June 28, 2007 -- Oh, for the love of dog.
The fur is flying in California, and it's all because of a bill that's working its way through the state legislature that would require pet owners to sterilize their dogs and cats by the time they're 4 months old. It is being put on the table in an effort to reduce the estimated half a million stray animals that are euthanized in California shelters year after year.
"There are 3 to 4 million dogs and cats paying with their lives for homelessness in the U.S. [annually], and there's no excuse for that," Daphna Nachminovitch, director of rescue operations for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, told ABC News. "This bill is a life-saving measure."
The bill has the support of the California Veterinary Medicine Association, the California Healthy Pets Coalition, and several local humane societies. It's also become a cause celebre for some animal-loving stars, including actress Pamela Anderson, singer Lionel Richie, and retired "Price Is Right" host Bob Barker.
"We desperately need it passed," Barker told The Associated Press. "The overpopulation is really tragic, and it's not just in California -- it's all over the country."
But critics of the bill, many of whom agree something needs to be done to reduce the number of strays, say the would-be law -- which would fine pet owners refusing to comply $500 per animal -- is unenforceable, overreaching, and heavy-handed.
"This is big brother stuff," dog owner Greg Cross of Irvine, Calif., told ABC News. Cross owns a pitbull purebred and two mutts, all of which are fixed. "They should not be telling us what we should do with our poor dogs."
Cross isn't the only one snarling. The 122-year-old American Kennel Club -- which sponsors the annual Eukanuba National Championship in Long Beach, the country's second-largest dog show after New York's Westminster Kennel Club event -- has threatened to pull the internationally televised competition out of California if the bill passes. Last year, the show drew 28,000 dog enthusiasts and poured nearly $22 million into the local economy.
"Should this bill become law, I fear it could be a catalyst for other states. As the old saying goes, 'As California goes, so goes the nation,'" AKC Chairman Ron Menaker said in a letter to members.
More than two dozen states require dogs and cats that are adopted from shelters to be spayed or neutered -- but the California measure, if approved, would be the most comprehensive statewide pet sterilization law in the nation. It would affect nonpet owners as well, saving California taxpayers an estimated $300 million dollars a year in animal control costs, according to the bill's author, Assemblyman Lloyd Levine of Van Nuys.
For some, it's also a public health issue.
"It's gotta be done," pet owner Susan Shields of Laytonville, Calif., told ABC News. "In this county, there are homeless people, and they all have dogs. And I know [the animals] are not taken care of ... and some of them are not on a rope."
The measure does exempt professionally licensed breeders, but some of them fear endless administrative red tape and potential fees and say the legislation amounts to social engineering for animals.
"I think what's happening in California is socialism in its prime," Janet Wahl, who lives near Sacramento and breeds Havanese and Yorkshire terriers told The Associated Press. Wahl, who is now considering moving out of state, fears the government could put itself in the position of deciding which dog breeds can and can't reproduce.
Since breeders generally garner the highest prices for dogs of pure pedigree, some argue it could spell doom for the beloved mutt. Bye-bye Benji.
But Bobby Dorafshar -- president and CEO of New Leash On Life, a nonprofit organization which has rescued and placed over 3,000 stray dogs -- dismisses that notion.
"Will there be a shortage of mixed-breed animals? Absolutely not," said Dorafshar, whose group sponsors an annual dog show and fundraiser called Nuts For Mutts.
The bill narrowly passed the California Assembly earlier this month and goes next to the state Senate. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger -- who owns two male dogs with his wife, Maria Shriver -- has not said whether or not he supports the measure.
When asked, Schwarzenegger press secretary Aaron McLear declined to tell The Associated Press whether the governor's pets were neutered -- "out of respect" for the dogs.