updated 4/6/2004 8:19:12 PM ET 2004-04-07T00:19:12

An overflow crowd of pet lovers, breeders and hunters jammed a legislative committee room Tuesday to praise and condemn a measure that seeks to reduce animal neglect through a tax hike on pet food.

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Some 300 people were present for the unveiling of the so-called "Puppy Chow penalty" proposal that is designed to stop dog and cat overpopulation in North Carolina and raise standards at public animal shelters. Nearly 50 people spoke during the four-hour meeting.

More than 227,000 cats and dogs were taken to North Carolina shelters and euthanized in 2001, and the state's pet euthanasia rate is more than double the national average.

"It's proven that we cannot kill our way out of this problem," said Peter McQueen, president of the Humane Society of Eastern North Carolina.

Legislators say one way to reduce the death toll is to place an "assessment" on pet food manufacturers equal to 10 cents per 20-pound bag of food and about 2 cents for every can. It could generate as much as $8 million annually.

The money would go into a new state fund that counties and cities could seek to pay for low-cost sterilization programs or for shelter renovations.

Several speakers were unhappy with the measure, saying it would punish responsible owners for the irresponsible acts of others.

"I love my dogs. I don't like this dog food tax," said John Banks, 75, of the Grimesville Hunt Club. "I think it's going to be an inconvenience for everybody."

David Gardin with the North Carolina Coon Hunters Association warned legislators that voters will remember their proposed tax and fee increases.

"When you tell a farmer down the road with two Collies that he's going to have pay $200 more this year, he's not going to be up to vote for you next time," said Gardin.

The draft legislation likely will be finalized April 22 for recommendation to the full General Assembly when it returns next month.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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