TAMPA — Leaving dogs tied up or chained outside is illegal in Hillsborough County after commissioners Thursday adopted a ban pushed by animal welfare activists.
Dogs may be tethered only if their owners or caretakers are also outside and keep them in sight.
Commissioners have gone back and forth over the ordinance for nearly two years or, as Commissioner Al Higginbotham noted, 14 dog years.
"How many more animals are we going to allow to suffer because we won't make a decision?" he said.
County attorneys had drafted a proposal that said dogs could be tethered as long as they were supervised, but did not spell out what that meant. Animal welfare activists said that left a huge loophole. Ultimately, commissioners agreed, saying that "supervised" should mean that owners needed to be outside with their pets, too.
"I'm very pleased the commission decided to go with the stronger language," said Barbara La Presti, a Riverview resident who led the effort, after the 7-0 vote.
Until Thursday, county rules allowed dogs to be tied up outside if they had access to food, water and shelter such as a dog house.
Violation of the new ban would result in a fine. Officials are working on a companion ordinance proposed by Commissioner Victor Crist that would revoke the dog licenses of three-time offenders.
Officials say they plan to have a six-month education period before enforcing the ban in August.
Tethered dogs generally get little socialization, and animal experts say the practice is cruel and inhumane. Dogs that spend significant time tethered pose higher risks for biting, experts say.
In an hour-long public discussion, activists showed commissioners videos, set to wistful music, that contained images of chained dogs — emaciated, scarred and bloody.
Some opponents of the ordinance told commissioners not to be swayed by the emotional footage.
Lisa Welch, a farmer, said the images were of dogs that had been neglected and abused by bad owners — not just as a result of being tethered, which can be done responsibly. For instance, she said, farmers may need to tie up working dogs for their safety while operating heavy equipment.
"What you saw up there were irresponsible pet owners causing major abuse and neglect on their animals and tethering was only one portion of it," said Welch. She said that issue fell under existing animal cruelty laws.
But officials said they did not believe the ordinance would be used against responsible pet owners. Crist said he was moved by the videos.
"I look at those pictures and can't help but think of my dog (Cocoa) and how much I love her," he said. "I feel the pain."
Commissioner Les Miller pushed for a zero-tolerance ban — no tethering, no exceptions. But Commissioner Kevin Beckner said that would punish good owners: What if someone ties up their dog while outside having a barbecue with family?
"I'm a passionate dog owner as well. I love my baby Parmesan as much as you love Cocoa, Commissioner Crist," he said. But "it's not about trying to catch somebody in their yard enjoying time with their animals or their family."
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