California Micro-chipped Pet Bill May Infringe on Privacy

July 7, 2008 - 8:03 PM

( - A bill introduced in the California Legislature designed to "help facilitate the reunion of lost pets with their owners, " may actually be crossing the line on privacy. The bill, introduced by Sen. Jack O'Connell (D-Santa Barbara), mandates that dog and cat owners have their pets micro-chipped and entered into a national registry approved by the Department of Food and Agriculture.

But, Lisa Dean, vice president for technology policy for the Free Congress Foundation, said the bill is another way for the government and the private sector to make money off of people's fears.

"We seem to be getting carried away with the technology here, and the private sector loves it because they make a profit off of scaring us into believing that our pet or even our child will be kidnapped, and we can somehow protect them by adding a chip," she said.

"At the same time," she added, "the government gets more power from it, because they learn more about us, and keep that information in databases. I think we really need to stop and say: How much privacy am I willing to give up here? How much government control am I willing to allow? I think the scare tactics that both the government and private companies use are really, really raw."

The bill states that it would be a crime for "any person to own, harbor, or keep any dog or cat over the age of 4 months, unless that dog or cat has been micro-chipped and the owner's identification has been entered into a national registry approved by the Department of Food and Agriculture."

The measure was introduced February 14 and will be heard in its first committee in April, O'Connell said.

The cost to pet owners, according to O'Connell is between $12 and $30. In some communities, micro-chipping is required when a pet is adopted from a shelter, he said.

"And there's a net cost savings involved to the shelters. Obviously fewer pets are housed at the shelters, and fewer pets are euthanized at the shelters as a result of the reunited pets and family members."

Animal activists give the bill the thumbs up. Daphna Nachminovitch, manager of the
research, investigation and rescue department for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), said research hasn't shown micro-chipping of animals to be harmful.

In fact, she said, it has added benefits.

"The microchips are about the size of a grain of rice, and they're inserted between the animal's shoulder blades with a shot, and the animals don't even have to be under anesthesia ... my dogs were micro-chipped. They were micro-chipped at the shelter where I adopted them from. That was mandatory," said Nachminovitch.

"Now the advantages of the microchip are ... unlike tags, they cannot be removed and discarded in the event that someone wishes to steal your dog or your cat. So, that's the good thing," she added.

Nachminovitch said there's a downside to micro-chipping though.

"The problem is there are several micro-chipping companies that have several different scanners ... so it's kind of like having a tattoo registry with different symbols, so when an animal who is lost goes into a shelter, if that shelter only has the scanner of one microchip company, it's useless that that animal has a microchip, because that microchip won't be scanned by the scanner they have.

"So if a national database were to be created, then that would be a good thing, because that would not only help reunite animals with their guardians, but it will also force people who allow their animals to run at large on a regular basis to take responsibility for that," Nachminovitch said.

She added, "Because in a lot of jurisdictions, and this varies from municipality to municipality and from county to county, but for example, where we're located in the Hampton Roads area, some of the cities here require that if you have, for example a female in heat who is picked up by the animal control three times, that animal can't be released to her guardian before she's spayed."

In that case, there's really no way for that person to dispute that that's their dog, if the dog is micro-chipped, she said.

Nachminovitch said the national database would also make it easier for pet owners to move to another state and just be required to report their change of address to one registry.

She's concerned, however, that the national registry would convince people there's no need to put tags on their pets.

It's important for animals "to wear tags at all times, because some people don't even know that microchip technology exists," she added. "If I found a stray dog tomorrow, the first thing I would look for is a tag, and since people don't have scanners at home and not everybody takes animals to shelters or vets, there's really no guarantee that a microchip would unite that dog with his guardian."

The other advantage, Nachminovitch said, is that if animals are stolen by people who sell them to research laboratories, the laboratories would be able to scan the animal to see who the animal belongs to.