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Cody the convenience store dog must go, state warns

CLEARWATER

Cody, a chocolate Labrador, has for months greeted customers at the Clearwater BP gas station and convenience store at U.S. 19 and Nursery Road.

A St. Petersburg Times story in November introduced thousands more to the jovial dog. And thanks to the wonders of the Internet, the canine's drive-through window presence spawned hundreds of positive responses from across the country.

"Now I have two reasons to go to Florida again," commented one tampabay.com reader. "One, to see my friends and their sons. Two, to see Cody."

But on Thursday morning, a state health inspector put an end to Cody's stint as a convenience store clerk.

Karim Mansour, the store and dog owner, received a warning: Remove the dog or the Florida Department of Agriculture would declare all of Mansour's food products — mostly bottled sodas, Slim Jims and candy bars — unfit for consumption.

Mansour, who adopted 6-year-old Cody three years ago, had no choice but to sign the warning. His primary violation: "Prohibited animals present in a food establishment. Dog seen in retail area."

The store doesn't serve hot food such as hot dogs or even fresh cold deli-type items. The only food it carries are packaged products such as chips, crackers and candy.

But food, apparently, is food.

Michael Lombardi, who manages the Agriculture Department's inspectors, said since food items touch the main counter, the inspectors said it is off-limits to dogs. But, Lombardi said, "If he has a back room where food isn't stored, that would be fine."

If Cody were cut off from interacting with people, Mansour said he might as well leave him home with his two other dogs.

"Cody would think he was being punished if I put him back there," he said.

A health inspector visited the business Nov. 23 and noted Cody as a source of environmental contamination, but was appeased when Mansour "put dog in back where there is no food," according to the inspection report.

But Cody, being a people creature, couldn't help but wander to where the action was. He was out front when the inspector, John Berkler Jr., and his supervisor, Kevin Carroll, arrived Thursday.

"The guy was told this is not sanitary to have an animal running around in the area where food is kept," said Terence McElroy, Department of Agriculture spokesman. "We all love dogs. But the fact of the matter, as far as we're concerned, nothing's more important than preventing food contamination."

Mansour said he will leave Cody at home today, but will try to find a way for his companion to stay.

"There's no way one of my dog's hairs are going to get into a bag of Doritos," he said. "I don't know what I'm going to do without him. It's going to be boring here, and people are going to be looking for him."

Mansour's customers were surprised and upset.

"I'm all for him being here," said Mark Little, who visits the store weekly for cigarettes and soda. "He comes up, greets the customers, everyone's happy."

Karen Greer, who had read about Cody, pulled into the drive-through Thursday afternoon. She was greeted by the dog on his last day. Cody appeared in the window, big brown eyes and all.

"Hello, Cody!" she said.

After finding out that Cody apparently had been forced into an early retirement, Greer said she wished she could do more to keep him from leaving.

"I want to bring my granddaughter here to see him," she said.

Whether it was Cody's fame that led to his downfall is still unclear.

Lombardi, with the Department of Agriculture, said while he couldn't verify what prompted the surprise visit Thursday, it was not uncommon for supervisors to accompany inspectors on routine checks.

But Mansour, recalling his conversation with Carroll, came to a different conclusion.

"He told me somebody up top said his boss saw it on the news," he said.

Dominick Tao can be reached at dtao@sptimes.com or (727) 580-2951.

Cody the convenience store dog must go, state warns 12/03/09 [Last modified: Friday, December 4, 2009 6:10pm]
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