By MIKE SALINERO | The Tampa Tribune
Published: January 19, 2012
Updated: January 20, 2012 – 6:36 AM

Photo credit: 1998, JAY NOLAN/Tampa Tribune Staff

Leaving a dog tied up outside and alone for more than a few minutes is now illegal in Hillsborough County.

County commissioners approved by unanimous vote Thursday one of the toughest anti-tethering laws in the state. The vote was greeted with an explosion of applause from an audience full of animal welfare activists, many of whom had been pushing for such a law for nearly 19 months.

“I feel great,” said Susan McClung of Tampa. “It will prevent many instances of animal cruelty and neglect, while still allowing humane tethering.”

The law prohibits tethering unless dog owners or keepers are outside watching and supervising their pet. That language is tougher than wording approved by the county’s Animal Advisory Committee, which said tethered dogs must be “supervised” by the owner or keeper.

Critics pushed for tougher restrictions, arguing that the term “supervised” is vague and would allow dogs to be tied up day and night as long as their owners are in the house and can see the animals.

“You are doing yourselves and you are doing your community and your constituents, who have been very vocal on this, an injustice, allowing a loophole in the definition of supervision,” said Dan Hester, who helped write the anti-tethering ordinance in the Pinellas County city of Seminole.

Most of the 30 or so people who spoke before the vote favored stronger language. But there were others, including a few dog breeders, who argued that existing laws prohibiting abuse and neglect are sufficient to prevent excessive tethering.

Charles Palmer of Lutz told commissioners he watches his daughter’s dog while she works. Palmer said he tethers the dog because it’s a “digger.” But in every other way, the dog is pampered with two or three daily walks, premium dog food and plenty of toys, he said.

“If I’m not mistreating my dog, what is the county’s compelling interest to regulate how I confine my dog on my property?” Palmer asked.

But commissioners were clearly swayed by the breadth of support for a stronger law. Most animal welfare groups say excessive tethering is inhumane and damaging to a dog’s mental and physical well-being.

Commissioner Les Miller argued for a total ban on tethering with no exceptions.

“I just don’t see how we can pass an ordinance that has a loophole in it,” Miller said.

Commissioners wouldn’t go that far, and animal advocates had not asked for a total ban. Instead, a majority favored language proposed by Chairman Ken Hagan requiring an owner to be outside and in sight of his or her dog when the animal is tethered.

Dick Bailey, interim director of Animal Services, wanted to add an exception for “momentary interruptions” when an owner has to step inside. But commissioners decided they could trust the discretion of animal control officers not to cite otherwise responsible pet owners who leave their pets alone for short periods.

Animal activists said there is little danger the law will be applied too broadly.

“Animal Services does not have the time or the will to interfere with people who take good care of their dogs,” said Gael R. Murphy. “This will only be used against terrible abuse and neglect.”

The law does ban tying up puppies, but commissioners rejected language proposed by Commissioner Sandy Murman, and supported by many in the audience, to restrict the weight of chains used for tethering. Bailey assured commissioners his officers know when a chain is too heavy for a dog and constitutes abuse.

Commissioners also approved a motion by Victor Crist to have staff draw up an ordinance increasing fines for animal abuse and neglect.
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