TAMPA — Wide-eyed dogs locked in too-small cages, one stacked on top of the other, stuffed into semi-trucks heading to Hillsborough County pet stores. Open sores on paws and fur coats covered in feces.
One by one, animal advocates bombarded Hillsborough county commissioners Thursday morning with images, statistics and horror stories about the animals who give birth to the fluffy, playful puppies in shop windows.
It’s a scene that has played out in county commission meetings ever since the inception of Hillsborough’s 2017 Pet Retail Ordinance — an evolving series of sweeping reforms meant to prevent puppy mills from turning a profit in stores and one of more than 200 similar ordinances in the United States and Canada.
Thursday’s proposal to ban all commercial pet retail stores inspired more than two hours of pathos-laden comments from a sharply-divided public. Still, commissioners were unanimous in their desire to advance their new amendments to a public hearing at their next meeting on February 5.
The language of the existing ordinance is a “watered-down version” of what the county really needed to regulate “breeders who all too often turned a blind eye to abhorrent practices,” County Commissioner Ken Hagan said. In the two years the ordinance has been in effect, county staff has discovered that United States Department of Agriculture laws and restrictions make it nearly impossible to keep an eye on breeding conditions for puppies sold within the county.
“What has become apparent is that even if we could enforce an ordinance that only allowed the sale of dogs from puppy mills that had no USDA violations — and we cannot do that — but even USDA inspected breeders with no violations often have extremely poor facilities,” Hagan said. "We’ve all seen the pictures. It’s clear to me that only a complete ban on the sale of commercially-bred dogs can end the cruelty.”
If passed, the commission’s updated ordinance would wipe out all traditional pet stores in Hillsborough County by forbidding the sale of any animals obtained from a breeder. Instead, the county’s three remaining pet shops – two owned by All About Puppies and Puppies Tampa – would be given 179 days to transition to an “adoption-based model” of housing animals obtained from animal shelters or rescue organizations.
Once approved, the revised ordinance would prohibit the purchase of any animal from a breeder after the effective date, as well as the sale of any animal in public places such as flea markets or yard sales.
All existing pet retail shops would be required to sterilize every animal in their existing inventory and obtain a certificate from a local “humane entity” like the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals vouching for the breeding source conditions where those animals came from. Falsifying records would result in immediate termination of all deadline extensions and other “grandfather privileges” in addition to a civil citation — one for every day of non-compliance and every animal in possession. And all animals left unsold would be purchased by the county after an allotted time period.
That’s the same rule all pet stores have operated under since the ordinance was adopted in 2017. But the county allowed an exemption for existing animal retailers or breeders who were in good standing with the county’s Pet Resources department.
Attitudes changed, though, when county officials discovered that federal laws made it nearly impossible to regulate the breeders working with those operations. The tipping point came last September when the county became responsible for more than 300 puppies confiscated from a local breeder and retailer who kept them in horrible conditions.
Now, commissioners have committed to strengthening regulations, with no exceptions.
But store owners and employees told a very different story Thursday morning, and came with their own droves of supporters with equal fervor imploring commissioners to keep their doors open. Supporters wore powder blue shirts advertising the “My Puppy, My Choice campaign,” a state-wide effort opposing a series of House and Senate bills seeking to enforce similar restrictions on all pet retailers and breeders.
Employees from Puppies Tampa’s North Dale Mabry Highway store and All About Puppies’ Brandon and Lake Magdalene locations argued that the move would sacrifice their jobs alongside their customers’ right to buy the dog they want, not just the dogs that happen to be in shelters.
“The accusations that my clients have done anything unlawful is simply not accurate,” said Luke Lirot, a Clearwater-based attorney representing Puppies Tampa and All About Puppies. “They’re dog owners, they’re dog lovers and they go out of their way to make sure that everything that they do embraces the humane treatment of all of the animals that they work with.”
Pet Resources staff said they hope to provide the commission with another wave of amendments regulating breeding facilities by the end of the month. Those hearings have yet to be scheduled.