate."

Not in my case, Lloyd. I just see you as one more legislative hack.

Tom Hennessy's viewpoint appears Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. He can be reached at (562) 499-1270 or by e-mail at Scribe17@mac.com.

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