TAMPA — There won't be any new puppy stores opening in Hillsborough County, commissioners decided Wednesday in an attempt to crack down on puppy mills.
However, three stores already operating here can remain open if they keep close tabs on their breeders and don't run afoul of state or federal law.
That's the compromise commissioners worked out after months of tough deliberations on a proposal to ban the commercial sale of cats and dogs in Hillsborough County.
Consensus only came after one of the longest commission debates in recent memory, prefaced by dozens of speakers who weighed in on whether the county should make an exception for existing businesses.
The room was sharply divided. Animal advocates, wearing red, called for a full ban on puppy sales, insisting that anything less will help abusive, industrial breeders, often called puppy mills, proliferate.
"Why are these stores getting a pass?" said Jennifer Leon. "How is it anybody can believe they'll clean up their act when it has been their MO for years?"
Backers of local puppy stores in powder blue "My puppy, my choice" T-shirts warned such a stance would lead to lost jobs and would shutter small businesses.
"We want to be a business that operates at the highest standard that is fair, and we believe that is completely possible," said Regina Galloway, owner of All About Puppies, which operates stores in Carrollwood and Brandon.
The debate was complicated last week when the owner of the other store, Puppies Tampa, and an employee were arrested by the Florida Department of Agriculture for failing to have health records for some of its puppies. The owner, Michael Lamprea, disputed that before commissioners Wednesday.
The Tampa Bay Times also reported last week that the state has no health records on file for any dogs supplied to Puppies Tampa from outside Florida in the past year. Under state regulations, dogs and cats that enter Florida from out-of-state breeders must have an Official Certificate of Veterinary Inspection on file with the state.
Meanwhile, All About Puppies had dozens of those certificates on file tracking hundreds of dogs transported to the store from breeders in Kansas and Missouri.
"If all of your puppy sales are legitimate, why would there be zero certificates on file?" asked Commissioner Ken Hagan, who initiated the puppy sale ban. County director of pet resources Scott Trebatoski was at a loss to explain it.
Hagan proposed excluding Puppies Tampa from the provision to grandfather existing facilities, but was rebuked 5-2. Commissioner Pat Kemp joined Hagan in the vote.
To stay in business, existing pet stores will have to personally visit their breeders once a year and they cannot get puppies from breeders with U.S. Department of Agriculture violations within the last two years. They also will lose their grandfather status if they are convicted of a crime by state or federal enforcement agencies or if they have four violations.
The stores will be subject to inspection and must provide for customers the USDA inspection reports for its breeders. Those reports used to be available online, but were recently removed by President Donald Trump's administration.
Dogs and cats can still be sold if they are purchased from a rescue or shelter.
Commissioner Victor Crist, who offered the new regulations as an alternative to an all out ban, said it would still prevent the sale of dogs from inhumane suppliers but without shutting down existing businesses.
Those puppy stores, Crist said, "deserve the opportunity to show they can be a partner in the cause to shut down puppy mills."
In other action, Hillsborough County commissioners voted to require that all employees undergo First Amendment training.
Complaints recently surfaced alleging that county staff told a Christian organization it couldn't hold Bible study at Hillsborough parks. There's no such prohibition.
Commissioner Stacy White said he didn't know if the accusation was accurate or just a misunderstanding. Nevertheless, he said staff should be reminded of the rules.
"I'm not trying to make a big spectacle," White said. "I'm not looking to see anyone reprimanded. I'm not looking to rake anyone over the coals. This is definitely a he-said, she-said situation."
Contact Steve Contorno at email@example.com or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.