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The pooch was bold, the problem perplexing

By SANDRA THOMPSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 17, 2000


A couple weeks ago I was driving to Publix and saw a black Labrador retriever sauntering down the sidewalk on MacDill Avenue. I wished I'd had a leash in the car. The streets in Tampa are tricky for humans, let alone dogs.

When I got back home, the dog appeared on my front porch. I opened the door and the dog walked in as if she lived there. I checked for a tag, jotted down the tag number and looked up the phone number for Hillsborough County Animal Services. After a lengthy voice mail message -- no surprise here -- I finally figured out no one was going to answer the phone. I dialed the emergency number -- for out-of-control animals and animals being abused -- and got an actual person. She said to call back in the morning. It was about 6:30 in the evening.

"What am I supposed to do with the dog until then?" I asked.

I told her the tag number was connected to the phone number of the owner. All I needed was the phone number.

She took down tons of information and then said, "I'll fax this to them and someone will call you in the morning."

It was after-hours. She was just an answering service and didn't have the tag information.

So, if you pick up a lost animal after 5 p.m. weekdays or 3 p.m. Saturdays or anytime Sunday, you're supposed to keep it till the store opens.

For me this was no problem, but not everyone feels comfortable having a strange -- big -- dog in their house. Not everyone has a fenced backyard like I do. I mean, this is asking an awful lot.

As it happened, after dinner my husband and I joined the other dog walkers on our street and within minutes got a positive ID. The dog lived in the next block, but it had to cross MacDill to get to our house. Of course, it could have been killed.

It would be simple to give the list of tag numbers with phone numbers to the after-hours service, wouldn't it?

The answer is no.

First, there's something about a state law that prohibits tag records from being given to anyone outside Animal Services. That problem seemed to get solved between phone calls with the people there, but there's another problem -- with computers. Once that's solved, animal services people driving around in their trucks after-hours will have laptops that link up with the tag information, so they can give out the phone number to the answering service.

That will be a good thing, although why the county has to use an answering service is a little remote.

The county's animal shelter on Falkenburg Road has a typical guest list of about 400. Everything is done to find the owner or an adoptive owner, says Animal Services director Bill Armstrong, owner of a cat named Calli and a dog named Butch. Still -- if you don't want your day ruined, don't read the rest of this sentence -- every year about 23,000 or 24,000 (this is not a typo) dogs and cats will not leave the shelter alive.

A new animal ordinance is up for public discussion on June 28. You can look it up on the Web site at Hillsboroughcounty.org. It does more to protect private property and public safety than lost or abandoned pets, although the requirement of IDs on cats in the form of a tag, microchip or tattoo should help a little. And it's all pretty civilized. You'll have to pick up after your dog. (Armstrong uses a plastic bag from that other Tampa newspaper.) Cats can't wander across your property line, but this isn't as silly as it sounds. Cats can still go anywhere they please (try to tell one it can't) -- until someone complains. Dogs can't ride around free in the back of pick-ups -- a good thing for dogs, for traffic, and, frankly, for humans. After parking at Britton Plaza next to a pickup with a pit bull in the back, I wondered if going to Stein Mart was really worth it.

Anyway, the government can't legislate compassion and good sense. It's up to us -- and to our neighbors.

Which reminds me, I still don't have a leash in my car.

-- Sandra Thompson is a writer living in Tampa.

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