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Hernando County animal ordinance gains approval

BROOKSVILLE — Despite pleas from animal advocates to delay approval to allow more time to fine tune the document, the Hernando County Commission on Tuesday approved a new animal ordinance.

The ordinance will formally recognize that Animal Services officers report to the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, but it was a number of other issues that concerned animal advocates.

The ordinance grew out of the controversial euthanasia of a dog named Zeus in April and the findings of several studies and an audit completed since that incident.

The reviews raised questions about access to private property, the definition of hybrid animals, tethering unattended animals, dangerous dog rules, euthanasia procedures and owners who wish to surrender animals.

But mostly, the advocates urged the commission to continue the discussion.

Susan Smith, a Hernando resident representing the National Animal Interest Alliance, urged commissioners to invite those interested in animal issues to help shape policy.

"You need the community's input whether you want it or not,'' Smith said.

Past leadership of Animal Services promised that affected parties would be notified and asked their opinion if the animal ordinance was ever to be changed, said Patricia Keohane, secretary of the Hernando Kennel Club. But that didn't happen before the ordinance was rewritten, Keohane said.

"We need input as to what's going on with our animal ordinance,'' she said.

Leah James of the Florida Association of Kennel Clubs asked for more time with assistant county attorney Jon Jouben to work out issues in the ordinance that still concern some people. And she echoed other speakers, asking the county to establish an advisory committee of animal advocates.

Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes said he met with James before the meeting and would meet with her and County Administrator Len Sossamon again to see about setting up such a committee.

Carole Amundsen, president of the Hernando Kennel Club, questioned provisions in the ordinance that prohibit animals from public places such as schools, beaches and parks.

Joanne Schoch of the Humane Society of the Nature Coast also asked for more time, suggesting that Hernando County Government Broadcasting put together a program to translate complex sections of the ordinance for the public.

Jouben, who was charged with meeting with the animal advocacy groups and writing the ordinance, tried to clear up some of the confusion. He pointed out that any reference to "hybrid'' animals was not referring to mixed-breed animals. He noted that any questions about euthanasia methods were removed from the document and the state statute number governing the issue was instead inserted.

Issues of animal breeding were not addressed because they fall under land use rules, Jouben explained. The ordinance being replaced also outlaws animals in public places, but that doesn't include service dogs and therapy dogs, he said.

Despite concerns from the public, Jouben assured the audience that officers cannot go onto people's property without a warrant or permission. He also noted that an antitethering provision strongly pushed by some in Tuesday's audience was taken out of the final version of the ordinance.

On the topic of owner surrenders, Jouben said he was charged by the commission to implement the audit done in the summer, and it was clear that Animal Services should no longer be allowed to take in animals surrendered by their owners.

Commissioner Dave Russell said he had a problem with that, and he pushed to have some wiggle room for the Animal Services staff, especially if there was some hardship.

County staffers were torn on the point. Public safety director Mike Nickerson reminded commissioners that for every owner-surrendered animal the shelter accepts, one more space is gone for another animal to occupy.

But veterinarian Raul Figarola, the temporary manager of the shelter, said he preferred flexibility and having an opportunity to talk to people about other options before they surrender animals.

Figarola also warned that flexibility will make the euthanasia rate go up at the shelter.

"You're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't,'' he said.

Other provisions in the ordinance will allow the shelter to adopt out or release any dog or cat impounded after three days and euthanize any dog or cat after five days.

Those hold periods are not required if the animals are sick or injured, or in the case of feral cats.

Dukes urged the commission not to delay approval of the ordinance, claiming it wouldn't accomplish anything.

The board voted 4-1 for the ordinance, with Commissioner John Druzbick dissenting.

In a related issue, Figarola was praised for his work by a number of the animal advocates. He has been criticized by some on the Friends of Hernando County Animal Services Facebook page for stopping some rescue organizations from picking up more animals at the shelter.

Those groups had not met a deadline to prove to Animal Services that they had vaccinated and sterilized all animals they had taken from the shelter in the last year.

Figarola said he was trying to evenly apply the rules and that he believed he might have to loosen the rules in the future.

Russell and Dukes said they agreed there should be some way to make the requirement more palatable, such as granting extra time to come into substantial compliance.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

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