Abandoning a Dog During a Hurricane Would Become Illegal Under State Proposal

Pets are commonly left behind when people evacuate before storms, as shelters typically do not allow animals and hotels can be pricey.

Pets are commonly left behind when people evacuate before storms, as shelters typically do not allow animals and hotels can be pricey. AP Photo

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A Florida bill proposes possible jail time or fines for leaving a dog tethered outside in a storm.

Leaving behind a dog tied up outdoors during a hurricane would be illegal in Florida under a bill making its way through the state legislature.

As written, Senate Bill 1738 makes it a misdemeanor to “leave a restrained dog outside and unattended during a manmade disaster or a natural disaster,” punishable with jail time or a fine up to $5,000, or both.

The bill, introduced by Republican Sen. Joe Gruters, aims to protect pet dogs in coastal areas who sometimes are abandoned when their owners evacuate before hurricanes. 

“The Palm Beach County Animal Care and Control director reported that many pets are left chained to trees and parked cars, as their owner left them behind to ‘ride out the storm’ on their own,” the bill’s analysis says. “During Hurricane Irma, 49 dogs and two cats were rescued by animal control officers.”

It’s a common problem when residents are forced to flee coastal areas during storm season, as many emergency shelters don’t allow pets and pet-friendly hotels are often full or too expensive. Last year, for example, hundreds of pets were left by their owners during Hurricane Florence, particularly in North Carolina, where animal shelters pleaded for help to avoid having to euthanize dogs and cats for space.

Federal officials acknowledged the challenge in 2006 during the response to Hurricane Katrina, when Congress passed the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standard (PETS) Act, authorizing FEMA to "provide rescue, care, shelter, and essential needs for individuals with household pets and service animals, and to the household pets and animals themselves following a major disaster or emergency.” But the PETS Act only goes into effect once a federal disaster designation has been triggered.

More than 30 states have regulations that deal with disaster planning and pets, but most are administrative rather than criminal—Florida’s, for example, requires only that the state Department of Emergency Management “address strategies for the evacuation of persons with pets.” A handful of counties there—including Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Sarasota—prohibit animals from being tethered in extreme weather, but penalties vary from place to place. The proposed legislation, if passed, would be the first statewide law to address the matter.

The bill was introduced last month and passed the Senate Agriculture Committee on a 5-0 vote. It’s currently awaiting a hearing before the Criminal Justice Committee. If passed, the bill would take effect July 1.

Gruters, the lead sponsor and the state’s Republican Party chairman, said in a committee hearing that the legislation was prompted by abandoned animals in the state after Hurricanes Matthew, Irma and Michael.

“We’ve seen these three hurricanes and seen numerous dogs left tethered to different things,” Gruters said, according to the Tampa Bay Times. “We want to give dogs a fighting chance.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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