The Board of Supervisors heard more than two hours of public comment Tuesday on a proposed spay-neuter ordinance that that has pitted feuding factions of animal lovers against each other.

Supervisors are expected to vote on the matter at their Nov. 10 meeting in Santa Maria, which is expected to be just as long so as to give North County residents a chance to weigh in on the contentious proposal.

The meeting in Santa Barbara drew a deluge of passionate speakers, with many supporters of the ordinance wearing wrist bands and opponents wearing green stickers.

When the ordinance was first proposed in May 2008, a similar flurry of opposition compelled the board to shelve the proposed ordinance and create a task force of staff members and local stakeholders to look at pet population issues.

The new draft ordinance, recommended by the task force on a 6-5 vote, was watered down from the original, which was written to punish pet owners with “fix-it” tickets for not complying with the law.

 

If the board adopts the ordinance, enforcement would begin early next year, county officials said.

A major point of contention Tuesday centered on whether the new ordinance is still mandatory.

But unlike last year’s version, the revised ordinance would not require owners to spay or neuter their pets, if they discuss the purposes for owning the dog or cat with a veterinarian and they obtain a veterinary certificate to purchase an “unaltered animal license” — a $10 fee plus any costs for the visit. 

At the latest meeting, Michele Mickiewicz, interim director for the county’s Public Health Department, reiterated staff’s recommendation that the ordinance was needed to curb an overpopulation problem.

“There are not enough homes for all of these animals, and there aren’t enough resources to continue to expand the shelters to keep up with the demand and the intake of animals,” she said.

 

Since 2003-04, dog and cat intakes to county animal shelters increased by 16 and 17 percent, respectively, and 70 percent of animals that were taken in were strays, almost all of which were unsterilized, according to a PowerPoint presentation at the hearing.

The numbers didn’t sway critics of the spay-neuter concept, who contended that the ordinance would be ineffective and penalize pet owners. In general, they asked for a stripped-down version of the ordinance that would focus solely on increasing outreach and education on responsible pet ownership and licensing.

“I’m all for responsible ownership, but if this ordinance is passed, it’s not going to affect us,” said Santa Barbara resident Jean Averick. “It’s going to affect the people that are already irresponsible. And I don’t think that it’s going to bring them in line.”

Los Alamos resident Chris Rather also opposed the ordinance, saying it would backfire.

 

“Mandatory spay-neuter laws have not been successful in reducing shelter populations in other jurisdictions,” he said. “Perhaps this is because it forces people underground who do not want to comply or cannot afford to comply, making the situation worse. He added that he believes the ordinance would take away his rights because of a few irresponsible pet owners.

Cathie Turner, executive director of Concerned Dog Owners of California, representing about 330 members in the county, did not mince words when expressing her opposition to the ordinance. 

“If you were all on the board at a Harvard Business School, you wouldn’t go for an easy solution,” she told the board. “And I don’t think if your tenure were based on whether the solution before you was effective, you would pass it as it is.”

 

Supporters of the draft ordinance, many of them veterinarians and animal-shelter workers, said it was the only effective way to remedy pet overpopulation.

Angela Rockwell, president of Animal Shelter Assistance Program, said this season her organization cared for a record 400 kittens “dumped on our doorstep by irresponsible owners of unaltered pets.”

“We are reaching our limit,” she said. “Our cages are filled, our resources are limited, and without your help we can no longer continue to be a no-kill facility.”

Lee Heller of Santa Barbara called the spay-neuter proposal “much needed and minimally intrusive.”

Heller said she is caring for eight puppies rescued from a river bed and 11 kittens.

“We cannot do it forever,” she lamented. “We are overloaded … and on the point of burnout.”

 

Santa Barbara resident Tiffany Story, a professional pet sitter and dog walker, balked at some of the complaints coming from the other side.

She pointed out that the license fee would cost as much as two large cappuccinos at Starbucks and said she would be “standing by the door for anyone wearing a green sticker to volunteer to open their homes and bring in some foster animals.”

Dr. Toni Frohoff, an animal behavior biologist, said while outreach and education were essential components of the proposed ordinance, they were not a panacea.

“It’s clear that education is not working, and I believe it’s naivety (to think) that it will resolve this issue,” she said. “I respectfully ask that you do not fall into the irrational trap of being concerned that people can’t afford to do this, that they’re penalized.” Later she added: “Some people should not have animals.”

The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors meets Nov. 10 at the Betteravia Government Center at 511 E. Lakeside Parkway in Santa Maria.

 

jfoster@syvjournal.com