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Lethal Politics

[whitespace] dog Staying Alive: This dog, along with 91 percent of the 'adoptable' pets at the Santa Clara Valley Humane Society, was adopted instead of euthanized last year. But officials say a new law could force more animals to be killed.

Christopher Gardner

No one doubts a new law to save pound animals from lethal injection is well-intended. But will it end up killing Benji to save Cujo?

By Will Harper

'THE FREEZER" is where they keep the dead ones. In a compact storage space between two kennels at the Humane Society of Santa Clara Valley, the temperature is kept a crisp 32 degrees in order to prevent body remnants from going bad.

Cats and dogs that have been hit by cars or otherwise found dead by animal control around Silicon Valley are tagged, bagged in plastic and stored on the steel-frame shelf units. The shelter keeps these pets here for a few days, giving owners a chance to identify the remains.

But in the middle of the freezer is a plastic trash barrel where animals are tossed after they've been euthanized in the office next door.

Putting the pets "down," as the shelter workers say, is done with a lethal injection of anesthesia. The animal quivers, falls asleep and is dead in a few seconds.

Three times a week a company comes by and picks up the remains, which are then turned into fertilizer.

But Christine Arnold, the local Humane Society's executive director, would rather not focus on this end of the business.

Arnold, a slender blonde 47-year-old, wears a pendant on her pink polo shirt of a brown puppy with a halo and wings, a gift from a friend who gave it to her after her golden retriever got cancer.

Arnold would rather talk about the positive aspects of her business, like the fact that 91 percent of the adoptable animals--6,073 dogs and cats in the previous fiscal year--were placed in new homes.

The success rate sounds so high because of the qualifying word "adoptable." Most of the animals that come through the shelter and end up in the "the freezer" are considered unadoptable for either health or behavioral reasons. Dogs who have bitten more than once, for example, are among those Arnold classifies as unadoptable.

And this is the rub that in her mind makes a well-intentioned new state law aimed at saving animals' lives flawed: It doesn't distinguish between adoptable and unadoptable pets. In effect, Cujo will be treated the same as Benji.

The law, sponsored by state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles), extends the amount of time that shelters are required to keep stray animals alive from three to four days in facilities like the Humane Society, which is open on weekends. Facilities without weekend or evening hours would be required to hold animals at least six business days to give owners more time to find their lost pets.

Another key change is that owner-surrendered pets--often unadoptable animals that are very ill or dogs that are repeat biters--must be kept an additional two days as well.

The result, Arnold says, will be that in order to comply with the law she'll have to keep the problem pets longer and displace nice dogs like Ranger, a 5-year-old border collie she adopted that now patrols the upstairs office area.

Arnold predicts that under the law the Humane Society's kill rate for adoptable pets would increase from 9 percent to 70 percent.

"I'm not," she says firmly, "going to create a killing machine here."

Dogged Opposition

IN DECEMBER, THE HUMANE Society told San Jose and eight Silicon Valley cities that it would be forced to cancel its animal-service contracts with local governments on July 1, 1999, the day when the Hayden bill was scheduled to become law.

Arnold and the agency's board of directors decided that the current facility at the corner of Martin and Lafayette in Santa Clara, which holds up to 600 animals, just isn't big enough.

This was bad news for San Jose, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Milpitas, Campbell, Cupertino, Los Gatos, Monte Sereno and Saratoga because none of those cities have their own animal shelters. Most have contracted with the Humane Society since 1993, when state legislation forced cities to take over animal-control services from cash-strapped counties. The Humane Society, a local nonprofit organization affiliated with a national nonprofit, acts as a contractor with municipalities.

Palo Alto is the only city in Santa Clara County that operates its own animal shelter. By contrast, according to San Jose deputy city manager Kay Winer, Alameda County has nine shelters and is planning on building a new one.

Without any facilities of their own, valley cities--with the backing of the local Humane Society--went to Santa Clara Assemblywoman Elaine Alquist for help. She carried an emergency bill postponing implementation of the Hayden bill for one more year to give cities that contract out their animal-rescue services time to build new shelters.

"The problem with the original legislation," Alquist explains, "was that it didn't have a phase-in period." And in places like Santa Clara County, city officials "didn't always know that the agencies with whom they contracted would break the contract. They had thought they were covered."

Proponents are optimistic that Gov. Gray Davis will sign Alquist's bill into law this week, and allow the Santa Clara Valley Humane Society and cities like San Jose to breathe a sigh of relief.

But elsewhere around the state, some animal rights groups are not so pleased about the bill's passage.

Euthanize This

TAIMIE BRYANT IS A professor at the UCLA School of Law, who has long volunteered as an animal rescuer on campus. A couple of years ago, she did a survey of shelters around the state and found that most of them already held animals longer than the legally required 72 hours. The problem was that many of them also kept oddball hours like 9am to noon and weren't open on weekends--unfriendly hours for working people who might want to look for their lost pets or adopt a new one.

As a result, Bryant says, the vast majority of impounded animals were still being put to sleep. According to Bryant, last year 59 percent of dogs taken in were killed, while 78 percent of cats impounded were ultimately euthanized.

After she completed the survey, Bryant started drafting what would ultimately become SB 1785. She considered it a very modest piece of legislation. Before SB 1785, she says, California ranked second-to-last in the country in terms of how long captured animals must be kept. With the law change, California is sixth from the bottom. "In Georgia, they impound spiders," Bryant says.

Her objection to the bill Alquist carried and the local Humane Society pushed is that the legislation didn't apply just to Santa Clara County, but to shelters throughout the state. Bryant estimates that two-thirds of the shelters in the state will be exempt from the Hayden bill's animal protections for another year.

"What's good for Santa Clara County," Bryant argues, "is not necessarily what's good for the rest of the state."

Lois Newman, the president of the Los Angeles-based Cat & Dog Rescue Association, predicts Alquist's bill will result in the death of more than 350,000 animals this upcoming year.

"I will do everything I can," Newman bitterly vows, "to see that Assemblywoman Elaine Alquist is never elected to public office again."

Shelter Scramble

EVEN WITH THE one-year reprieve, San Jose and other valley cities most likely won't have enough time to build a new animal shelter. San Jose deputy city manager Kay Winer says there is much work to do: identifying a site, securing funds and drafting construction plans.

Unfortunately, redevelopment money can't be used to pay for a facility big enough to handle the new holding requirements.

According to a city-hired consultant, a new shelter will cost up to $22.4 million, depending on whether the shelter will serve just San Jose or all affected cities in the county. The consultant also estimates it will cost $4.8 million to run a shelter that serves the whole county. San Jose's share of the operating costs would be $500,000 less if it teams up with other cities rather than just handling animals inside its borders.

But teaming up with other cities poses other logistical complications. Right now, Winer says, city officials are looking into possibly forming a joint powers authority or a new nonprofit corporation.

All these things will take time. If, as expected, San Jose and other cities aren't ready by next year, the Humane Society has agreed to pick up the slack until a new public shelter is up and running.

Alquist says that one thing is clear: The state Legislature won't be allowing San Jose and the rest any more delays. They will have to comply with the Hayden animal-protection law starting July 1, 2000, no matter what.

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From the July 8-14, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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