Animal welfare is a pet issue for many in California, where about 23 million people own pets. Yet the state is still overrun with stray dogs and cats — more than 1 million are admitted to its animal shelters every year, according to the California Veterinary Medical Board, and more than half of those are ultimately euthanized.

That's the motivation behind the California Pet Lover's License Plate program, which is pushing for specialty plates that would fight pet overpopulation by funding spay-and-neuter programs across the state. The CVMB is sponsoring the campaign, and created the California Spay & Neuter License Plate Fund to pre-sell 7,500 plates by June 2012.

But as the Associated Press reports, that target is proving elusive, putting the entire campaign at risk of collapse. It has taken 21 months to sell about 4,000 of the plates, and now organizers have less than three months to sell 3,500 more. If they don't reach that number, their project could meet the same fate as previous would-be specialty plates in Calfornia, which unsuccessfully sought to support causes ranging from the Girl Scouts to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

Pre-selling 7,500 specialty plates is a challenge, CSNLPF President Judie Mancuso tells the AP, partly because people who place orders must wait up to three years to see results. Even if all the hurdles are cleared, it can still take 10 months for production of the new plates to begin at state prisons. California raised the required number of pre-orders in 2001 from 5,000 to 7,500, the AP reports, as a way to cover the nearly $400,000 in expenses needed to produce a new specialty license plate.

A standard specialty plate costs $50 in California, plus $40 after that in yearly renewal fees (vanity plates cost $98 and $78, respectively). Everyone who pre-orders the spay-and-neuter plates would receive a refund if the effort fails, but Mancuso remains optimistic that won't happen — even though no new specialty-plate campaigns have succeeded in California since 2002.

The spay-and-neuter plate has a variety of prominent supporters, including pet-supply store Petco, which has put up fliers in all its California locations. Actor Pierce Brosnan designed and donated the plate's artwork, using his own rescued pets as models, and several national animal-rights groups have also lent their support.

Perhaps the best chance at success comes from the California Legislature, where a pending bill would extend the deadline until 2013. Introduced by state Rep. Jose Solorio, D-Anaheim, Assembly Bill 610 has raised hopes among Mancuso and other spay-and-neuter advocates, but the AP notes that it still must survive upcoming committee referrals and floor votes.

Several other states already have spay-and-neuter plates, although some have experienced a backlash over how the fees are used. In Georgia, for example, animal advocates have complained that only $10 of the $35 annual fee actually goes to spay-and-neuter programs, while the rest goes into the state's general fund.

Also on MNN:

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Spay-and-neuter license plates in jeopardy
If animal advocates in California can't pre-sell 3,500 more of the specialty plates before June, the state may not let anybody have one.