Cracking Down on Pet Owners

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A woman gives her shepherd-collie mix to an animal handler in 2004 at an American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) kennel.

For the past two years, Martin Chavez, mayor of Albuquerque, has brought his best friend to work every day. His friend doesn't talk, but he's often the first to shake visitors' hands. Dukes, Chavez's two-year-old floppy-eared mutt, is around not just for the company, but as a way to bring attention to the mayor's commitment to reduce the city's exploding unwanted animal population.

When he was re-elected to a third term in 2005, Chavez made a promise to end euthanasia at the city's animal shelters. He had already been meeting daily with City Councilor Sally Mayer and regularly with breeders and groomers across the city to come up with an animal ordinance that would improve the way the city treats its dogs and cats and increase the number of adoptions. At the time, the city was euthanizing more than 1,000 pets a month.

The law went into effect in October and it follows a nationwide trend of get-tough approaches to pet overpopulation. In Albuquerque, all cats and dogs older than six months must be microchipped and sterilized, unless owners pay an annual fee of $150 to keep their dogs able to reproduce — and another $150 for every new litter. Dogs can be restrained by a chain for only one hour every day, and people who want to have more than four dogs must obtain an additional permit. There is even a provision in the new law that requires dog owners to clean up after their pets in their own yards every week. While authorities won't be checking backyards for hardened poop, Chavez says that additional animal control officers have been hired, to make sure any animals they pick up have been neutered or spayed.

Lisa Peterson, a spokesperson for the American Kennel Club, considers the Albuquerque ordinance draconian, but acknowledges it is part of a nationwide trend. Ordinances similar to Albuquerque's have been passed or are being considered by 138 local communities, along with many states. She is concerned that the new laws punish responsible pet owners and breeders, and could even jeopardize the existence of some breeds. In Denver, for example, pitbulls are outlawed completely. This has forced owners to flee the city or go underground, where they keep their dogs behind closed shades and take them out only under the cloak of darkness. In 2006 alone, more than 800 of the dogs known for their ferocity have been rounded up in Denver, most of them destroyed.

Often, these laws follow vicious, sometimes deadly, dog attacks and are driven by a concern for public safety. They are also a response to overwhelming numbers of feral cats and puppy litters and reflect a desire to provide them more humane conditions. In Albuquerque, for example, 30,000 animals are brought to the city's two shelters every year. And that doesn't include animals that pass through private shelters and rescue networks.

It's a grassroots phenomenon, says David Favre, a professor at the Michigan State University College of Law, who has studied animal rights laws for 20 years. Feral cats, spaying and neutering, local shelters — these are all local problems that don't get the ear of folks at the federal and state levels. "It is not unlike the environmental movement when I was in law school. Animal welfare is a growing social interest."

It's too soon to tell how effective these laws will be. "We're in the experimentation phase," Favre says. "We're taking the American approach of trying a hundred different things and then seeing what works best in 10 years." The Denver ordinance has survived court challenge, but earlier this year a Toledo, Ohio, ordinance that allowed only one pitbull per household was struck down by an appellate court, which said the law was unreasonable and discriminatory.

To bring even more attention to the issue in Albuquerque, Mayor Chavez now brings a selection of shelter pets to news conferences, department meetings and public appearances. In most cases, the pets find new homes on the spot. The city's euthanasia rate has been cut in half, and Albuquerque is now adopting out more pets than it kills. Chavez's long-term goal: to be able to brag that Albuquerque is a city where all animals that are suited for adoption find homes. "We can't be a complete city as long as we euthanize animals," he says.