Spay Day

Next November, a ballot initiative proposes to reduce animal euthanasia by enforcing sterilization.

The folks who freed the fighting roosters in 1998 by ballot initiative are dusting off their clipboards, this time to take down animal euthanasia.

If the petitioners hit the pavement hard enough, next November, Arizonans will vote on a new program that promises to cut the number of dogs and cats euthanized each year by 85 percent.

The initiative is supported by Arizona's largest shelters and county animal control agencies. By their estimates, about 100,000 cats and dogs, or about 20 animals per 1,000 residents, are put down each year.

"If we can think of a way to get people to the moon and back, we should be able to cut down on the number of homeless dogs and cats," said Tucson schoolteacher James Massey, who is leading the petition drive. Massey was also behind the campaign that successfully slapped down cockfighting in 1998.

The program is modeled after one introduced in New Hampshire that contributed to that state's euthanasia rate of three animals per 1,000 residents, the lowest in the nation. Massey hopes once the initiative is passed, Arizona's level will come to match theirs.

The initiative is as much about animal birth control as it is euthanasia. The homeless animal population is reproducing faster than animal shelters can adopt them out, Massey said. When they reach full capacity, shelters euthanize unwanted animals to make room for the next batch.

As Massey sees it, the problem is that too many animals are leaving shelters and pounds without first being sterilized, especially in Arizona's rural areas.

The solution, he said, is tighter legal regulations on animal sterilization managed by a state task force. The initiative would also create a 1 percent tax on dog and cat food. The act would dissolve when the euthanasia rate falls to 15,000 and stays put for two years.

"We thought about getting a bill in the legislature, but we were told we would have to exempt the small towns and shelters or help them comply," Massey said. "Exempting them would mean we would accomplish nothing for them."

Unless one counts the naming of the state butterfly, the Arizona legislature isn't known for its sensitivity on animal-welfare issues. Massey said he lobbied the legislature to end cockfighting for five sessions before scrapping that route for the ballot initiative.

He's starting off this campaign with 183 volunteers, mostly recruited from his 822-member cockfighting volunteer list. They have until Independence Day to collect 101,762 signatures, averaging out close to 400 John Hancocks a day. Massey said he'll have to rally 1,000 volunteers and collect about $30,000 to get the initiative passed.

"That's what it will cost if you don't hire paid solicitors; most of it goes towards copying and postage," Massey said. "Voters can't just expect it to be on the ballot. It's up to citizens, if they want it on the ballot, to get petitions and seek to get them signed."

Titled the Euthanasia Reduction Act, the initiative would require animal pounds and shelters to sterilize all outgoing animals. Under the amendment to Section 11-1022 of the Arizona Revised Statutes, a licensed veterinarian may permanently preclude certain animals from the operation if found to be too old.

In the event that operation must be postponed, either because the animal is too young or there isn't a veterinarian within 20 miles, the initiative has a provision allowing the adopting party to place a deposit and sign an agreement to have the animal sterilized within a certain time frame.

Existing law more or less makes the same requirements, but shelters haven't had the ability to follow up on most of these agreements to make sure the animal has been sterilized.

The initiative gives the shelters the unprecedented power to put the bite on. If the initiative passes, shelters will have the legal authority to impound animals they have adopted out if their adopting owners ignore the sterilization agreement.

"I don't think the shelters are going to want to seize the animals, but it gives them the opportunity to have a little teeth in the law," Massey said. "The law otherwise doesn't have any penalties."

But groups like the Phoenix Humane Society and Maricopa County Animal Care and Control Services doubt the practicality and the legality of the provision.

"I'm a little bit loathe to go that way, because of personal property rights and that sort of thing," said Ed Boks, executive director for Maricopa County's animal control division. "But they're not really owners of property, they're guardians of life and they do owe it to the animals to get them spayed or neutered."

There is also some confusion over whether the seizure of animals would be the responsibility of the county or the shelters. Regardless of whether it can actually be enforced, the Arizona Animal Welfare League, a no-kill shelter, believes it is a sound policy.

"I think it would be really hard to enforce," AAWL spokeswoman Betty Watson said. "But it would be nice to know that it is available to us in certain situations. It just gives a little meat to the law if you find the animal is being abused or mistreated in any way."

Shelters will also have the power of money. Using figures from the Pet Food Institute, Massey estimates that the tax on pet food will bring at least $2 million in revenues in each year, averaging about 60 cents per person in a household with dogs or cats, 40 cents per person overall.

A non-paid commission will dole out the money to subsidize proposals for ways to increase the sterilization rate, such as mobile veterinary clinics and new shelter facilities. Massey hopes the commission will use the money in the future to advance financial assistance for families that can't afford to spay or neuter their pets.

The seats on the Euthanasia Reduction Commission would be appointed by public and private organizations rather than by elected officials, as is the case with most government panels.

"We wanted the commission to be independent of the legislature," Massey said. "They haven't ever shown any interest in the issue and I'm not sure they'd appoint the most responsible chairs."

The Maricopa County Animal Care and Control Services, Pima County Animal Control Center, the Humane Society of Southern Arizona, the Arizona Animal Welfare League and the Association of Rabies/Animal Control Enforcement Agents of Arizona will each have a seat on the commission.

Although these groups feel strongly about their differing priorities in animal control, the initiative's treasurer, Deborah Mitchell, expects the commissioners to muzzle themselves to work toward the common animal good.

"There's a lot of in-fighting among animal people, I think, to the detriment of the animals," said Mitchell, a Tucson medical writer. "However, I think people with diversity can sit on the same commission. You have to be realistic. We have to work together and remember what our purpose is."