Thursday, March 02, 2017

From Dog Tags to Car Tags: Tommy T. Irvin and the GDA

Former Georgia Department of Agriculture (GDA) Commissioner Tommy T. Irvin spent most of his life serving the state of Georgia. Through his 42 years as commissioner (1969-2011), Irvin promoted locally grown food, created monthly statewide educational programming, supported marginalized farmers, helped monitor horses in competition at the 1996 Olympics, and attended countless agriculture events.

However, Irvin’s legacy does include one controversial lawsuit in 2007 involving the 1990 Humane Euthanasia Act. In the act, State Representative Chelsey V. Morton details the humane ways in which shelters could put down animals through lethal injection. Irvin and the GDA’s Animal Protection Division were responsible for ensuring that all shelters were killing their animals according to this humane code. The GDA and Irvin, as commissioner, were sued in 2007 by Representative Morton because they were licensing shelters that used inhumane methods of killing. The court found in favor of the plaintiff, Representative Morton. and, as a result,  issued a temporary restraining order to the GDA prohibiting them  from renewing licenses for shelters using illegal killing methods. Later that same year, the GDA was held in contempt for issuing a license to a Cobb County shelter that used an unapproved method.

Now, this all paints former Commissioner Irvin in a rather unfavorable light when it comes to overcrowded animal shelters and animal care. However, as documented in his papers, Irvin appears to have taken this issue very seriously but attacked it from a different angle. From 1999 to 2002, the GDA worked on passing a constitutional amendment to create a sterilization program to address animal overpopulation. On November 5, 2002, the Dog/Cat Sterilization License Plate program was put before voters. The referendum, which would allow the license plate to be sold and administered by the GDA, passed by a 70% margin, and the GDA undertook a process to implement the legislation which was enacted in the following year.

Irvin speaking in support of Amendment 6 at the state capitol in 2002.
Source: Series I, Box 11, Folder 14.
Excerpt from brochure advertising the tag program, 2005.
Series I, Box 9, Folder 26.
The Dog/Cat Tag Sterilization License Plate program treats the designated plate as any other “specialty” plate. The county tag office collects the fee for the plate ($25 in 2005). Those funds are used to pay for sterilization procedures, to provide educational materials about the importance of sterilization, and to promote sales of the plate. The funds are accessed through an existing state accounting system, and the GDA pays licensed veterinarians to spay or neuter the animals. Purchasing the plate is entirely optional, and importantly, tax-deductible.

By December 2005, about a year before the Morton v. Irvin lawsuit, the sale of the sterilization license plate was advertised by the GDA. In a quote from a 2005 brochure, Irvin stated, “This program is saving the lives of dogs and cats without increasing taxes.” By August 2006, another brochure boasted that more than 700 accredited vets had performed 20,000 sterilization procedures through this program.
Tommy Irvin quote from brochure advertising the tag program, 2005.
Series I, Box 9, Folder 26.
In 2008, GDA held a photo contest for a new “Feline Friend” license plate design. Winner Randy Bieniek submitted a photo of a beautiful, short-hair cat, Hope, who was later adopted. This Feline Friend plate was added to the Animal Friend and Dog Friend plates promoted by the Dog/Cat Sterilization program in December 2008. By January 2009, more than 1,000 licensed and accredited vets participated in the program, and more than 41,000 spay/neuter procedures were funded in all 159 Georgia counties.
Flier advertising for the new "Feline Friendly" license
plate, circulated by GDA, 2008. Source: Series I, Box 9,
Folder 26. 

The Dog/Cat Sterilization program is still going strong today. The program is now funded by tag sales and private donations, and since 2013, a grant program. In the initial round of grants, $125,000 were awarded to 19 applicants, and, in 2015, $200,000 were awarded. Since 2003, over 100,000 spay/neuter procedures have been administered through the program, and that number continues to increase.

So, the next time you are driving on a Georgia highway and see a spay/neuter license plate, you will be witnessing one of Tommy Irvin’s legacies.

Visit  the Russell Library to research the Tommy Irvin Papers and see documentation of the preliminary work for the Tommy T. Irvin Dog/Cat Sterilization program, a full transcript of the 2002 Dog/Cat Sterilization Bill, copies of newspaper clippings announcing the program, brochures, meeting notes, original sample plates, unveiling photographs, and more.

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