TAMPA — It soon may be illegal in Hillsborough County for most people to keep a dog tied up or chained outside unsupervised for any period of time.
At the urging of animal rights activists, commissioners are considering an outright ban on outdoor tethering of dogs, a decision they have been weighing for more than a year.
Activists say far too many dogs in Hillsborough County are bought, bred or adopted, then lashed to a tree or other fixture for much of their lives. That leads to a miserable existence for the dogs and a dangerous risk for anyone who wanders into their territory, they say.
In public hearings and before an advisory group, they've shown pictures of dogs, their necks scarred by their collars. Others have heavy chains that confine them to areas barely longer than their bodies.
"I think it's time people get with the 21st century and realize that the way we treat our animals needs to progress with the 21st century," said Barbara LaPresti. "Anyone who is a good dog owner is not going to have a problem with this law."
But what's right?
LaPresti and others claim the change has met resistance from breeders and others, including the county's Animal Services Department. The county agency, she maintains, is slow to embrace what is right for dogs and public safety.
Dennis McCullough, director of operations for Animal Services, says the change has been slow in coming because plenty of people have strong feelings about the matter and have spoken out. He said, more than anything, he and the officers who will enforce the ordinance want to do what's right.
He said he agrees that it's important to establish a law that bans people from tying up dogs outside all day for their entire lives. But he said other people may secure their dogs outside for limited durations and neither he nor many national animal advocacy groups believe that is inherently wrong.
"We all felt it was imperative to address the so-called tree dog," said McCullough, referring to animals tied up 24 hours a day, seven days a week. "That being said, we didn't want to pass anything that made bad people of good people."
Currently, county rules allow dogs to be tied up outside if they have access to food, water and shelter such as a dog house. If animal control officers respond to a complaint, they look to see if the dog appears to be in good health.
Failure to meet those standards can result in animal abuse charges, though officers attempt to counsel owners when receiving initial complaints.
At a recent public hearing, Scott Bentley, who operates a group called Hoodratz Animal Rescue, showed county commissioners a slide show of animals he has encountered. Many were emaciated and several had severe scarring around their necks from overly restrictive collars. Others were secured by heavy chains.
"What is abuse?" he asks. "It's such a vague and crappy law. I think things need to get stricter."
Animal Services, working closely with a citizen advisory board that included breeders, veterinarians and advocates, has proposed a more restrictive ordinance. Initial drafts, however, came with a time frame, making it illegal to keep a dog tethered unsupervised for more than a half-hour.
There also are exemptions, notably for animals used as part of an agricultural practice such as herding cattle. Farmers may need to secure such dogs when operating heavy equipment nearby.
Roy Davis, an advocate for Hillsborough County's agricultural industry, asked commissioners why they were considering any added restrictions, regardless of the exemption.
"It appears to me that we already have regulations that protect animals," he said. "You have rules that can manage that situation."
Advocates for the stricter tethering ordinance, meanwhile, are objecting to any time allowance for keeping unsupervised dogs tethered. A 30-minute time limit will make enforcement difficult, they say, and eat up time for animal control officers who have seen their numbers thinned due to budget cuts.
People who acquire an animal should recognize up front their need to walk their dogs or keep them in a fenced yard.
"It really boils down to, when you decide to bring a dog into your home, you as a dog owner should be responsible," LaPresti said.
McCullough said fences can be expensive for people on limited incomes and walking a dog regularly can be a challenge for someone who is ill or elderly, but nevertheless loves their pet. He said the people in his office want to protect animals, but also don't want to pass something that discourages people from adopting pets or, worse, results in them turning Rover in at the pound.
As it stands now, commissioners have tentatively eliminated any reference to the amount of time than a dog can be tethered. If that passes, any dog tied up outside will need to be supervised — period.
Commissioners are expected to consider the proposal in January. McCullough said he anticipates the need for an extensive educational campaign if it passes before fines — still to be determined — kick in.
"I've talked to my officers," he said. "They like being able to educate people rather than smack them."
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or firstname.lastname@example.org.