It's not yet 8 a.m. in the parking lot of Super A Foods in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, and nearly a dozen people are lined up to get their cats and dogs spayed and neutered inside the Amanda Foundation's free mobile clinic.
"I didn't get to my kitties in time in the first place. That's why I'm going through this headache now," says Kenneth Vandenberg, 46, who brought in his boys, Sylvester and Shippo, to be fixed. "I had two cats. Now I have 11."
As of last week, people like Vandenberg won't have the option to wait until it's too late. A new law just went into effect requiring most owners in Los Angeles to get their pets fixed after they reach the age of four months—one of the toughest such local ordinances in the nation, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. People with show and service dogs, licensed breeders and those who get a health letter from their vets are among those exempted. The city won't start enforcing the law until October, but pet owners are already taking notice.
"Our phone calls have tripled since the ordinance passed," says Teri Austin, the former star of "Knots Landing" who now heads the Amanda Foundation, a nonprofit rescue organization contracted by the city since 2005 to operate its mobile clinic in low-income neighborhoods, one of two such vans funded by the city.
"My mom was telling me about the law," says Amanda Delagarza, 18, who brought her four-month-old pit bull Canelo (cinnamon in Spanish) to the mobile clinic, even though she worries "there's not gonna be no more dogs."
The opposite problem spurred animal rights activists to lobby successfully for the new law, which was signed by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in February after passing the city council by a 14-1 vote. They are trying to reduce the number of animals euthanized in Los Angeles shelters (15,000 of the more than 45,000 animals taken in last year). The number of pets put down has dropped steadily over the past five years, with a nearly 22 percent decline in 2007, but the goal is "no kill."
"I don't have an exit strategy for Iraq, and I can't tell you where to put your money or find a man, but this I know: spaying and neutering is the only way to reduce the slaughter," Austin says. "The law is brilliant."
Austin and her staff have their hands full trying to meet the needs of those who can't afford to comply with the law by visiting a vet. Her clinic performed 7,200 surgeries last year; last Saturday alone they worked on 97 pets, 37 of which were pit bulls.
Despite her best efforts, Austin can't convince everyone to go along with the program. Korina Betancourt, 38, wanted her son's new pit bull, Ruby, to get vaccinated and fixed, but her ex-husband, Jerome Santos, who bought the dog, intervened.
"I don't want to spay her now," Santos says. "I might want to breed her."
No surgery, no free vaccine, explained Austin, who tried to cajole Santos by touting the health benefits of spaying and neutering and showing him a copy of the law and the cost of its fines. She explained that L.A. shelters are full of pit bulls that can't find homes, but Santos didn't budge.
"I believe it should be up to the owners to take care of dogs," he says. "Everybody has a right to leave them as they are."
After Santos walked away with Ruby, Austin vented her frustration. "That guy had no good reason, no social conscience," she said. "That's a perfect example of why the law is necessary. His female dog in heat will make every dog in the neighborhood more aggressive."
Santos, however, has some high-profile allies. The Westminster Kennel Club, which puts on the popular Best in Show competition, is fighting the L.A. ordinance and a similar law in the California legislature. (Dogs that are spayed or neutered cannot enter such competitions.)
"We think we know what's best for our dogs in terms of their health," says David Frei, the Westminster Dog Show host, who recently appeared on "Good Day L.A." with Best in Show winner Uno the beagle, to argue against the law. The WKC also made a donation to the Concerned Dog Owners of California (CDOC), a group of breeders and owners that formed last year to fight the spay and neuter laws.
Austin points out that the WKC is a member of the American Kennel Club, which makes its money registering purebred puppies. "They are in the business of promoting as many dogs breeding as possible," she says. "It's all about money."
The CDOC, however, claims the law is unconstitutional and plans to file a legal challenge in the next few weeks. "I think anyone who buys the right kind of dog and has a lot of disposable income can buy their way out of this law," says Cathie Turner, executive director of the CDOC, who has owned show dogs. "This is a law directed at low-income people who don't have the right dog."
Turner accuses Villaraigosa of "caving in" to pressure from animal rights activists, some of whom protested outside the home of his chief of staff. She says mandatory laws don't work, and she comes armed with studies supposedly showing that spaying and neutering dogs at a young age may harm their health more than help it.
However, the American Veterinary Medical Association encourages sterilization and urges on its Web site to get it done "as early as possible," which it defines as 8-16 weeks. Linda Barth, assistant general manager of Los Angeles Animal Services, says most complaints the city receives involve pets that are not fixed.
"At the bottom of the problem, when there are issues in the neighborhood, is unsterilized animals," she says. "The law will reduce bites and overpopulation. There will be fewer strays, and animals will not be as aggressive. They will not be driven by biology to escape."
The city will not enforce the new law by peeking underneath everyone's pets, Barth says, but will instead issue citations when responding to routine complaints. Officers will give people a chance to sterilize their pets voluntarily without paying fines, which start at $100 and eventually reach $500 (or 40 hours of community service) plus a misdemeanor charge the longer the pet goes unfixed.
Austin says most people informed of the law do "the right thing," although men in some of the city's toughest neighborhoods can be the hardest to convince. "It's always the women who bring them in," she says. "I always tell the guys, 'Man, I'm leaving yours alone. We're only taking his.' Most of the time I get them, but it's a macho thing."
Even though Austin couldn't convince Santos to get Ruby fixed, Betancourt said she would probably bring the dog back next month and her ex-husband will never know the difference. If not, Santos might be hearing from Animal Services.
"I got his address. I'll be reporting him to the city," Austin said. "He'll be getting a visit."