March 16, 2010

Pet lovers can step up to plate to aid animals

PAUL CARRIER

— By

click image to enlarge

Proposed Adopt License Plate Initiative license plate

Staff Writer

Pet lovers wanting to help the state's cash-strapped Animal Welfare Program will get that chance if supporters of a specialty license plate raise enough money to make their tag available to Maine motorists.

A group that includes staffers from pet-related businesses and animal shelters is trying to raise $50,000 -- $25 apiece from 2,000 motorists who agree to buy the plates.

If organizers succeed, the Legislature will consider the idea next year.

A prototype of the plate -- the design could change if revisions are needed to satisfy the state's licensing procedures -- shows a silhouette of a pony-tailed girl, a dog and a cat.

''It's an opportunity to show your support for adopting animals'' and to raise money for the program, said Andrew Ferreira of the Animal Refuge League of Westbrook, which is participating in the effort.

Recent animal seizures in Buxton and elsewhere ate up ''a tremendous part'' of the program's budget, so the plates would help replenish that, said Steven Jacobsen of the Animal Welfare Society in Kennebunk.

Other participants in the effort include Happy Tails and Planet Dog, two pet-related businesses in Portland, and the state Animal Welfare Advisory Council.

With an annual budget of $1.2 million, the Animal Welfare Program enforces the state's protection laws by investigating cruelty and neglect complaints, training animal-control officers, and inspecting and licensing kennels, shelters, pet shops and research facilities.

The program gets all of its funding from dog-license fees, facility licensing fees and a registration fee imposed on dog and cat food.

Director Norma Worley said the seizure of 249 dogs during a Buxton raid last August cost her program about $440,000, and that was followed by seizures in Greene and Somerville.

''I am pretty confident'' organizers can meet the state's requirement by collecting money from 2,000 buyers, Worley said.

''There's just so many animal lovers out there, and I think they've been waiting for something like this,'' she said.

She said proceeds from the plate sales would be used ''for the care of animals that are seized from cruelty and neglect situations.''

The proposal would raise to nine the number of specialty plates that Maine has issued or is about to issue.

Critics say that number is too high, and claim that the newer plates ''cannibalize'' the older ones by persuading people to abandon one worthy cause for another.

Supporters counter that the $50,000 requirement is stiff enough to assure that there is a market for each new plate.

The oldest of the existing specialty plates is the so-called loon plate, which was launched in 1994 to provide supplemental funding for the state's wildlife and conservation agencies.

Since then, the state has added a lobster plate, a Maine black bear plate, a University of Maine System plate, an agriculture plate, a troops plate and a sportsmen's plate, with a breast-cancer plate to be issued later this year.

The Legislature recently tightened the rules for specialty plates by raising the individual contribution for a startup from $20 to $25 and by requiring that the state withdraw plates when sales fall below 4,000 sets, or after a plate has been in use for a decade.

That's tough enough to satisfy Democratic Sen. Bill Diamond of Windham, a former secretary of state who serves on the Legislature's Transportation Committee.

''I think the rules are actually pretty rigid,'' Diamond said. ''Any group that can do that, I say more power to them.''

Critics counter that the number of motorists willing to pay extra for a specialty plate is relatively small.

''I think there's only so much of a market,'' said Republican Rep. Richard Cebra of Naples, another Transportation Committee member. ''Retiring one when we start one would be a step in the right direction.''

About 25 states have so-called pet-friendly license plates, according to the Humane Society of the United States. If backers of the proposed Maine plate collect enough money from enough people, Diamond said, the Transportation Committee is likely to urge the full Legislature to back the new plate.

Prospective buyers willing to contribute $25 can do so online at planetdog.com or at Planet Dog, Happy Tails, the Animal Welfare Society and the Animal Refuge League.

If the state does not issue the plate, contributors will get their money back.

Staff Writer Paul Carrier can be contacted at 611-7511 or at:

pcarrier@pressherald.com

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