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April 24, 2014

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Animal breeders, activists clash over bills

Sides agree on goal of reducing euthansia, but that’s as far as it goes

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Tiffany Brown

A Jack Russell terrier mix puppy rests Tuesday at Lied Animal Shelter. The shelter recently began collecting data on how people acquire pets to promote responsible ownership.

Unwanted pets

Violet, a cat abandoned at Lied Animal Shelter because the owner Launch slideshow »

Everyone involved in the debate over regulating the treatment of pets in Nevada agrees too many dogs and cats end up abandoned in shelters. That’s about where the agreement ends.

As lawmakers consider several pieces of legislation aimed at reducing the animal euthanasia rate, animal advocacy groups and purebred fanciers are locked in a fight.

In mass e-mails, pet breeders claim animal rights activists are using legislation as a step toward an outright ban on pet ownership. Animal groups say purebred enthusiasts refuse to acknowledge the crisis that has led to tens of thousands of dogs and cats being euthanized in Nevada each year.

Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who is supporting several pet-related bills this session, said she hopes the controversy won’t drown out a much-needed discussion of how to best address the state’s pressing animal issues.

“Sometimes the toughest part is separating out the fringe people on either side,” said Giunchigliani, who served 16 years in the Legislature. “Then you can maneuver toward common ground.”

That’s easier said than done.

Mike Connell, past president of the Silver State Kennel Club, said he believes People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Humane Society of the United States are behind Senate Bill 241, which would limit pet breeding by allowing a dog to have only two litters during its lifetime. Those groups, he said, want to eventually make it illegal to own a pet of any kind.

“They slip in the back door,” Connell said. “Bills like this go against reputable breeders and reputable show people.”

Teresa Chagrin, animal care and control specialist for PETA, said the organization is not involved in any animal-related bills in the Legislature. The claim that PETA wants to abolish pet ownership “is a really common hysterical argument made by those who profit from breeding animals and contributing to the overpopulation problem,” Chagrin said, adding that most PETA employees have a pet of some kind.

The activists and pet breeders are also at odds over a proposed amendment to another bill, Assembly Bill 15, that would require animals to be spayed or neutered before being sold in municipalities where sterilization is required by local code.

On Tuesday, the Natural Resources Committee will hear SB241, which would require dog and cat breeders to pay an annual $500 licensing fee, be subject to inspection by the Nevada Agriculture Department and allow an animal to produce only two litters during its lifetime.

“If you are a legitimate breeder, why would you mind being properly licensed and regulated?” said Gina Greisen, founder of Nevada Voters for Animals. “Why wouldn’t you want the rules to be stricter so that only the good breeders are left out there?”

Opponents, including the Nevada Veterinary Medical Association and the American Kennel Club, say the bill fails to address the real source of the problem: profit-driven puppy mills and back yard breeders who often sell dogs through classified ads, swap meets and pet stores.

State Sen. Shirley Breeden, D-Henderson, lead sponsor of SB241, said she’s been surprised by the fierceness of the opposition and dismayed by some of the rhetoric. PETA had no involvement in the bill’s writing, Breeden said.

“I brought this forward because I’m concerned about protecting our four-legged friends,” Breeden said. “It was not intended to hurt the responsible breeders and fanciers.”

Responsible breeders, who seek to preserve and improve the best traits of breeds, make an easy target, said Ken Sondej, AKC legislative liaison.

Unlike back yard breeders, “these people are already known throughout the state,” Sondej said. “When push comes to shove, and somebody needs money, they’ll go after those people.”

Las Vegas resident Jill Christensen, a miniature-schnauzer enthusiast for more than 25 years, said she sells puppies only after meeting with the prospective owners and requires that they sign a spay/neuter contract.

“There’s nothing in this legislation that will help me do anything better,” she said. “All it does it keep me from doing what I do best.”

Given the state’s fiscal crisis, it’s unrealistic to expect the Agriculture Department to take on breeder licensing and inspections, said Candy Roper, president of the Bonanza Kennel Club in Carson City.

“How are they going to afford to enforce it?” Roper said. “This won’t solve overpopulation. People will still want purebred dogs, but they’ll get them from out-of-state puppy mills.”

Breeden said she’s willing to compromise, but faces a Friday deadline for the bill to pass from committee.

The other contentious bill, AB15 -- as originally drafted by lead sponsor Assemblyman Mark Manendo, D-Las Vegas -- would have required veterinarians and parks to post notices of local pet sterilization codes. All sides agreed it was a reasonable step toward supporting pet population controls.

That consensus dissolved after it was amended to require pets to be at least 8 weeks old and sterilized, if a local spay/neuter law is in place, before they could be sold or traded. (The amendment is expected to include exemptions for dogs used for breeding, farm work or as service animals.)

Currently the bill would apply only in North Las Vegas, which has a mandatory spay/neuter law. Clark County is considering a similar ordinance, spearheaded by Giunchigliani.

Beverlee McGrath, legislative specialist for the Humane Society of the United States, said requiring that animals be at least 8 weeks old before they are sold is important because younger dogs, often too frail to survive, frequently turn up at swap meets.

The Humane Society isn’t behind SB241, McGrath said. In fact, McGrath said the group’s original priority was Assembly Bill 199, which would ban owning, training or buying a dog with the intent to use it for fighting. Nevada is the only state in the nation that hasn’t yet made such activities illegal, McGrath said.

The AKC has no problem with spaying and neutering pets, Sondej said, the concern is requiring it by a certain age. Some breeds are still growing into their second year, and early sterilization can lead to adverse physical effects, he said.

Michael Maddox, director of legislative affairs for the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council in Washington, D.C., said requiring animals to be sterilized before sale isn’t reasonable or in the animal’s best interest. Nor does it address the underlying problem. The “overwhelming majority” of pets in shelters come from sources other than pet stores, Maddox said.

Officials should focus on finding the origin of the animals that rescue groups, shelters and animal control agencies come in contact with, said Harold Vosko, co-founder of Las Vegas-based Heaven Can Wait Animal Sanctuary. Without accurate information on the source of the crisis, addressing it is impossible, he said.

Statistics collected over the past two years at Heaven Can Wait showed more than 85 percent of the animals came from a neighbor or friend’s litter, Vosko said. Fewer than 5 percent were from pet stores and no more than 1 percent or 2 percent were from professional breeders.

The Lied Animal Foundation, which operates the regional shelter, recently started asking people how they obtained their pets, said Jason Smith, who took over as director of operations about six weeks ago. The data will help Lied shape how it educates the community about responsible pet ownership.

That is a message people on both sides of the issue can agree on.

“You have to tell them once you take a pet into your possession, you’re responsible for that pet for the duration of its life,” Sondej said. “You can’t just dump it off and say, ‘Oh, this one got too big’ or “ ‘This one’s too old.’ ”

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