Chicago mandatory neuter proposal makes concession to veterinarians

Amendment relieves DVMs from reporting clients

Published: January 09, 2009
By Timothy Kirn

Chicago’s proposed mandatory spay-neuter ordinance has been amended to exempt veterinarians from needing to report when they see animals that have not been altered, according to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which is pushing the initiative.

“The new amendment was crafted and submitted to the committees a few weeks ago, and it says that veterinarians have no obligation to report unspayed or unneutered animals,” said Jordan Matyas, Illinois State director of HSUS, a former lobbyist who helped author the ordinance and the amendment.

Maytas said the amendment had not been publicly announced until now. The ordinance has not come up in public since it was given a hearing by the Chicago City Council in September.

The proposal, just one of a number of such laws enacted or being considered around the country with support from groups such as HSUS, has riled and split the Chicago animal-welfare community, according to observers.

“It is very divisive,” said Dr. Shannon Greeley, the immediate past president of the Chicago Veterinary Medical Association. “It is not going over well here.”

The September hearing on the proposed ordinance was attended by so many people who wanted to give statements that officials adjourned the discussions after three hours, with many still waiting to speak, and scheduled it to be brought up again, although a date has not been set.

One of those who spoke was television game-show host Bob Barker, who has long been an advocate for spaying and neutering pets, and his support of the ordinance was widely reported in the press. Barker noted that mandatory spay/neuter is an issue that has taken a place on the national agenda.

The proposed ordinance requires owners to neuter their cat or dog before the animal is six months of age, unless they have an exemption, such as being registered with an approved registry or association like a breeders’ group or having a note from a licensed veterinarian. An owner without a waiver who was found to have an unneutered cat or dog would be issued a citation. Failure to have the animal neutered within 60 days would result in a $100 fine. Failure to act within another 60 days would result in a $500 fine and confiscation of the animal for forced sterilization.

Those lined up for the Chicago ordinance include HSUS and PAWS Chicago. The Chicago and Illinois State veterinary medical associations and dog breeding associations are among the opposition.

One major criticism of such ordinances is that they could discourage some pet owners who do not have their animal spayed or neutered from seeking veterinary care, which could, in turn, lead to reduced vaccinations for diseases such as rabies.

The new amendment would seem to be a way to render that objection a moot point. But it is not likely to bring the veterinary establishment around, insiders contend.

“The fact that veterinarians are not required to report their clients with unaltered animals hasn’t been the issue for our group,” Greeley said. “The issue has been the government determining the need for the medical services in the first place.”

There also has been some question of whether or not the city would even be able to enforce such a law, and whether it is truly needed.

Los Angeles passed a mandatory spay/neuter ordinance in 2008, but compliance is not being actively enforced because the city has no funds for such an effort. Chicago is experiencing serious revenue declines due to the current recession, and city officials have said that the ordinance would require additional funding for animal control, and perhaps more personnel.

Supporters of mandatory spay/neuter contend the law would reduce pet overpopulation and animal aggression. They note that in Santa Cruz County, Calif., a law passed 11 years ago that has since reduced the number of animals taken in by shelters from 14,000 annually to about 5,500 in 2007. According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, that reduced canine euthanasias in shelters from 30 percent to 16 percent and feline euthanasias from 60 percent to 50 percent.

But Chicago might already have declining shelter rates. According to The Anti-Cruelty Society, the citywide euthanasia rate dropped 12 percent between 2003 to 2005, and shelter intakes fell 11 percent. The city has one of the lowest rates of euthanasia by population in the country.

Supporters also maintain that neutering will reduce incidents of canine aggression, and that is one of the major impetuses for the law.

They cite an article published in 2000 in the Journal of the American Veterinary Association that suggests unsterilized dogs are 2.6 times more likely to bite.

Two city aldermen, Ed Burke and Ginger Rutai, initially proposed the Chicago ordinance following a vicious dog attack in the city. Gabriela Munoz Lopez was walking to a Southside elementary school when a pack of five dogs attacked. She was rescued when a passing motorist pulled her inside his van and was hospitalized.

That attack followed one in 2003, in which a woman was killed by dogs while jogging in a forest preserve on the city’s southwest border.

The dogs involved in those cases might have been raised to be vicious. It is well known that Chicago gang members keep Pit Bulls as a status symbol and for protection, and that they stage dog fights in alleys and vacant lots. The fighting is so prevalent that the Chicago Police Department has an Animal Crime Unit in its gang investigations section.

The Illinois State Veterinary Medical Association says the goals of the ordinance are laudable. But mandating neutering will not bring about an end to overpopulation or dog fighting, and that while, in general, the benefits of neutering outweigh its risks, there can be extenuating circumstances in some cases. Therefore, the decision to spay or neuter should be left to the owner and his or her veterinarian.

Other places where the adoption of mandatory spay/neuter has been recently considered include Houston, where officials have floated the idea, and California, where a proposed statewide mandate was shelved last year.

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