Feed Bites

The Skunk at the Picnic

Written by: Louise Calderwood   |   July 6, 2022

Pets, Advocacy

Dogs and cats have been part of my life ever since my parents brought a stray kitten home from the bustling streets of New York City. I realize how fortunate my family is to have the means to care for our pets including flying them to Europe when we moved abroad.  Not all companion animals are blessed to have stable homes and not all pet owners have the means to cover the cost of routine care or find new homes when life changes force the surrender of loved animals. Subsidized programs to neuter and rehome pets and feral cats are part of a caring culture. But should the cost of these efforts be borne by pet food businesses through legislatively mandated taxation? My response is a firm “no.”

Special license plates, voluntary tax form check offs, humane facility licensing and private donations are reasonable tools to raise money to provide care for homeless pets and feral cats.  Unfortunately, several states are using chunks of animal food registration fees to fund animal welfare or spay/neuter efforts. In most states animal food registration fees are authorized through statute to cover the costs of regulatory oversight of the industry, they were not enacted to fund animal welfare programs. Over the past decade some states diverted the registration fees to animal welfare purposes and, in some states, have added additional surcharges onto pet food to subsidize spay and neuter costs for pets of low-income owners. Maine was the first state to use this funding mechanism for spay/neuter programs but is has since been joined by West Virginia, Maryland and New Mexico.

Let’s explore details of the Maine animal welfare and spay/neuter program. One of the oldest humane societies in Maine undertook an early effort to reduce the number of dogs and cats it euthanized with praiseworthy results.  Prior to 1995 between 7,000 and 10,000 animals were admitted to the organization each year and the group struggled with a euthanasia rate near 50%. In 2015 the Maine legislature began collecting a surcharge from businesses selling pet food in the state to fund low-cost spay/neuter efforts. By 2018, following implementation of a no-euthanasia policy and embarking on a spay/neuter education program, the long serving Maine humane organization was bringing hundreds of animals from southerly shelters to Maine, in part to meet the demand for adoption and, as stated in a recent annual report, to help cover their costs and ensure the sustainability of their mission. Indeed, a room at the facility has been renovated for the sole purpose of receiving out of state pets.

In 2021 Maine used over $730,000 of taxes collected from animal food companies to pay for subsidized spay/neuter programs and animal welfare efforts. And in the same year, over 8,000 cats and dogs were imported into the state to meet adoption demand and, through their adoption fees, help pay the operating costs for animal shelters. The purpose of spay/neuter and animal welfare programs to reduce euthanasia of dogs and cats is admirable, but Maine is taxing businesses to fund animal welfare, and then imports thousands of animals in to the state annually to fund the animal welfare infrastructure and meet adoption demands.

Why should animal food manufacturers be indirectly subsiding animal welfare organizations which are not even serving the animals in the state where the taxes are collected?

Humane societies and animal shelters across the country are to be congratulated for their success in reducing the number of dogs and cats euthanized or without homes. But why should businesses be taxed to pay for subsidized spaying and neutering and to cover animal welfare programs? Animal food manufacturers are not causing colonies of feral cats or animal welfare issues, why should they be taxed to address these on-going problems? Indeed, some shelters have reported they are importing nearly 40% of all the animals they re-home, so obviously their purposes have moved beyond serving the local population of homeless pets.

The animal welfare infrastructure is no longer a few good-hearted people with crates, it has become a business world with buildings and overhead costs. This business-like approach has improved the outcomes for companion animals, but many shelters and rescue organizations are just that, non-profit businesses, and should not be subsidized by taxes on animal food companies. If state legislatures feel subsidization is needed to maintain animal shelter and rescue services, the funding should be raised from in-state sources, not taxes on companies providing food to pets and other animals.

Connecting the dots between animal food taxation and the subsidization of animal welfare is a touchy subject and I am sure some will cast me as an uncaring person who holds animal welfare in low regard. That’s ok, I am willing to be the proverbial skunk at the picnic to shed light on the disconnect between taxation and subsidized animal welfare endeavors. Let’s think creatively and increase the use of voluntary means such as license plates and tax form check offs to address the on-going needs of homeless pets and feral cats.

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