Hillsborough commissioners to puppy mills: We’re coming after you

Commissioner Ken Hagan is asking staff to strengthen county regulations on commercial pet breeders after 352 dogs were seized from a Tampa facility.
Four, six-week old puppies rescued from Trish's All Breeds Pet Grooming on Sept. 23 wait to be checked by veterinary staff at the Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center. County staff removed 352 dogs from the facility. The property owners could now face charges of animal cruelty.
Four, six-week old puppies rescued from Trish's All Breeds Pet Grooming on Sept. 23 wait to be checked by veterinary staff at the Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center. County staff removed 352 dogs from the facility. The property owners could now face charges of animal cruelty. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Oct. 2, 2019|Updated Oct. 3, 2019

TAMPA — The pictures were enough to bring tears to Ken Hagan’s eyes, the Hillsborough County commissioner said.

Hundreds of filthy dogs living inside cramped cages packed 20 to 30 deep. When county employees rescued them last week from a Tampa breeding facility, some of the dogs had multiple broken bones.

Hillsborough’s Pet Resources department has spent two decades fighting the deplorable conditions found inside Trish’s All Breeds Grooming, which Hagan called a “greed-driven puppy mill” at a meeting this week.

Such cruelty is why Hagan pushed his fellow commissioners to adopt a controversial Pet Retail Ordinance in 2017 that required all new pet shops to sell only adopted animals within the county. It also placed restrictions on dogs bought from commercial breeders.

But loopholes in the relatively new field of animal law have allowed illegal breeders like Trish’s to continue operating without oversight. On Wednesday, commissioners unanimously agreed to try again, directing staff to re-examine the county’s existing ordinance and look for ways to expand its restrictions.

“As a dog owner and a pet lover, this is unconscionable,” Hagan said. “How folks can still operate like that in our county is just unfathomable, and we’re going to do everything we can to eradicate this problem and ensure that it doesn’t happen again.”

Related: RELATED STORY: Tampa business where 350 dogs were seized has troubled past. Why was it still operating?

Since 1998, county workers have seized at least 800 dogs from Trish’s and from Toyland Pet Resort, another business that has operated on the site at 2501 E Diana St. In 2011, the county permanently barred property owner Alice Holt from owning any dogs in Hillsborough.

But Pet Resources director Scott Trebatoski said it still took three years for staff to compile enough evidence to pursue a criminal case against the facility even though it didn’t meet the standards outlined in the county ordinance. As with any crime, staff had to show sufficient cause to obtain a search warrant, seize the animals — 352 dogs in all — and compile a credible case that doesn’t infringe on Constitutional rights.

Related: RELATED STORY: Hillsborough seizes 350 dogs, pushes adoptions to make room

“It’s one of those things that’s kind of frustrating, but we have to understand that nobody would want us to come in and seize their dogs because their neighbor said they weren’t treating them right," Trebatoski said. "We do still have to follow due process to make sure that everybody’s rights are protected.”

But there’s room for improvement, he said, and the protections afforded by state and federal law could also do “considerably more.”

When the county requested that the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspect Trish’s grounds, for example, it was denied. Employees at the federal agency said there was a “loophole” in its rules that prevented inspections of facilities that breed and sell animals on the same property, Trebatoski said.

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Related: RELATED STORY: Ban on puppy sales approved in Hillsborough but not for existing stores

Until the county’s ordinance is strengthened, he said it’s critical that people looking to buy a pet from a breeder check to see whether the facility meets county standards. And if you’re purchasing a pet that is bred and sold on the same property, ask to see the conditions of the parents.

“Often the puppies look great,” Trebatoski said. “It’s the adult dogs that aren’t being cared for because they’re simply a means to get more puppies.”

Pet Resources received enough funding in next year’s county budget to add 24 staff positions. That will help the department investigate and target bootleg breeders, Hagan said. Recommendations for any changes to the pet retail ordinance will be presented to the board during its November 6 meeting.

“I can tell you right now if you’re operating illegally in Hillsborough County, you better look over your shoulder because we’re coming after you,” Hagan said.

In other action:

  • Commissioners directed staff to schedule an Oct. 16 public hearing to consider raising the legal age requirement for purchasing any vaping devices and products from 18 years old to 21 years old. The proposed ordinance, pushed by Commissioner Sandy Murman, also includes regulations for vape retailers. If passed, Hillsborough County would become the first local government in Florida to enact age-based vape restrictions.
  • Unanimously passed a nearly 9-month moratorium on all new applications for residential, planned developments seeking a rezoning or zoning modification in a rural area of the county. The temporary freeze, proposed by Commissioner Stacy White, goes into effect Thursday and is meant to give county planning staff time to work on possible changes to the existing land development code. Any applications currently being processed by the county won’t be affected by the moratorium.