Three emotional videos showing dead and mangled dogs tethered to chains and ropes kicked off the Jan. 19 hearing on a proposal to ban tethering in Hillsborough County.
The gruesome photos of starved dogs with bloody sores around their necks made an impression on county commissioners.
As the audience at the County Center applauded, commissioners voted unanimously to pass an anti-tethering ordinance in Hillsborough County, making it illegal to tie your dog without direct supervision.
The vote followed a lengthy debate on the details of the ordinance.
Commissioner Les Miller wanted an outright ban on all tethering while Commissioner Kevin Beckner felt tethering should be permitted if the dog is supervised.
That led to a discussion of what happens if the dog owner momentarily leaves the dog to go answer the phone or use the bathroom.
Animal Services interim director, Dick Bailey, explained the goal of the ordinance isn't to penalize humane dog owners who walk away from their tethered dog for a few moments but to give Animal Services officers a basis to investigate cases where dogs are left tethered for days on end with inadequate food, water and shelter.
The new ordinance comes after nearly two years of debate.
Some residents who spoke at the hearing didn't think an anti-tethering ordinance was necessary, arguing the ordinance duplicates animal abuse and neglect rules already in place.
"These videos show irresponsible pet ownership," said resident Lisa Welch. "Tethering is only a portion of it. Why are we having so much duplicity of law? We already have humane tethering ordinances. How are we going to pay for this tethering ordinance and all the calls that will come in because of it?"
Karen Lewandowski of Sun City Center, who is disabled and uses a service dog, noted that fences aren't allowed in her community and she has no choice but to tether her dog outside at times.
Timothy Golden of Lithia, a member of Hillsborough County Dog Fanciers and the Hillsborough County Animal Advisory Committee, defended his committee's proposal permitting tethering with restrictions.
"Tethering is seen as a way to humanely control an animal, to keep it from running lose," said Golden, adding that the videos depicted extreme cases of abuse. "I would much rather pass a tethered dog barking at me than one that is lose."
"If I'm not mistreating my dog, what is the public's interest how I confine it?" asked Charles Palmer of Lutz. "I tether my daughter's dog eight hours a day because she is a digger. She gets walked three or four times a day, has fresh water, sunshine and shade, and my wife and I are always on site. What exactly am I doing wrong that would allow the county to intervene?"
"I believe tethering is a dog-training tool like a leash or a collar," said Vivian Baca of Brandon. "Animal Services has consistently said they can already prosecute abuse cases under the current ordinance. If we broaden the ordinance, we need to broaden the funding to enforce it."
But the majority of residents sided with Susan McClung from Tampa.
"Dogs tethered for long periods can become highly aggressive. A chained dog often feels forced to fight any animal or human who unwittingly comes into his territory," said McClung. "Tethered dogs are 2.8 times more likely to bite and chained dogs account for substantial portion of serious and fatal bites.
"People are very passionate about animal issues and sentiments are growing for laws nationally," said Joan Zacharias of New Tampa. "We want a strong, clear enforceable ordinance. Unattended tethering is unacceptable, not just for puppies but for all dogs. Even a moment of unattended tethering can lead to tragedy. No unattended tethering, no exemptions."
"These dogs are being chained for days and Animal Service officers tell us they can't do anything," said Gail Murphy. "With this ordinance, they can enforce it. This law will only be enforced against the most brutal, inhumane treatment."
Riverview resident Barbara LaPresti, who spearheaded the campaign for an anti-tethering ordinance after watching a neighbor's dog tethered for days on end, argued that the proposed ordinance wouldn't ban tethering. It would simply outlaw unsupervised tethering.
"We need an ordinance that will allow enforcement officers to investigate," she said.
Marilyn Weaver, president of Humane League of Voters, Florida chapter, argued that there are humane alternatives to tethering.
"For well-meaning people who want to secure dogs outside, responsiblity may call for building a fence," she said. "Yes, there's a financial component to keeping a dog. There are alternatives to tying up a dog. Walk the dog daily, hire a dog walker."
"How we treat our animals is extremely important," said Mark Taylor of Tampa. "All tethered dogs pose a danger to themselves and people. It tends to make animals more aggressive. The ordinance makes sense."
The anti-tethering proponents found allies in the county commissioners, the majority of which are dog owners.
"The Videos were very explicit," said Commissioner Victor Crist. "I can't help but think of my dog, Cocoa, and how much I love her, and I think we're missing the bigger pictures."
Crist advocated not only passing an anti-tethering ordinance but asked the Hillsborough County Legislative Delegation to file a bill criminalizing domestic animal abuse in the state.
"If you demonstrate you can not adequately provide for that animal, you lose that privilege in a civil community," said Crist. "If we really want to fix the problem, we need 'three strikes, you lose' legislation that lets a judge impose a meaningful penalty."
"Commissioner Crist, you kind of hit it on the head. The true target is stopping animal cruelty," he said. "You could be humanely treating a dog and have it tethered and supervised. How is that abusive? I'm a passionate dog owner as well. I love my baby Parmesan as much as you love Cocoa. But these are cases of animal abuse and neglect. I believe there are responsible pet owners who humanely treat animals than don't. We need to make sure we're not criminalizing responsible pet owners."
Bailey said the ordinance mandating that a tethered dog be supervised would give Animal Services officers a probable cause to investigate a complaint from a citizen.
"We would you have the right to go onto property if this law passed," he said.
In the end, the commission passed an ordinance that allows only adult dogs to be tethered with direct supervision and bans any tethering of puppies, a more restrictive ordinance than the one proposed by the advisory committee.
"We need to create a strong ordinance to curb cruelty and abuse in our county," said Commission Chairman Ken Hagan.