Just two months ago the Flagler County Commission unanimously approved an animal ordinance that codified new protections for animals, but that also allowed the unattended tethering–or chaining–of dogs outside as long as certain safety measures were in place. Animal advocates, including the Flagler Humane Society, strenuously objected to that provision, especially since a previous version of the ordinance had forbidden unattended tethering.
The county administration removed that provision when the American Kennel Club, an organization focused on showcasing purebred dogs, intervened with a letter, objecting to the unattended tethering rule. Many residents were perplexed as to why the administration or the commission caved to an organization headquartered on Park Avenue in Manhattan, against the urging of the organization the commission contracts with for animal control, on Shelter Drive off of Palm Coast Parkway, and its large following.
That following–some 65 people in all–filled a room at the Humane Society Tuesday evening in a “Town Howl” organized by the society’s Amy Carotenuto and County Commissioner Joe Mullins, both of whom want to revisit the issue, as do others on the commission. The debate may have consequences beyond county government as Palm Coast is in the midst of revising its own animal ordinance, and Flagler Beach may follow suit.
The message Mullins got was unequivocal: there is little support for an “unattended tethering” allowance. In the words of Ineta Jonusas, allowing a little tethering is like “a little bit of slavery, ok?” But to say there was no support would be inaccurate: one of the many thoughtfully presented arguments by members in the audience included that of a woman who spoke of the disabled person unable to sit with a dog outside, but who could watch the tethered dog from within the house, or who spoke of herself as liking the convenience of tethering her dog in the yard for a half hour’s exercise.
The second message Mullins got was that the commission’s decision to go back on its own administration’s ordinance and give in to the American Kennel Association was indefensible. “AKC is not an animal welfare organization. People need to remember that,” Kate McFall, Florida state director of the Humane Society of the United States told the group as she was Skyped in from Tallahassee. “Not like Flagler Humane, Humane Society of the United States and many others. It’s really a pure-breeding dog registry, that’s how they get their money.” She described the number of bills the association routinely opposes–including a bill that would have banned the sexual abuse of animals in Kentucky–on odd grounds, usually intended to protect against any measure that could interfere with the profitable breeding of dogs.
Mullins tried to explain why he and the rest of the commission went along with the kennel association’s version of the ordinance in Flagler. “We talked about it being better to put something on the books for right now than nothing,” Mullins said, “but said we would immediately address it and look at it and approach it. That wasn’t reported in the news. It wasn’t reported in the media.”
Mullins was a bit off the mark on two counts. First, his argument was reported almost word for word, at least in these pages, when Commissioner Dave Sullivan justified the vote by saying that “we need to go forward with this to get it on the books, and over the years if we find there are problems with anything we’ve done, that can be changed.” (He was also grossly vulgar in a Facebook comment on Thursday below a link to the FlaglerLive story on a the page of someone who hadn’t made it to the meeting, he wrote: “Sorry you didn’t make it. We did decide to chain and muzzle all radical liberals in the county. Lol.” He did not appear to realize that his attempt at humor belittled the very cause he claims to be championing.)
Second, the issue was not actually a matter of getting something on the books: the administration was actually ready with an ordinance the Humane Society endorsed a month earlier. It could have been on the books then, if that was the priority. But the administration, with the commission’s approval, delayed it to accommodate the kennel society. “I don’t know why they’re getting involved in our laws,” a woman in the audience said.
That accommodation was never explained then. Nor did Mullins explain it Tuesday evening.
But he was clearly interested in listening to the animal advocates and revising the ordinance. The question, he posed the audience, was to what extent–without being categorical–something “instead of an all or nothing.”
“When these kinds of ordinances come up it is important to get engaged and let us know as your officials where you stand,” Mullins told the assembly. “If right now 80 percent of this county wanted pink mailboxes and I hated them, I’m going to have to accept pink mailboxes, because if I’m really representing you. I go out and do what you need to do.”
Clearly, more than 80 percent of the audience agreed with McFall, the state Humane Society official, who said that “the gold standard is no unattended” tethering.
“Life on the end of a chain for a dog is torture,” Carotenuto said, showing disturbing pictures of dogs severely injured by chains.
But it was not necessarily a representative audience of the population at large. Mullins raised the question: what about time-limited tethering? That drew serious objections because of the slippery slope approach: allowing this much time could be interpreted more expansively, it could lead to abuse, forgetfulness, and so on. There was clearly less opposition to attended tethering: the dog chained while the owner mows the law, washes the car, takes the sun.
Twenty-two states have minimum standards for dog chaining outside. Ten states restrict the amount of time a dog spends on a chain. Nine states protect dogs against extreme weather. But Florida has no such laws. It’s up to localities. That’s where Flagler County’s ordinance comes in.
Mullins said he and Carotenuto will word on revising the ordinance passed in September. The ordinance Carotenuto has in mind would revert to the original version that preceded the kennel association’s intervention. It would prohibit unattended tethering of any sort, but would make significant provisions for attended tethering as long as the dog is “in visible range of the owner or responsible party,” as long as the person is outside with the dog (not looking out from within the house).
Palm Coast is rewriting its own animal ordinance, with a section on tethering. The wording is still fluid, so it may yet change before it lands on city council members’ desks, especially after Tuesday evening’s Town Howl (City Council member Bob Cuff and City Manager Matt Morton attended). But the wording as of Nov. 13 is an invitation to the sort of loud opposition the county’s ordinance has drawn. Palm Coast’s proposal makes more permissive provisions for tethering, including what amounts to 24-hour tethering, as long as the dog is untethered for exercise for a minimum of two hours in every 24-hour period. The proposed ordinance lists 15 conditions for tethering, absent which tethering would be considered “animal cruelty.” Palm Coast’s proposal also outlines numerous provisions regulating a dog’s unattended sheltering.
Flagler Beach City Commissioner Jane Mealy also attended the meeting and said she would bring up the issue at the next city commission meeting. Mealy reminded the audience that the focus of any ordinance should be on general principles, not on minutiae, otherwise nothing would get passed.
Echoing that more pragmatic analysis, a significant portion of Monday’s “town howl” involved an explanation by County Attorney Al Hedeed of the existing ordinance beyond strict wording. The ordinance goves authorities, including sheriff’s deputies, considerable leeway to judge and determine instances of animal abuse, while the county itself would aggressively–and, usually, successfully–prosecute such instances. “We’ve never failed in any of the prosecutions that we’ve done. Ever,” Hadeed said. “Just so you know, our courts here have been very amenable to heareing these cases and giving them priority and a status that we’re very forunate to have.”