NC’s proposed act seeks to fund low-cost spay/neuter programs
By Sarah Kucharski for the Smoky Mountain News

A politically charged state bill that would impose a tax on pet food to help fund low-cost spay and neuter programs is primed for introduction to the General Assembly this January.

The bill, to be titled “An Act to Provide for the Protection of Animals in North Carolina,” establishes a new animal protection program under the jurisdiction of the state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

In addition to funding low-cost spay and neuter plans, the program would provide funds to upgrade local animal shelters to state standards and facilitate other animal welfare projects. The program would also provide technical assistance to county and city governments wishing to create animal welfare programs in their jurisdiction and pay to develop educational materials about the benefits of spaying and neutering pets.

The animal protection act has been heralded as a major step toward controlling the state’s animal overpopulation. However, opponents — most notably hunters that own large packs of dogs — have said the food tax would place an unfair burden on their wallets.

As the act is written, tax collection duties would go to the Department of Agriculture, which collects similar taxes on large animal feed. The department was not asked to be a part of the General Assembly’s House Interim Committee on the Prevention and Disposition of Unwanted and Abandoned Companion Animals, which authored the act, but did provide information to legislators. If the act passes, the worry is that collection duties would come down as an unfunded mandate.

“Bottom line is — our main position here in the Department of Agriculture and in the vet division is that we are very concerned about throwing on a monstrous responsibility without being given the resources to do it,” said State Veterinarian David Marshall.

With budget cuts, new diseases to deal with and staff shortages, the department has other things to count their kibbles and bits.

“It’s difficult for us to do a good job on what we’re currently responsible for,” Marshall said.

All funds collected through the pet food assessment would be placed in the Animal Protection Fund, a fund generated by the tax that also would include $10 from the sale of each special Animal Lovers license plate, money retained from state income tax refunds designated for the fund and other private and grant contributions.

According to the proposed act’s text, 10 percent of the collected funds will be used for administrative costs. Ninety percent will be distributed to eligible counties and cities seeking reimbursement for low-cost spay and neuter services. Monies remaining in the fund will be made available for grants to eligible counties and cities for innovative companion animal programs and animal shelter facility upgrades.

“My personal opinion is I don’t think it’s a very good example of government. To me a county and municipal pet overpopulation is a local problem,” Marshall said.

Funding for such programs should be administered on a local lever, said Marshall, where leaders are more familiar with the problems their communities face.

“Government is more effective the closer to the people it is,” he said.

Red Tape

The “spay-and-neuter-your-pets” mantra is nothing new. The primary reason the issue is even on state representatives’ minds is a series of Charlotte Observer articles titled “Death at the Pound” that chronicled animal cruelty and substandard conditions in shelters.

The stories, which appeared in June of 2003, spurred legislation establishing standards of care at animal shelters, boarding kennels, pet shops, and public auctions. In short, the legislation holds government funded shelters to the same standards as private shelters. The regulations may appear basic — feed and water animals regularly, provide adequate heat and air conditioning indoors, house vicious animals in separate cages and keep facilities clean — however, government shelters previously had no oversight authority except county commissioners and county administrators.

While the legislation placed supervisory authority in the hands of the Department of Agriculture, home of the State Veterinarian’s office, it gave the department no authority to actually enforce the regulations.

The legislation passed this July as a last-ditch effort to impose stricter standards that were originally proposed as part of the Animal Protection Act. Instead of being a separate bill regarding animal welfare, changes to shelter regulations were made through a bill authored to make technical corrections to past legislation.

The Animal Protection Act was supposed to be introduced to the General Assembly during its short session this summer, but was met with vocal opposition.

“It got bogged down because of it being an election year,” said Mort Congleton, executive director of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Wake County and a member of the House committee that authored the act. “The hunters and pet fanciers didn’t like the language.”

Originally, the act proposed higher fees and breeding permits for unaltered animals. Such language has since been removed.

The tax on food, however, remains a hot topic.

Earning Their Keep

Harold Gribble and his son, Sylva residents and hunters, own six dogs. While Gribble supports spay and neuter efforts, he would not support the Animal Protection Act due to the tax on pet food.

Each year, Gribble said he spends up to $600 on dog food. Although the tax would be paid by distributors and would not be a point of sale tax — similar to that paid on cigarettes or alcohol — Gribble said customers would see a price increase.

“I’m sure they would pass it on,” he said.

As it stands, the assessment would be collected at the rate of $10 per ton of pet food, excluding canned food. An assessment of $1 per each 48-can carton of canned food would be levied. A study conducted by the House committee estimated that the cost transferred to customers to feed a 40- to 70-pound animal for a year would be an additional $1.86, said Jason Cannon, legislative assistant to Rep. Julia Howard, R-Mocksville. Howard is one of the co-chairs of the House committee that authored the act.

In an effort to satisfy hunters and support low-cost spay and neuter plans, Gribble suggested an exception being made for hunters in the form of a discount card or the like. Gribble said his own dogs were a mix of altered and unaltered, specifically for breeding purposes, as hunting dogs have a specific purpose and aren’t just your ordinary mutt. Most of the hunters Gribble knows keep their dogs penned up and aren’t the cause of the overpopulation problem.

“It’s not pets, but the riff raff running around that causes most of the problem,” Gribble said.

Those who are dealing with homeless and stray animals on a day-to-day basis mostly support the tax for its effort to hold pet owners responsible for animal welfare, as owners are the ones buying the food.

“As far as imposing a fee on pet food, that to me is one of the best ideas they have,” said Carolyn Sabine, office manager at the Valley River Humane Society. The VRHS services Cherokee, Clay, Graham and Swain counties, contracting to act as animal control and performing euthanizations across the area.

Cheryl Wooten, owner of the Animal Supply House and president of the Haywood Animal Welfare Association, cited the Waynesville area’s growing human population as one of the sources of the growing pet population. She said services available for strays and unwanted pets have not grown at the same rate. More needs to be done to curb animal population from the start rather than putting animals down when homes cannot be found.

“As a retailer of pet food, I would be more than happy to pay an extra couple of dollars on a bag of food knowing it was going to spay and neuter,” Wooten said.

A Lesson In Exponential Equations

In North Carolina alone, almost 230,000 cats and dogs were euthanized in 2001. This number increased to almost 270,000 in 2002, according to the House committee’s findings. Within Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties, almost 4,000 cats and dogs were put down in 2003.

“The main problem — and the problem that we try to combat the most — is the spaying and neutering of animals,” said Jackson County Animal Control Officer Bobby Painter.

The sheer number of animals in the county, combined with continued breeding and unaltered strays, produces a constant flow through the Jackson County shelter’s 15 dog kennels and 18 cat kennels.

According the Humane Society of the United States, one unaltered (non-spayed) female cat and her offspring can produce between 420,000 and 450,000 cats in seven years. One unaltered female dog and her offspring can produce 67,000 dogs in six years.

Nationwide, it’s estimated that of the 6 to 8 million dogs and cats entering shelters each year, approximately half are adopted. The other half is euthanized. Pets reclaimed by their owners — perhaps after being picked up by animal control — represent less than a million of shelter animals.

The area animal shelters bear similar statistics. In 2003, approximately 62 percent of cats and 52 percent of dogs at the Jackson County Animal Shelter were euthanized. At the Haywood County shelter, 57 percent of incoming dogs were put down; however, cats surpassed the average with 77 percent being euthanized. Swain County, which had the lowest number of impounded dogs and cats, also registered the lowest number of kills with 28 percent of dogs and 29 percent of cats.

Animal welfare advocates say if there was more money for spaying and neutering there wouldn’t be millions of animals awaiting adoption or death.

“Every dollar you spend on spay/neuter saves $3 minimum on animal control,” Congleton said.

In Haywood County, $11,442 was spent on in euthanization services in 2003. This year, that figure has increased to a budgeted $14,502. The county’s total animal control budget for the year is $277,488. The county’s shelter has more impounded animals than Jackson, Macon and Swain counties combined.

“People have been paying for shelters and what not, but not getting to the root of the problem,” Congleton said.

Hitting Home

While political heat was a factor, Cannon, Howard’s legislative aid, said the decision to hold the Animal Protection Act’s formal introduction as a bill until the General Assembly’s upcoming long session beginning in January was a move to give legislators more time to consider it.

“We very strategically decided to hold it,” Cannon said. “If we lose the handle on this, we lose it for good.”

Informal talks showed that there would be support for the act, Cannon said, but local representatives appear split on the issue.

“Under what I heard was in it in the short session, I was not going to support it,” said Rep. Roger West, R-Marble.

West said that he had not seen the act’s text, but based on phone calls and casual conversation he learned that it would require hunter’s to license and fix their dogs.

“I just wasn’t going to go along with that,” he said.

Licensing and mandatory spay/neuter clauses have been removed; however, West said he still stood against the tax on pet food.

“That’s jumping on one particular business and taxing it,” he said.

West, who is a hunter himself and owns a bird dog, said he supports animal welfare reform, and would wait until the bill was formally introduced to make a final decision, but didn’t like the concept of the act overall.

“I probably won’t support it next year,” he said.

Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, who said his animals are rescues from shelters, said he too would reserve judgment until he read the final text of the act. He did, however, appear more sympathetic to the cause.

“I’ve very attuned and aligned with those animal rights folks who want to do something about it,” he said, referring to overpopulation.

Although any new tax is generally unpopular, Haire said that in order to create new programs, funding must come from somewhere.

“This is just a way of being able to generate more funds,” he said