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Lawsuit seeks to overturn Hillsborough pet sales ban

A puppy retailer says the county ordinance is unconstitutional.

TAMPA — An animal retailer is seeking to overturn Hillsborough County’s crackdown on puppy mills, saying a county ordinance is unconstitutional because it shutters legitimate pet stores.

A lawsuit from Puppy Town Tampa LLC, which operates as Puppies Tampa at 6501 N. Dale Mabry Highway, seeks to invalidate recent amendments to the county’s pet retail sales ordinance. Attorney Luke Lirot, representing the retailer, filed the suit last week in Hillsborough Circuit Court.

Puppies Tampa and two other traditional pet retail sites were snared by tougher county rules unanimously approved by Hillsborough commissioners in March. That action came six months after a horrific hoarding case, in which the county seized more than 300 small-breed dogs from an illegal puppy mill operating under the guise of a pet-grooming business in Valrico.

“I do believe that only a complete ban on the sale of all commercially-bred dogs can end puppy mill cruelty,” Commissioner Ken Hagan, who championed the crackdown, said at the time.

Related: Dog and cat retailers banned in Hillsborough

The county banned sales of dogs and cats at flea markets, yard sales and other transient locations in 2017, but allowed existing retail outlets like Puppies Tampa to remain in business if they applied for and received so-called grandfather status from the county.

The amended ordinance wiped out the grandfather clause and prohibited retail sales of dogs and cats produced by outsider breeders. It gave the retailers one year to switch to a business model in which customers adopt from an inventory of rescued animals.

Puppies Tampa at 6031 N. Dale Mabry Highway is suing to overturn a Hillsborough County ordinance banning the retail sale of dogs and cats. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times (2018) ]

The change is “tantamount to forcibly shutting the doors of local businesses that have been operating continuously and in good faith and in accordance with all regulations,” the lawsuit states, and it came after Puppies Tampa had signed a long-term lease and invested in its business operations because it received the grandfather status from the county.

The suit blames the county for overreacting to the highly publicized Valrico puppy mill case, saying the county “folded under pressure.”

“Because of the press surrounding this hoarding incident and the increasingly vocal pressure from ‘animal rights’ activities, it became politically popular to crack down on retail animal businesses,” the suit states.

To remain in business for the the year-long grace period, the March ordinance also required the retailers to obtain a certificate from a local “humane entity” like the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals vouching for the living conditions of animals owned by the breeders providing the stores’ inventories.

The requirement is “impossible to achieve,” the lawsuit states, and effectively amounts to shutting down the retailers before the year-long deadline expires.

“It is the ‘local humane society entities’ who have been the most vocal opponents of plaintiff’s business and others like it, lobbying against them, buying billboards directly over their stores decrying their practices and protesting them.

“Imagine requiring a family planning clinic to obtain approval from the local Catholic Church — that is the level of ideological disconnect at play here,”the suit states.

Efforts to reach Lirot for comment by phone and email were unsuccessful. The Hillsborough County Attorney’s Office declined comment, saying it had not yet seen the lawsuit.

Related: Pasco to end retail pet store sales

Ordinances barring the retail sales of dogs and cats produced by breeders is not exclusive to Hillsborough County. More than 50 cities and eight counties in Florida have passed similar ordinances, and last week Pasco County officials indicated they planned to do likewise, fearing the pet retailers would relocate north to Pasco to escape Hillsborough’s ban.