Animal crusader takes on overcrowded animal shelters

Once Judie Mancuso concluded there was no way to find homes for all the pets in this country, she crafted a spay/neuter bill.

The bill that would make fixing your pets the law in California was actually born far away in a New Orleans shelter. That’s where Judie Mancuso, who’d flown down from her home in Laguna Beach to aid the post-Hurricane Katrina animal rescue effort, concluded that enough was enough.

“When I walked into that shelter and saw that every animal in there was unaltered–animals who’d been running loose on the streets!–I thought, we have a huge crisis on our hands,” she says. “I knew my next goal would be to put together a statewide spay/neuter bill.”

Not being a resident of Louisiana, she settled for introducing the bill in her own state of California, and hopes other states will follow suit.

Chucking the “pinky in a dam” approach

Mancuso’s activism began long before then. In 1990, a TV special on pet overpopulation turned her from a carefree, meat-eating high-tech professional into a vegan animal rescuer. “It showed all these healthy, beautiful, wonderful animals going to the euthanasia table,” she recalls. “I was just blown away. I couldn’t believe that’s how we dealt with the problem.”

She started raising money for shelters, fostering animals, trapping feral cats, and staffing adoption events. Just prior to her fateful trip to New Orleans, she’d even quit her information technology job to devote herself full-time to animal rescue work. She and her husband, Rolf Wicklund, had already decided to forgo kids for the cause.

But it felt a bit like sticking her pinky in a dam that was constantly springing more holes–an estimated 800,000 holes a year, according to one estimate of how many dogs and cats are abandoned in California each year. Roughly half those animals are euthanized.

“Every time we’d make some headway and save a couple animals, someone would dump more,” says Mancuso wearily. “The litters just kept coming through the door. Oh my god, kitten season…!”

Crafting a new rescue strategy

While setting up yet another adoption event with fellow volunteers to place still more homeless animals, the talk kept circling back to the same question: Why aren’t more people spaying and neutering their pets? Since Mancuso had observed, time and again, that many owners can’t be bothered, she decided it was time for a new strategy.

When she got back to California, Mancuso asked Ed Bok, general manager of Animal Services in Los Angeles, to work with her on crafting a mandatory spay/neuter bill. He agreed, and the two started making the rounds, visiting animal care and control officers, veterinarians, police officers, breeders, and service dog groups for help in turning the idea into AB 1634, or the California Healthy Pets Act.

The American Kennel Club objects

When Assemblyman Lloyd Levine introduced the bill to the California assembly in February of 2007, it churned up a political storm the likes of which the capitol hadn’t seen since the debate on gay marriage.

“It’s amazing how motivated people are, both for and against,” Assemblyman Anthony Adams told the Capitol Weekly last summer, at the height of the frenzy. “I’ve never been lobbied this hard on anything.”

On the con side were many breeders and the American Kennel Club. Not only does the AKC object to taking the spay/neuter decision out of the owners’ hands, says their spokesperson, Lisa Peterson, they doubt such a law would work. She argues that backyard breeders won’t comply with the law, and reputable breeders will end up getting penalized.

“The animals that show up in shelters come from a wide variety of situations, from dogs who’ve been relinquished by their owners to feral cats that are brought in,” says Peterson. “To come up with one solution that only targets one segment of the pet owning population–the responsible owners–doesn’t seem like a good plan.”

Although many animal welfare groups back the bill, at least a few will sit out this legislative round. San Mateo County has one of the oldest mandatory spay-neuter ordinances in the state–of 20 cities in the county, five have required spaying and neutering since the early ’90s–but the head of the local humane society, Scott Delucchi, says he won’t be lobbying for the bill.

“We’ve tried things on our own that we think are far more effective in getting people to alter their pets,” he says, “such as educational outreach and low-cost spay/neuter services.” He adds that when people are forced to fix their pets, they can become more angry than enlightened. “In some ways, the ordinance hurts us.”

Santa Cruz makes a compelling case

Proponents counter by holding up Santa Cruz as an example of what the law could be. The county has had a spay/neuter ordinance in place since 2006 and the local SPCA says its euthanasia rate has dropped 64 percent since then. “We’ve had a tremendous decrease in the number of animals coming in,” says Tricia Geisreiter, a spokesperson for the Santa Cruz Animal Services Authority.

Lake County, Santa Barbara County, and L.A. County have all recently passed similar ordinances. Officials there say it’s too soon to tell if it’s making a dent in the overpopulation problem. But they do note that the program is proceeding smoothly, with none of the big brother elements that critics fear.

“We’re not knocking on the doors of responsible owners saying, let’s see your papers,” says Paula Werner, program manager of Lake County Animal Care and Control. “But if you’re a bad breeder who doesn’t take care of your animals, you bet we’ll be on your doorstep.”

Supporters also dismiss fears that the law would mean the demise of the beloved mutt. At best, they say, the law would cut down on ‘oops’ matings and on litters coming into the shelter. But it’s not going to stop them completely.

“There are still going to be plenty of dogs and cats in California,” reassures Michael Markarian, executive vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, one of the bill’s supporters.

A second push to pass the bill

The bill squeaked through the assembly in June of 2007, passing by a single vote. But the following month, Levine pulled the bill when it seemed like members of a Senate committee would vote it down. But he didn’t give up on it.

In January of 2008, Levine reintroduced the bill to the State assembly. It faces a vote in April before the same committee; if passed, it will move on to the full Senate.

Mancuso’s confident that the second go around will be the charm. “We have tons of support, especially when the state’s experiencing a $14 billion deficit and we’re offering a bill that saves taxpayers’ money,” she says.

If the bill passes and succeeds, Mancuso and her supporters believe other states would be close behind with their own spay/neuter laws. “As California goes, so goes the country. We think it could be pathbreaking animal welfare reform,” says HSUS’s Markarian.

In the meantime, Mancuso’s still meeting with legislators to craft a version that will pass. She celebrated the annual Spay Day, on February 26, at a signing ceremony that will make spay/neuter mandatory in the city of Los Angeles; the rest of L.A. county has already signed on.

The same vision that ignited her rescue work, feeds her resolve now. She’s just tired of seeing healthy cats and dogs killed for lack of a home. “It’s going to be an honor to make this bill happen,” she says.


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