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New Florida bill aims to punish dog owners with fines, jail time if pets are abandoned during hurricanes

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer
April 05, 2019, 4:27:10 AM EDT


As the start of the 2019 Atlantic hurricane season looms near, Florida pet owners who leave their dogs tethered and left to fend for themselves while evacuating during natural disasters could face a hefty fine, animal cruelty charges – and even jail time.

Before Hurricane Irma threatened to impact Florida in late 2017, animal rescuers hurried to save dozens of abandoned pets that were found tied up and alone in an effort to keep them safe – a responsibility that many believe is that of the pet’s owner.

Not all abandoned pets survived. In March 2018, deputies with the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office in Weeki Wachee, Florida, made the horrific discovery of at least three dead dogs inside of a house said to have been abandoned since Irma. It wasn’t exactly clear just how many dogs there were, as the deceased animals were in the advanced stages of decomposition, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

Republican Florida Sen. Joe Gruters sponsored the animal welfare-focused Bill 1738, which seeks in part to prohibit people from restraining their dogs outside and unattended during either a man-made or natural disaster.

Chained dog after Hurricane Matthew - AP Images

A chained dog tries to break away from a container in a flooded garden after the passing of Hurricane Matthew in the Pinewood Gardens subdivision of Nassau, Bahamas, Friday, Oct. 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Tim Aylen)


“It is quite frankly disgusting that Florida finds it necessary to pass Senate Bill 1738, because you would hope that most pet owners would love their pets enough to take every precaution to get their pet out of harm’s way of an approaching disaster without a need for state government to mandate that a person not restrain their pet before evacuating themselves,” said David Reischer, an attorney and CEO of LegalAdvice.com.

Bill 1738 states that anyone who fails to include their dog in their disaster preparations by leaving them outside and restrained is committing animal cruelty, a first-degree misdemeanor under Florida law.

Violators could receive jail time of up to a year, a fine of not more than $5,000 or both, according to the bill.

“Dogs are an important part of people’s families, we’ve got to keep them safe,” said Aakash Patel, entrepreneur and founder of strategic business consulting firm, Elevate, Inc. The Tampa, Florida, resident evacuated prior to Irma.

“Tethering them up during disasters is like sentencing them to death,” Patel said, adding that he hopes the bill will encourage families to plan ahead for disasters and include their pets in those plans.

It’s not only pets’ lives that are on the line in these situations, according to Matthew Ryan, an attorney with Flushing Law Group.

Public safety issues that result from a diversion of emergency resources in order to rescue abandoned and restrained animals are also a concern.

“The bill essentially places a higher duty of care upon pet owners, and this bill is likely the result of the fact that during Irma, Palm Beach had to rescue several dozen pets that were tied up and abandoned,” Ryan told AccuWeather.

“The proposed new legislation, which seeks to hold pet owners who grossly neglect their pets during a natural disaster as being criminally liable, hopefully will work to get owners to remediate their behavior, and in doing so, save both pets lives as well as potentially people’s lives,” he said.

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While other states have similar laws about tethering and/or abandoning dogs, it’s the first such statewide bill for Florida.

Following the devastation of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf coast, during which more than 600,000 animals reportedly died, federal lawmakers passed the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act in 2006 after many residents in the powerful storm’s path refused to leave home out of fear of what might happen to their pets.

Prior to that time, no laws existed that required the evacuation, rescuing or sheltering of pets during disasters, according to Michigan State University’s Animal Legal and Historical Center.

For those unsure about what to do with their pets before a disaster strikes, experts emphasize that planning in advance and doing research on places that accept animals is essential.

“There’s really not an excuse right now for people to leave their dogs or cats because the shelters are allowing them, and there are some hotels that are allowing people to take them,” said Doctor of Veterinary Medicine Ruthanne MacPete.

“Animal shelters are also allowing people to drop their animals off,” MacPete told AccuWeather. “There are just so many different resources now because our eyes were open during Katrina. So now, people should not really have to leave pets behind, they should be able to take them with them.”

Bill 1738 is currently being reviewed, and if passed, it is expected to take effect on July 1, one month into the 2019 Atlantic hurricane season.

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