It’s a rare person these days who doesn’t believe animals are entitled to some sort of protection. Remember the outcry when Michael Vick electrocuted his pit bulls? The call went out, loud and clear, for legal action on behalf of those with the fewest legal rights and protections.

Oddly, however, the issue of legal protection becomes much more complicated when it involves requiring that pet owners behave responsibly and get their animals fixed to help reduce the pet overpopulation problem. How do we persuade people that spaying or neutering their pets is the responsible thing to do?

Here’s the reality: Santa Barbara County’s shelters take in roughly 9,000 dogs and cats annually, of which about 25 percent end up euthanized. The shelters have had to double, even triple, cage occupancy to avoid killing otherwise adoptable animals. On one day in October, Goleta’s shelter had 106 dogs crammed into 50 cages (occupancy rate: more than 200 percent). In Santa Maria, where the county opened a much larger facility in 2005, overcrowding is so bad that volunteers drive vanloads of dogs to shelters in San Luis Obispo, Marin and Sacramento counties.

As for cats, about 1,000 kittens come through each year, many of them too young for shelter life. Imagine being the shelter employee who has to kill hundreds of kittens each year for lack of a place to put them.

With this problem in mind, in 2008 the Board of Supervisors appointed a Spay-Neuter Task Force to make recommendations about an ordinance to increase spaying and neutering. The task force members agreed that the goal was to increase responsible conduct by pet owners, and to leave the decision about spaying or neutering between a pet owner and her veterinarian.

The resulting ordinance does not require that any pet owner “fix” her dog or cat. It requires only that, if you don’t want to fix your pet, you get a simple certificate from your veterinarian. Since dog owners are already required by state law to get their dogs licensed and rabies vaccinated, and since a vet has to give the rabies vaccination, this new requirement wouldn’t add any burden to a dog owner; you just get an additional certificate from the vet during the same vet visit you already have to make every three years. (There would be a new obligation for cat owners to license their cats, but the fees would be much lower or even waived entirely for spayed or neutered cats.)

It’s a simple, minimally intrusive way to make pet owners think about their pets’ reproductive status, rather than just going along until that litter of puppies or kittens is suddenly there, needing homes (or being taken to the shelter). And it’s got an “opt out” for people who feel they need to keep their dog or cat intact, without paying more or having to offer special justifications.

Ironically, the community most in need of this new law is the one most likely to face some financial impact from it: low-income families. Would the proposed new ordinance unfairly burden these families?

The fact is, no matter your income level, you must rabies vaccinate and license your dog every three years; that’s existing state law and its not negotiable. There are low-cost rabies vaccination clinics to help low-income pet owners comply, as well as low-cost spay/neuter clinics for pet owners to have their animals altered cheaply, along with free options from several nonprofit animal rescue groups. It will actually be cheaper for a low-income pet owner to accept these services and alter his pet than to get a vet letter and pay the higher license fee — and that is the carrot that will persuade people to make the responsible choice.

Please let the Board of Supervisors know that a simple, minimally intrusive ordinance like this is a reasonable start in educating pet owners to behave more responsibly. The board will hear comments on the ordinance at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday in the board hearing room, 105 E. Anapamu St., Fourth Floor, and again on Nov. 10 in Santa Maria.

— Lee Heller has lived in the Santa Barbara area since 1996, and has been active on animal welfare, environmental and social justice issues, working on behalf of various animal rescue organizations, such as Dog PAC SB (also as a board member) as well as the Environmental Defense Center, GOO! (as a board member) and The Fund for Santa Barbara. She has a Ph.D. in literature and a law degree.