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Pet lovers not happy with budget proposal to cut $23M to help keep stray animals alive

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POSTED February 12, 2012 7:11 p.m.

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Pet advocates are fighting like cats and dogs to stop a deficit-slashing proposal from Gov. Jerry Brown that aims to save $23 million by ending reimbursements to animal shelters for the cost of keeping strays alive.

Brown wants to repeal parts of Hayden's Law that require the state to pay for such expenses as food, vet care and kitty litter and requires shelters to hold lost and stray animals for six days instead of three.

Pet advocates say the change will pitch the state back to the dark ages when a wandering dog caught Friday could be dead Monday.

"Animals should not have to die to clean up California's mess," former state Sen. Tom Hayden, who sponsored the bill, said in a video posted on YouTube.

Proposed budget cuts always bring out the fight in people who want to protect their pet causes. But when it comes to actual pets, the battle has become so personal for opponents of Brown's plan that they're even targeting the first pooch. A public Facebook page called Sutter's Friends, named after the governor's dog, offers information on how to help.

The animal shelter cuts are part of Brown's proposed $92.5 billion budget that would eliminate 50 mandates or reimbursable amendments that have been suspended for the last two years or more, said H.D. Palmer, deputy director of California's Department of Finance. The savings would put a $728.8 million dent in a $9.2 billion deficit.

Over the years, 377 cities, counties, towns or animal control districts have been reimbursed $86 million and the state still owes $76 million, state officials said. Los Angeles has sought the most: more than $10 million; Contra Costa County was No. 2 with claims over $6 million.

Thousands of pet owners and animal welfare groups across the country have lined up to fight the repeal, saying it would lead to countless deaths — not just canine and felines.

The law also requires shelters to hold rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, pot-bellied pigs, birds, lizards, snakes, tortoises and turtles for three days. Without the mandate, they could be killed immediately.

"It would also degrade shelter operations, as well as morale and ultimately the character of shelter workers, by altering the mandated focus of animal control agencies from lifesaving back to the failed catch-and-kill orientation of the bad old days," said Best Friends Animal Society co-founder Francis Battista.

All of the shelters covered by the law are kill shelters, operated by cities or counties that have to accept every animal. No-kill shelters and rescues keep animals until they are placed, but don't have to accept animals if they are full.

Of the 867,529 dogs and cats that entered city or county shelters in 2010, 455,045 were euthanized, 97,035 were claimed by owners, 157,266 were adopted and 58,939 were transferred to other shelters, according to the California Department of Public Health. Those numbers do not include animals that died of other causes, were stolen or escaped.

The state's legislative analyst said a 2008 review found that holding animals longer did not improve their chances for adoption, it just increased the number of animals people had to choose from.

But Los Angeles County supervisors disputed that finding. In a Feb. 6 letter to Brown, supervisors said more than 1,100 lost pets were returned to their owners after the third day last year.

Under Hayden's Law, most shelters put lost or stray pets up for adoption after the third day, so if they had been euthanized after three days, those 1,100 pets wouldn't have been reunited with their families.

Animal advocacy groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Best Friends are circulating petitions to block the budget cut.

Among their claims is that euthanasia costs more because each animal has to be lethally injected with a controlled substance by a qualified veterinarian or vet technician and the carcass has to be disposed.

Some pet supporters have suggested the state should continue what it's currently doing and what it's done three other times in the last 14 years: suspend the law, so the state doesn't have to make reimbursements and shelters don't have to follow the law.

During the suspensions, some shelters have cut down hold times, but most, including the state's largest shelter system — the city of Los Angeles — have continued to offer longer holding periods "because it is the humane thing to do," said UCLA law professor Taimie Bryant, who wrote Hayden's Law.

"If you repeal these laws, when the economy improves, the animals won't share in the improvements," Bryant said. "Suspension is temporary, repeal is permanent."

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