CLEARWATER — If a dog were to accompany a restaurant chef to work, most people would have no problem with a state inspector kicking the dog to the curb.
But when the food vendor happens to be a gas station, and its offerings stop at cans of Coke and bags of Doritos, and the dog is a charismatic chocolate Labrador named Cody, the response evolves into a public outcry — against the state.
"Thumbs down on the Department of Agriculture. Tackle some real problems. Human customers bring more contamination — not to mention danger — than a well-cared-for pooch," said Merrilee Dulaney, one of the many people unhappy with news.
Another St. Petersburg Times reader, Barbara Wise of Palm Harbor, said Cody's story affected her so deeply, she felt personally hurt when she learned of the dog's departure.
"That dog probably created more goodwill than 10 people put together. Our country certainly needs that now, especially with so many people having such a hard time right now," Wise said.
On Thursday, Karim Mansour, the owner of the Clearwater BP gas station and convenience store at U.S. 19 and Nursery Road, was told by an inspector with the Florida Department of Agriculture to stop bringing his dog, Cody, to work. After a November story in the Times introduced thousands to Cody, who greets customers at the store's drive-through window with a tail wag, the dog became a local celebrity.
Now, Mansour has found himself and his 6-year-old, floppy-eared best friend at the center of a debate between what some consider overzealous code enforcement, and rules meant to keep the public healthy.
On Friday, many concerned for Cody stopped by Mansour's store to offer condolences, and in some cases, gifts for the prematurely retired canine store clerk.
"People have been coming by with treats. A woman stopped by with a sweater for Cody," Mansour said.
One woman in Oldsmar, Jane Haines, spoke with a lawyer about putting together a petition to perhaps alter the food codes preventing Cody from going to work.
"It's heavenly to have that dog there to protect the owners from thieves and muggers and all those nasty people out there," Haines said. "We need more smiles in our society. And that dog did it for people."
Terence McElroy, Department of Agriculture spokesman, confirmed that nobody has filed any complaints about Cody, and said the Thursday visit by food inspectors was likely prompted by a supervisor's concerns. McElroy said he did not know of any directive from any official to check up on Mansour's store because of news coverage about the dog.
With the court of public opinion at his back, Mansour said he would pursue all of his options in finding a way for Cody to return. Mansour stayed home Friday morning with Cody, who he said was "mopey" about being stuck on the couch.
More than a dozen Times readers, including this reporter's mother, suggested Mansour seek out special training and certification for Cody to become a service dog. That way, the dog would be exempt from health department regulations, since he would no longer count as a pet, but as a medical aid.
Mansour said that could be a real possibility, since he is currently being treated for a medical condition that could be assuaged with the assistance of a service dog. Mansour said in a way, emotionally, physically and mentally, having his dog with him at work was already plenty therapeutic — not to mention offering peace of mind, considering his store has been robbed more than once.
Paul Bowskill, a representative of Service Dogs America, a company that offers education in certifying dogs as service animals, said according to the Americans With Disabilities Act, if a health inspector is told a dog provides a bona fide service, removing the animal could be considered discrimination against the human in need of the animal's help.
"If he has a physician who certifies he has a need, then he can be okay," Bowskill said.
Dominick Tao can be reached at (727) 580-2951 or firstname.lastname@example.org.