Pinellas County commissioners voted unanimously on Tuesday to place a year-long moratorium on the expansion of retail sales of cats and dogs.
The moratorium prevents any additional pet stores intending to sell the animals from opening in the county, but pet stores already selling them in Pinellas will be able to continue business as usual.
Over the next year, animal services staff will research the effect of retail sales on local shelters and animal well-being to deliver a report while commissioners consider whether or not to join neighboring counties in outlawing the retail sale of cats and dogs.
Hillsborough, Pasco, Manatee and Sarasota Counties each have bans already in place to curtail puppy and kitten mills.
“There’s a lot of different issues from people on both sides,” county administrator Barry Burton told commissioners on Tuesday. “This (vote) would put a moratorium in place while we bring back to you the body of research for you to consider whether or not you want to ban the sale or limit it in some way.”
Burton said the county has begun reaching out to other local governments that have considered or acted on bans, as well as the national humane society.
Animal welfare activists had asked the county to pass the moratorium. Speakers described the gruesome conditions of puppy mills, where they said they had seen dogs stuffed in cages so packed they couldn’t move.
“I think we need to phase out the retail sales because it supports puppy mills, and contributes to our pet overpopulation,” said Clearwater resident Melissa Zepeda.
St. Petersburg veterinarian Hillary Hart echoed that and recounted a story of working with a client who she said purchased a puppy from a Pinellas County pet store, but hadn’t been given the appropriate information on vaccination history.
“She was not given a health certificate and by law that is required,” Hart said. “It’s very concerning to me.”
But Dan Cohn, the owner of Sunshine Puppies, which has locations and Largo and Clearwater, called the moratorium a slippery slope.
“I just want to really plea to the commission,” Cohn said. “What you’re doing is regulating a legal activity, to then decide whether or not to allow it to happen.”
Cohn invited commissioners and activists in attendance to his shops. He said he has a vet on staff and that her medical practice rivals other vet offices. He said he’s not against regulation, but asked that commissioners be careful in how they go about it.
“We are regulated,” Cohn said of his shop. “We are regulated by the scrutiny of the public.”
Although animal shelters in neighboring counties are currently overcrowded, animal services director Doug Brightwell said that Pinellas County shelters are currently operating at sustainable capacities.
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Still, Brightwell said the question of whether or not to ban the retail sale of cats and dogs is one that’s been in the air for a while. The moratorium will provide time for county officials to determine the best path forward, he said.