Pets and chips

Sacramento County puts microchips in all adopted dogs and cats, something new legislation would take statewide, but some call the plan an invasion of privacy

The Sacramento County pound has been putting microchips in all adopted animals since 1999.

The Sacramento County pound has been putting microchips in all adopted animals since 1999.

photo by Larry Dalton

The dogs at the Sacramento Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) are barking as if they know something. On one side of the room, a large dog is bravely standing among all the barking chatter, Zen-like and quiet as the kennel technician prepares his injection. He’s about to get what all the adopted pets in Sacramento County are getting these days—a microchip implanted in his neck.

This rice-sized implant contains nothing more than encoded numbers when read by a scanner. The idea is comparable to the scanning of barcodes in a supermarket to keep track of inventory. So why not pets? Just a few numbers can determine the fate of the canine fugitive if it ever decides to make a run for it.

Just ask Phebe, a female rat terrier, who was missing for two weeks after taking off from the neighbor’s yard. It was no stupid pet trick that brought her back. Actually, a good Samaritan found her, but the microchip found her owner, Alice Ribera-Murguia, who had adopted Phebe from the Sacramento County shelter on Bradshaw Road over a year ago.

Phebe’s owner hadn’t heard of the pet microchip prior to adopting her, but thought it was “cool” when the shelter mentioned it. Ribera-Murguia believes in responsible pet ownership, and thinks the microchip is a great way to protect and keep track of your animals.

Apparently state Senator Jack O’Connell, D-San Luis Obispo, thinks so too. In February, he introduced Senate Bill 236, which requires all dogs and cats sold in the state to be microchipped. Yet some people think this bill may be taking a great idea too far.

“I think it’s a misguided idea,” said Joan Miller, legislative coordinator of Cat Fanciers Association (CFA). “I truly believe that it stems from the desire to deter people from wanting to buy animals.”

Miller is referring to the extra burden this bill would place on people who breed and sell animals. Not only would the bill require that they obtain a permit to sell an animal, but it would also require the animal to be microchipped.

“I think the opposition to that is that it’s another governmental regulation telling you what to do, telling pet owners they have to microchip their animals,” said Stephanie Mohr, senior animal services officer of the Sacramento County shelter, who is not opposed to the bill. “A lot of people are going to say it’s too expensive, that they can’t afford it.”

Although CFA considers microchipping a great form of permanent identification for animals, especially those that are outdoors, Miller feels that the success of this high-tech system is heavily dependent on owners wanting to take personal responsibility for their pets.

“The way to ensure that microchipping is actually beneficial to the animal is for the person to want to choose that because then they’re going to do the enrollment,” Miller said, referring to registration of chip data in the national database, which requires a small fee. “And shelters are going to have to be willing to take the time to scan all animals that come in with the idea of making sure that they’ll go back to their owner.”

Keith Frazier, associate director of AKC Companion Animal Recovery (CAR), reiterated how the whole microchip system must work.

“The system includes the implantation of the microchip, enrolling of the database, and the upkeep of the information on the database,” he said. “When all the components are working together properly, it is an excellent system of reuniting pets with their owners. And we have proven track records as far as that goes.”

In fact, he said more than 52,000 pet recoveries have been made through CAR since the American Kennel Club founded the program in 1995. CAR claims to have the largest national database of microchipped pets, expected to soon hit the one million pet enrollment mark.

No adopted animal leaves the Sacramento SPCA or the county shelter without a microchip. The former just started microchipping all adopted pets this year, but the latter implemented this practice in September 1999. Most shelters and veterinarians have been scanning and offering voluntary microchipping for several years.

“We like it,” said Jaime Main of the Sacramento SPCA, referring to the microchip. “It helps us keep track of the owners too, because if they bounce from animal to animal, we know that they’re not wanting a long lifetime partnership with a pet. So that helps us keep track of them for the dog’s sake.”

Unlike the evil intentions that permeate most science fiction weapons of paranoia, the pet microchip has a plethora of vignettes with warm and fuzzy endings. One dog made morning news headlines recently after roaming the streets for more than five years when a shelter found her chip and saved her from doggy heaven. It’s hard to put an Orwellian spin on something as heartwarming as Lassie coming home, but wouldn’t it be a little strange if Lassie had a chip in her neck?

“It’s leading to an ability to keep total track of people’s pets,” Joan Miller observed. “So when they start to microchip and use that as an enforcement tool, then this will be the way they can force people to comply with various laws—licensing, zoning and limit laws. I think it really starts to infringe on people’s privacy.”

The microchip has the potential to end all unnecessary euthanasia of animals in shelters. But sometimes the best intentions of technology can be misdirected if tools of identification turn into violation detectors. The dogs and cats won’t tell. But maybe that chip in their necks will.