DADE CITY — Animal Services director John Malley saw a disturbing photo Monday. One of his employees responded to a complaint about a pit bull mix who was tied to a tree and left alone. When the animal control officer arrived, the dog was dead. It had run around the tree several times and strangled itself.
It's that kind of grim scene that caused Malley to propose a package of animal welfare rules that received initial approval by county commissioners this week. Another key part of the package would require kennels and pet dealers to get a permit that proves they offer safe and sanitary living conditions for animals.
"Our goal is to stop puppy mills and unscrupulous breeding," Malley said.
The ordinance also prohibits selling animals on the side of the road or at flea markets, and allows county officials to more easily declare a dog as dangerous.
Commissioners largely praised the proposed rules at a meeting Tuesday. "Some of the egregious issues that you deal with are being attacked in this ordinance," said Commissioner Pat Mulieri.
Added Commissioner Ted Schrader: "Thank you for looking out for the innocent victims. There are many cases where animals get mistreated."
Besides the grisly scene he described at Tuesday's meeting, Malley said tethering abuses can also lead to behavioral problems.
"You have people that leave the dog out there," he said. "The dog becomes de-socialized. When you reintroduce that dog with people, the chances for aggression, bites and damage goes way up."
The restrictions, modeled after ordinances in Seminole and other Florida communities, require owners to stay outside with their pet if it's tied outside. Owners must also provide water and shelter. Dogs must be tied to a pulley-like system that gives them at least 15 feet to run.
The ordinance, which faces a final public hearing on Dec. 6 in New Port Richey, got an initial blessing on a 4-1 vote. Commissioner Jack Mariano feared the restrictions on tethering would give disgruntled neighbors with an unrelated dispute another venue to complain about a responsible pet owner.
"I just hate to put a can of worms out there when we're trying to deal with the problem (owners)," he said.
County Administrator John Gallagher said the department doesn't have the staff to referee neighbor disputes and instead focuses on obviously neglected dogs with visible ribs or no food and water.
"Animal Services is never going to have enough people to go up and bother somebody with a dog that's in good care, has water and looks healthy," he said.
The new permit for kennels and breeders is intended to curtail puppy mills, which Malley described as a national problem. All kennels and breeders would need to get an inspection and pay a "nominal" annual fee to get the permit. Animal control officers could inspect a kennel if they receive complaints and could revoke a permit if there are safety concerns.
"I don't expect too much push back from legitimate breeders," he said. "In fact, they welcome our inspections. They see it as us validating them."
The ordinance also requires breeders to sell animals from an approved facility — not on the side of the road or a parking lot. Officers often get complaints of an animal with health problems and they are unable to find the breeder afterward. Malley cited a recent situation in which the department found a breeder who had been selling puppies and kittens for years at the USA FleaMarket in Hudson.
The person had more than 70 animals, none of which had health certificates. Facing violations, the breeder turned over more than half of the animals to the county.
"Fortunately they're cute and they're young," Malley said, adding most have found adoptive homes. "This was a good scenario. We run into bad scenarios quite often."
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.