It has been more than a year and a half since animal welfare groups began pushing for a law that would ban tying up dogs outdoors for long periods of time in Hillsborough County.
Now, with county commissioners poised to pass an anti-tethering ordinance on Thursday, the details of how the law will be worded and enforced still are under fierce debate.
Commissioners will consider a model ordinance drawn by the county attorney's office that would ban, in most cases, tying a dog to a tree or other outdoor fixture and leaving the animal unattended. Long-term tethering universally is condemned by animal rights groups as cruel and injurious to a dog's physical and mental health.
But animal welfare activists, who brought the matter to county officials' attention, say the ordinance is weakened by loopholes and exemptions.
Their prime concern is language allowing dogs to be tied up as long as they are "supervised." The term is vague, they say, and would allow dogs to be tethered constantly as long as they are in the owner's line of sight.
"To allow an animal to be tethered 24 hours a day because you can see the animal is nonsense," said Dan Hester, a former Seminole (Pinellas County) city councilman who helped write the anti-tethering ordinance there.
The critics also object to an exemption in the ordinance that allows tethering of dogs used for herding livestock or other farm work.
The "supervised" language is supported by the county Animal Services Department and was approved unanimously by the county's citizen Animal Advisory Committee. Members of both groups maintain a total ban on tethering is unreasonable and would make criminals out of otherwise responsible pet owners.
"If you put in the ordinance that the animal has to be in sight (at all times), if you have to go answer the phone or go to the bathroom, you'd be in violation," said Dick Bailey, interim director of Animal Services.
Animal control officers need to have the discretion to respond to cases of real animal abuse and neglect, said Michael Honer, the department's project manager. He said a total tethering ban could be used as a weapon in neighborhood feuds, where residents could wait for opportunities to snap photographs of animals left tethered outside.
"Ideally we wanted the discretion to be able to enforce this on the situation and what the officer sees," Honer said. "But once you put it in black and white, it says you're a bad person because you're not outside watching your dog."
But critics of the ordinance note other cities and counties have enacted strict tethering bans successfully, with none of the unlikely scenarios foreseen by Animal Services. They say the problematic language can be fixed by saying a dog can be tethered only as long as the owner is outside and can see the dog.
"I think it should be consistent with the model counties — Sarasota and others— where the dog is in visual range of the owner who must also be outside," said commission Chairman Ken Hagan.
Other commissioners are not so sure. Victor Crist, for instance, said he favors a law that protects dogs from tethering for long periods in extreme weather. Yet Crist said he can foresee times when he would have to leave his chocolate Labrador retriever tied outside while he carries in groceries.
"You've got to have a certain amount of reasonable leeway where it's obviously not the intent to abuse a dog," Crist said.
The agricultural exemption was put in the proposed ordinance at the request of the county's Agriculture Industry Development Program, which acts as a liaison with farmers.
However, Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who represents Plant City and the east county agricultural community, said he knows of no clamoring for such an exemption.
"I haven't even heard from the ag community," he said.
Whatever the commission's decision Thursday, it's sure not to satisfy everyone.
Michael Haworth, a veterinarian and member of the committee, said the ordinance was written after hundreds of hours of testimony and fact-finding under extreme duress. It might not be perfect, Haworth said, but it's a positive step.
"I've been living with this thing," Haworth said, "and I don't know how we could have come out with a better ordinance that makes sense."