Unchain the dogs: The Tampa Bay tethering debate

One woman's mission to bring an anti-tethering ordinance to Hillsborough.

click to enlarge TETHERED: The sight of a dog chained outside like this one prompted Barbara Lapresti to take action. - Humane Society
Humane Society
TETHERED: The sight of a dog chained outside like this one prompted Barbara Lapresti to take action.

Every day, Barbara LaPresti saw the same heart-wrenching sight: her neighbor's pit bull in Riverview, tethered outdoors to a short chain come hellish heat or driving thunderstorms.

She finally couldn't take anymore, and last summer contacted Hillsborough Animal Services on four different occasions. But, according to an e-mail from Hillsborough County Animal Services Department Director Bill Armstrong, "The dog was never seen in distress." He added that his department did not have "cause to remove the dog at this time but [will] continue to work the case as resources allow."

Frustrated, LaPresti began a crusade for Hillsborough County to pass an anti-tethering ordinance, collecting signatures on a petition that she hopes to present to the Board of County Commissioners soon. Such measures have been passed in municipalities all over the U.S. and Florida, including Pinellas and Miami/Dade counties, but Hillsborough has never had one.

"Dogs that are tied up in chains live the most unhealthy life," says LaPresti. "I can't tell you how many stories I've heard about people who've seen their neighbors' dog die from strangulation, from being either wrapping themselves around a tree, or after they tried to get out and went over a fence."

There is ample evidence that tethering dogs is a public safety issue — both for animals and humans. For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention document that a chained dog is 2.8 times more likely to bite than an unchained dog.

But Hillsborough's Bill Armstrong says that there simply aren't the funds in the current budget to implement such an ordinance. Like every other department in the county, his is seeing its budget cut, and he "couldn't imagine" someone in his position enacting a measure that couldn't be fully enforced.

Former Seminole City Council member Dan Hester advocated for the anti-tethering ordinance that was unanimously passed by Pinellas County Commissioners in May; he also spurred the passage of an even tougher law in Seminole in December. (Unlike most measures passed in the state, Pinellas still allows for the temporary tethering of dogs.) He says he fully understands the burden that government agencies are facing today, but "it's a very lame excuse. The reality is it's the commissioners' job to pass ordinances to protect its residents."

The motivation for Hester's crusade was similar to LaPresti's: he regularly drove by a house outside of Seminole where he saw six German shepherds chained to a tree 24 hours a day. As a result of his efforts, Seminole became the first municipality in Pinellas to pass an anti-tethering ordinance; since then Gulfport, the town of Indian Shores and further south Collier County have passed measures with identical language to Seminole's.

Nationally, 13 states have some form of restrictions on dog chaining, but only three — California, Texas, and Nevada — limit the number of hours a dog may be tied in a day.

Miami/Dade passed its measure in 2008. Like Seminole, it gives a warning to a dog owner the first time he or she is cited. A second citation results in a $100 fine, and any subsequent visits from Animal Services results in $500 fines.

In Hillsborough, Armstrong says such an ordinance would have to first be recommended by the county's Animal Advisory Committee, which was to meet on August 25th to discuss the issue. But he insists that he has ample provisions to deal with tethering, which is allowed in the county as long as it's done "humanely," and he emphasizes that his department is more vigilant than ever, having arrested 61 people this year for animal neglect or cruelty and 116 last year.

But if Hillsborough officials sound reluctant to act, they've got nothing on the Pennsylvania state legislature, which has discussed the issue off and on for the past six years. That led one activist, Tamara Ci Thayne, to stand earlier this month outside the state capitol building in Harrisburg, chained to a doghouse, where she vowed to protest the plight of dogs tethered in backyards throughout Pennsylvania.

The resources for enforcement is real; even some large counties that have passed the ordinance say it's been difficult to implement.

Dr. Sara Pizano is director of the animal services department for Miami/Dade County. She says that she doesn't have the enforcement staff for the 42,000 service requests her department receives annually, but chose to support such a law "since it was the right thing to do." She says it's a matter of priorities, and "I don't believe tethering is a humane way to keep a dog, so that's become a priority."

It's also become a major priority for Barbara LaPresti, who says she has no intention of giving up. "There is a chain of command in the county," she says. "You have the BOCC, the county administrator, the animal services director, and then the animal advisory board. But then you have the people."

Whether her people power can improve conditions for dogs in Hillsborough County is something that animal rights advocates will watch closely in the weeks and months ahead.

Barbara LaPresti's petition can be accessed at http://www.petitionspot.com/petitions/antitethering

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