Lawmakers consider pet-related legislation

Heather Northrop, of the Village of St. Charles, watches as Hammer, her service dog, pulls open the freezer section door at Winn-Dixie in Pinellas Plaza Shopping Center.

Most pet owners wish they could take their furry friends everywhere, but that doesn’t mean they should. In restaurants and stores, especially, this poses a risk to customers and pets alike, lawmakers say, which is why House Bill 243 has been filed to keep all nonservice animals outside of those public spaces. The bill is one of several that may affect pets next year. From cracking down on animal cruelty to making sure every county has a pet-friendly emergency shelter, these bills will be considered during Florida’s 2020 legislation session, which starts Jan. 14. Filed in September by Rep. Bruce Antone (D), HB 243 would prohibit nonservice animals from entering specified public food service establishments or places of business. It will require the Department of Business and Professional Regulation to adopt rules, provide penalties and create and maintain a public access website for complaints.

The bill will not affect local ordinances that allow pets outside on restaurant patios, nor will it prohibit service animals from entering such places.

A service animal is defined as an animal trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability and is limited to a dog or a miniature horse, according to Florida statutes.

Antone said the bill was filed to protect the health and safety of the general public.

“It’s gotten to the point that if we don’t try to stop it, it’s only going to get worse,” Antone said.

He’s heard complaints of dogs on restaurant tables, in shopping carts and more. Most opposition to the bill has come from people who see their pets as companions and can’t seem to leave them home, he said.

“This (bill) is going back to the Food and Drug Administration rule,” Antone said. “There are not supposed to be any live animals in grocery stores or restaurants. I’m in Home Depot and a dog is barking at people and making sounds of aggression. Folks cannot always control their dogs.”

Heather Northrup is in favor of the bill, because it will tackle the issue of fake service dogs. The Village of St. Charles resident has a 4-year-old yellow Labrador service dog, Hammer, who assists her in mobility. The increase of dogs being passed off as service or emotional support dogs has hurt her and Hammer’s credibility.

“We get questioned a lot more,” Northrup said. “Stores are hesitant to let us in and things like that. But also we have to constantly be on guard because we encounter a lot of these animals who are not trained to be in that environment. They lunge at us, bark at us, get in our way, all different things. And so it means that I can’t shop. I can’t do my thing and it puts Hammer at risk.”

Northrup said she and others like her are not against pets, rather she believes there is a time and place for pets.

“I don’t have my dog with me because he makes me happy; I have him with me because he’s trained to mitigate my disability, he’s here to help me,” Northrup said. “He’s like a cane or crutch, or any other tool to mitigate my disability. If we’re put in a situation where he can’t do his job and I can’t use him comfortably, then it isolates me more and impedes my ability to be in society.”

Carmen Tedrick, spokeswoman for the Dynamic Dog Club, sees a big need for such legislation to pass. She often sees people bringing their dogs in large grocery stores and passing them off as emotional supportanimals. Some smaller pets even sit in shopping baskets meant for food, and the managers she’s talked to don’t want to get involved.

“Therapy dogs are meant to be touched and petted and bring comfort to people. A service dog is as important as crutches or a wheelchair,” Tedrick, of the Village of Osceola Hills, said. “When you distract that service dog, you are taking away something that person needs. It would be as if you took away their wheelchair, their cane, their walker. The dogs are trained for that and they should not be distracted.”

The bill does not yet have a companion bill. Antone said he has received nothing but support from lawmakers on this bill, but said language may have to be changed to accommodate a possible companion senate bill. He has until Jan. 13 to obtain a senate sponsor.

SB 752/HB 705: Emergency Sheltering of Persons with Pets

If enacted, Senate Bill 752 and its companion HB 705 require each county to designate at least one pet-friendly emergency shelter.

The bill requires pets to be contained in secure enclosures in an area of the facility that is separate from the sheltering public. And the shelter must be in compliance with the safety procedures regarding the sheltering of pets.

Rep. Sam Killebrew (R), who filed the house bill with Rep. Jackie Toledo (R) in November, said the bill was drafted in response to pet-friendly shelters opening during and after Hurricane Irma. However, some counties have yet to designate even one, which puts lives at risk, he said.

“Hurricane Irma was a turning point for Florida’s pet-friendly sheltering practices and required us to take a closer look at our existing strategies and state law that support this effort,” Killebrew said via email. “More than half of Florida counties have made pet-friendly sheltering a standard practice in their emergency preparedness plans.”

Lake, Sumter and Marion counties are among those already in compliance should the bills be enacted.

“We’ve always been in compliance even before 2017. But after Hurricane Irma, the county administration stated that all shelters be pet-friendly based on the demand of people coming to the shelter with animals, said David Casto, emergency management director for Sumter County. “Directing them all to one place was logistically challenging. We’ve stated that all shelters are pet-friendly shelters.”

Lake County has nine pet-friendly emergency shelters and Marion County has two.

Casto added shelters should still be a last resort. Those who need to evacuate in such emergencies should have a family or friend’s residence as their first consideration.

“I am delighted and grateful that all three of our local counties do a super job with pet-friendly shelters,” said local Rep. Brett Hage (R).

Senator Aaron Bean (R) filed the senate bill in November.

SB 1044/HB 621: Animal Cruelty

Senate Bill 1044 and its companion HB 621, which may be cited as “Allie’s Law,” will require veterinarians to report suspected animal cruelty of cats and dogs to law enforcement or animal services. A veterinarian, veterinarian technician or shelter staff will be protected from either criminal or civil liability for any decisions made to report suspected cruelty.

Veterinarians also would be required to report suspected animal cruelty instances that their clients report to them.

Those liable to comply include any animal care facility, animal hospice, private veterinary practice, animal shelter, veterinary school, specialized veterinary hospital or any place dogs or cats are seen for any kind of treatment.

Senator Jason Pizzo (D), who filed the senate bill in November, said after prosecuting and working on several animal abuse cases over the years, he has seen some “horrible things” and remains “convinced of the correlation between animal abuse, child abuse and domestic violence.”

That’s why he agreed to work with Rep. Dan Daley (D), who filed the house bill in November with Rep. Scott Plakon (R), to crack down on animal cruelty, he said in an email.

“I hope word spreads that actions and neglect have consequences, and where that’s not a deterrent, the state is prepared to protect the voiceless,” Pizzo said.

Dr. Corina Grattan, a veterinarian for Village Veterinarian in Lady Lake, said she is happy to know such a bill is being considered. She said veterinarians often have the most exposure to pets to witness possible abuse, but are discouraged from getting involved for fear of losing their license from a lawsuit.

“(This bill) excites me, and if that passes, it would make me feel more confident or OK with things, as in the past I’ve been trained to look the other way,” Grattan said. “I’m really excited about that and knowing my license wouldn’t be in jeopardy.”

SB 1202/HB 907: Care for Retired Law Enforcement Dogs

If enacted, SB 1202, with its companion HB 907, would establish the Care for Law Enforcement Dogs Program within the Department of Law Enforcement to provide veterinary care for eligible retired law enforcement dogs. Sen.Bobby Powell (D) and Rep. Melony Bell (R) filed the bills in December.

The bill would require law enforcement to partner with a nonprofit organization to provide funds, placing an annual cap on how much funds are available for care.

Eligible dogs would include retired law dogs who were previously in the service of a law enforcement agency in the state of Florida to aid in the detection of criminal activity, enforcement of laws or apprehension of offenders.

Dogs must have received a certification in obedience and apprehension work from certifying organizations, such as the National Police Canine Association or related organization.

The former handler or adopter of the dog eligible for the program would be reimbursed for the dog’s veterinary care not exceeding $1,500 per dog, per year. Unused funds may not carry over to the next year.

Bill Truax, whose German shepherd, Gunny, is a retired K-9 search and rescue dog for the Geauga County Sheriff’s Office in Ohio, said he would be in favor of such legislation passing.

For everything those dogs do for police officers, the Village of Hemingway resident feels offering veterinarian expense care is the least that can be done.

“I’m very biased and I think rightly so,” Truax said. “There are just so many things these dogs do, and when you ask a dog to protect the life of a police officer ... these dogs usually are injured or killed in the process of saving the life of a human being.”

Staff writer Kristi Schweitzer can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5225, or kristi.schweitzer@thevillagesmedia.com.