PAWS of Bainbridge Island and North Kitsap Executive Director Mark Hufford delivered powerful testimony this week on behalf of a spay/neuter bill currently under consideration by the Washington State Legislature. The bill seeks to reduce animal overpopulation and lower the need for euthanizing healthy dogs and cats in overcrowded shelters by providing low-cost or free spay/neuter services to low-income people throughout the state. It is estimated that over 30 percent of Washington residents are living below the poverty line.
The bill would assess a fee to dog and cat food purchases, amounting to approximately 2.5 cents per pound of food, to raise a reliable source of revenue to subsidize spay/neuter services from certified veterinarians. Proponents of the bill reported across the board that their low-income constituents say they would overwhelmingly embrace the small cost increase in pet food to help them spay/neuter their pets and reduce euthanasia rates. Proponents estimate a $5-10 annual increase for pet food costs for people with one cat or dog.
Hufford asked both committees to imagine the hearing rooms stacked from floor to ceiling with cages containing the dead animals that are euthanized in our state each week because of animal overpopulation. He described the agony that many animal rescue providers face each day holding healthy dogs and cats, looking in their eyes, and euthanizing them simply because there is no room for them in shelters, especially underfunded ones in the state’s more rural eastern and southern areas. Hufford went on to suggest that the legislators would pass the bill without hesitation if they themselves had to do the work of euthanizing healthy animals. “You are requiring by your inaction a morbid reality and a nightmare,” he said. This is the fourth time Hufford and many others involved in animal welfare in our state have testified on behalf of similar bills brought to the legislature since 2009.
Perhaps the most emotional moment in the hearings happened shortly after Hufford addressed the Senate when Senator Paull Shin spoke during Ellen Dorfman’s testimony. Shin, who was moved to tears, talked painfully of his childhood in Korea living on the streets and having to eat dogs and cats to survive. “I have become emotional as you can see,” he said. “I was born an orphan in Korea. I lived on street corners and ate dogs, cats to survive. I love pets. This is my repentance time. They are also living beings. That is why I’m signing this legislation. My five grandchildren all have pets, and we love animals very much,” said Shin.
Dozens of proponents and a few opponents of the bill testified on February 5 before the Senate Agriculture, Water, and Rural Economic Development Committee and on February 6 before the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. Our own Bainbridge-based State Senator Christine Rolfes and State House Representative Sherry Appleton are among the sponsors of the bills, SB5202 and HB1229.
One of the few descenting voices came from Mark Johnson representing the Washington Retail Association. He told the House that his organization does not object to the bill but wants it paid for out of the general fund.
I asked Rick Hall of Save Washington Pets, which is spearheading the bill, why the the money can’t come from the State’s general fund. He told me that the reason the Legislature has not been willing to use general fund money to support the bill is less about logic and more about emotion and public perception. He explained that with so many social service programs being cut in recent years, the appearance of giving money to animals just doesn’t fly politically even though in reality the bill is estimated to save the state’s general fund some $18 million annually by reducing costs relating to animal rescue, care, and euthanasia.
Hall said his organization would be willing to agree to a gradual 5-year program, testing the waters with an initial small 1/2 cent per pound of pet food fee. He went on to say, “We’re not wedded to the pet food fee. But we haven’t seen the political will in the legislature to offer viable alternate plans to raise these funds. It is false that we are suggesting paying more for animals than for people. This bill benefits people. We have analyzed the pet food fee through a public finance perspective. It’s equitable, fair, and a reliable source for funding spay/neuter programs.”
Testimony by a representative from the Seattle-based Animal Law Coalition pointed out that unneutered male dogs are at least eight times more likely to bite. State Farm Insurance alone, which accounts for about 20 percent of the market, reported that they paid $1.5 million in dog-bite claims last year.
Kitsap Humane Society veterinarian and Director of Shelter Medicine Jen Stonequist told the House, “We absolutely cannot adopt our way out of this problem. . . . [Euthanasia] is an inhumane method of population control. Unnecessary euthanasia is immoral. It’s meant as a final act. This bill will potentially save the state millions, and private vets will be supported. The pet food industry makes a profit off pet owners. We see the role of government is to stand up to the pet food industry,” she said.