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Hush those barking dogs in Hillsborough or pay a fine of up to $500

TAMPA — Cats and dogs took center stage Wednesday as Hillsborough County commissioners considered a controversial ban on the commercial sale of pets and a noise ordinance targeted at owners whose animals continuously disturb neighbors.

Commissioners unanimously approved the noise ordinance, which allows neighbors to report animals that bark, meow or make other loud noise continuously for more than 20 minutes. Pet owners who run afoul of the law could be fined up to $500.

But after a 90-minute public hearing, commissioners decided they need more time to review a new law that would require pet stores to sell only dogs or cats from local animal rescues. The move is intended to curb so-called "puppy mills" and "kitten factories" where hundreds of dogs and cats are bred and kept, sometimes inhumanely.

The county's existing pet stores would be exempt from the new law, but owners complained it would impact their ability to expand or sell their businesses.

Board members will take up the issue again on May 17 when they also consider requiring existing pet stores to carry U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection reports on breeders and educate customers on pet adoption from shelters.

The heated hearing pitted animal activists against pet store employees and supporters, many of whom wore sky blue T-shirts saying, "My puppy, my choice."

Regina Galloway, who along with her brother owns All About Puppies stores in Pinellas and Hillsborough, said her store never knowingly supports puppy mills. She fears the ban will stop her business from growing.

"This reads like a vendetta against everything we have spent the last two decades of our life working to perfect," she said.

Animal activists oppose exemptions for existing stores and say that even USDA-approved breeders keep animals in small cages and, sometimes, in cold temperatures.

"These are living beings, not a broken toy," Betsy Coville of Lutz said. "We can't stop these reprehensible methods until we stop buying the puppies."

More than 200 communities nationwide and almost 50 in Florida have enacted similar bans, according to the county attorney's office.

That includes Sarasota County, which in January 2016 passed a law banning the sale of animals that have not been bred or raised where they are being sold.

It led to the county being sued by the owners of Petland in October, who claimed that the restrictions are unconstitutional. The case is still pending.

Commissioner Ken Hagan, who proposed the ban, said the controversy is normal for any laws surrounding animals.

"This ordinance does not put existing stores out of business," he said. "It does not go as far as some may like, but if we can stop the expansion of puppy mill puppies being sold in Hillsborough County, we're making progress."

The new noise ordinance will be enforced by county code enforcement staffers or by Sheriff's Office deputies.

It does not apply to dogs kept on farms or by kennels.

It requires two neighbors to file an affidavit against a pet owner or one resident to submit a recording of continuous noise for an owner to be investigated.

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

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