Monday, June 27, 2005

What I do in real life: A blast from my past 

I haven't printed critiques of too many St. Cloud Times editorials lately, not for lack of targets of opportunity, but because they aren't nearly in the class of the turds the Minneapolis StarTribune drop with regularity. But I'll take this one, because I had a hand in part of this. It is on the critically important issue of ... pet licenses.

75 percent of about 20,000 dogs [in the area] are not licensed even though each city requires it. Considering the primary purposes of a license are to protect public health and keep track of the pet, it's astounding that 15,000 dogs remain unlicensed.

Why? This editorial board believes it's because, beyond doing the right thing, there is little motivation for pet owners to follow the law. After all, buying Buddy an ID tag and a rabies vaccination is probably good enough, especially if Buddy sticks to your property or stays on a leash.

Unlicensed pets may not be a pressing issue, but dealing with them and other pet-related issues does require public resources. St.Cloud spent $186,249 on animal control efforts for fiscal 2004. Yet pet licenses and fees brought in only $47,858, leaving city taxpayers to cover the $138,000 difference.

OK, first time out. Those latter two paragraphs don't connect. Either animal control efforts aren't an issue because Buddy sticks to his property or on a leash, or they are because he doesn't. Which is it? Also, the entire cost of animal control is supposed to be paid by pet owners? How much of animal control is for feral cats or dogs, or for the stray deer or wolf that wanders in? And again, context: The city's general government revenue is about $31 million.

Given those numbers and the area's rapid growth, cities should consider one of two options. Either find ways to compel people to buy pet licenses, or scrap the entire licensing system. As it stands now, clearly most pet owners don't abide by � or benefit from � it anyway.

One way to compel compliance would be to require a dog to have a license before it gets a rabies vaccine. Right now, it's the opposite in area cities; it takes a rabies tag to get a license.

The down side would mean area veterinarians, who are simply trying to run a business, would become the enforcers. This approach also might lead to people skipping vaccinations, which is the one outcome the area doesn't want.

It may indeed. And that gets us to the other part and my hand in the current regulation. But think about this first: What would be the cost of compelling licenses? It is substantial, because it would take time away from veterinarians doing other things they need to do. If you are interested in pet health, why would you do this? It raises the cost of their services, quite possibly by more than $138k, but of course taxpayers won't see this. And, note, here's a city that has always complained about "unfunded mandates" in essence conscripting vets to be tax collectors for them.
Another way might be to boost the fees and fines charged for licenses and citations. For example, St. Cloud charges a minimum of $7.50 to license a spayed or neutered dog. Late fees of $5 a month are applied after May 31. What if those fees doubled?
If you double those fees, like with the rabies shots, you get fewer animal spayed or neutered. St. Cloud, like several cities, has a two-tier price for licenses, charging $21 for "intact" dogs (their phrase, not mine. Talk about scare quotes!) The two-tier system came about through an effort of some people working in animal welfare groups, which included Mrs. Scholar and myself. It was my idea to put that two-tier price in there, because we want to encourage spaying and neutering. If you double the price, you would encourage people not to take their animals to be spayed and neutered, leading to more unwanted pets. For the very same reason we wouldn't want to make the rabies vaccine depend on a license -- we would rather have unlicensed, vaccinated pets than licensed, unvaccinated ones -- so to would we prefer neutered and spayed pets. We left pet owners with a choice.

If the $138,000 is due to abandoned dogs and cats from unwanted pregnancies, you might consider increasing the size of the step between spayed/neutered and intact pets. But that again may simply lead to intact animals being unlicensed. It's a question of the elasticity of demand for licenses.

Or what if fines for loose dogs were increased substantially? In Sauk Rapids, that can yield a $25 fine for first-time offenders. It doubles for every violation. If the animal is not licensed, it is impounded. To recover the animal, the owner must pay a $31 redemption fee, a $31 impounding fee and an $8.50 daily boarding fee, and buy a license, which can cost up to $20.

Other cities have similar fee structures. However, officials in each city said it's rare for someone to be cited more than once.

Yes, because if you've paid all that money to get your dog out of the pound, you probably reveal yourself as someone able to take care of your pet. What the article doesn't say is how many owners lose pets and choose to not recover them because of the cost. I'll let you figure out on your own what happens to those pets. Dogs typically adopt out well -- only seven were euthanized in St. Cloud last year; cats do much, much worse. It is rare that a cat is reclaimed by his or her original owner; the adoption rate is around 50%. Details. I can tell you those numbers were much higher in my family's days of working with local animal welfare groups. (Mrs. S continues to keep up on this.)

I wouldn't have really bothered to blog this editorial except for this weasel paragraph.
Overall, the intent of this editorial isn't to push for a police crackdown on unlicensed pets or shame people into getting Buddy licensed. Rather, it's simply to ask if these licensing systems are effectively achieving their intended purpose.

Given that you haven't come up with a reasonable alternative nor come up with a rationale for why the current system doesn't work, all you've managed to accomplish is to cast aspersions on a system that is actually working pretty well.