Saturday, June 26, 2004

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recanted plans to terminate a state law that requires animal shelters to hold stray dogs and cats for six days and replace it with a three-day holding period.

As part of a cost-cutting plan the Republican governor has discussed with state legislators, other animals that wind up at California shelters, such as birds, turtles, potbellied pigs, rabbits and hamsters, could be destroyed immediately — if the shelters so choose.

But after the plan garnered national attention and protest, the actor-turned-governor quickly pulled back.

“I realized last night that there was a mistake that I made on the budget,” Mr. Schwarzenegger said during a hastily called press conference yesterday evening.

He added that he had only been given a few months to propose a budget to meet the Jan. 10 deadline. He was sworn in as governor on Nov. 17.

Pet lovers were outraged at the proposal. About 40 people — some of them with their pets — marched in front of state government offices yesterday in Sacramento, the state capital. And some California lawmakers said the provision was certain to be removed from the proposed 2004-05 state budget or modified, because it could never pass.

“This is not the brightest political move Arnold Schwarzenegger has ever made … in fact, I think it’s truly stupid,” said Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento.

“Things were going so well for the governor. But now he’s irritated hundreds of thousands of people in California and elsewhere, who love their pets,” Ms. O’Connor said.

“I won’t vote for a budget that includes these changes. There is nothing I won’t do to stop them … you can expect them to be rescinded,” said Assemblyman Paul Koretz, a West Hollywood Democrat.

He added: “As of a couple of days ago, there is a good possibility the changes would have slipped through. That’s because they were buried in a budget trailer bill and were never vetted or debated. But now they are out in the open, and they are causing a firestorm.”

However, H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the California Department of Finance, denied the proposal has been a secret. He said the six-day requirement for holding stray dogs and cats is a “state mandate we proposed to repeal since January.”

An estimated 600,000 dogs and cats are put to death each year in California’s animal shelters.

Yesterday afternoon, the governor’s press office wouldn’t discuss Mr. Schwarzenegger’s bid to repeal the 1998 state law, sponsored by former state Sen. Tom Hayden, a Democrat, that makes adoption of animals the first priority of shelters.

Instead, calls from reporters were referred to Mr. Palmer, who said the Hayden law was “passed with the best of intentions,” but it’s had unforeseen consequences that need to remedied.

He said the six-day waiting period for strays has caused overcrowding in shelters and has forced some to kill off animals simply to make room for new ones.

“It’s a state mandate that’s in effect regardless of the temperament or adoptability of an animal,” Mr. Palmer said.

He said the new law was specifically crafted to give shelters “more flexibility” because they will be able to destroy unfit animals in three days and, perhaps, hold on longer to animals suitable for adoption.

California officials have been looking for ways to close a $15 billion shortfall. Cities and counties chronically complain of spending mandates foisted on them, and they have criticized the Hayden Act since it passed.

Mr. Palmer said yesterday it’s estimated local governments in California could be reimbursed for up to $14 million by scrapping the provision.

David W. Perle, spokesman for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), said the Hayden law is a “well-intentioned effort gone wrong” that has “cost the lives of many adoptable animals.”

As for the Schwarzenegger proposal, Mr. Perle said PETA believes that stray animals “in good health should be held for a minimum of five days to give their guardians a good chance to find them.”

Mr. Koretz said he is also angered by other changes proposed in the animal-control law. He said one would no longer require shelters to examine stray pets for embedded microchips that store addresses and phone numbers.

Another proposal, he said, would eliminate a requirement that people convicted of animal cruelty be barred from owning a pet for three years and be forced to pay for medical care for animals they have mistreated.

“There’s no way to justify those provisions. There’s no way I could vote for a budget that contains them,” the Democrat said.

Had they been discovered earlier, Mr. Koretz added, “They would have been stopped in a heartbeat.”

Mr. Palmer said negotiations between state leaders and animal-rights groups on the remaining proposals are ongoing.

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