SEBRING - In November 2012, instead of reviewing the proposed animal control ordinance and accepting a report from the animal control committee, the Highlands County commissioners tabled the ordinance, then appointed a committee of veterinarians to study the same issues.
Highlands County vets met several times in 2013 and proposed ordinances but nothing happened, said Judy Spiegel, who also chaired the original animal control committee.
"We put a whole bunch of stuff together," said Spiegel, president of Humane Society of Highlands County. "We were supposed be notified when to go before the commission, but it's been a long time since the last meeting - several months."
After a protest at Highlands County Animal Control Shelter and a second demonstration in front of the courthouse and the County Government Center, County Commission Chair Jack Richie appointed the animal control committee to study alleged problems at the shelter: malnourishment, unsanitary pens and water, dogs and cats that died while in the care of Animal Control. Director Darryl Scott admitted that some of the problems were due to lack of funds and personnel.
After nearly a year of meetings, the animal control committee was ready to report to the commission. However, while listening to the second of the committee's eight points, Richie decided to appoint a committee of veterinarians to study the same issues as the first committee, and to make more recommendations.
The first sticking point in November 2012 was that in the past, the county has left the sale of county tags at least partially to veterinarians, because vets also administer rabies shots and dispense rabies tags.
Then a second point arose: some vets administer three-year rabies shots, some for just one year: "This is a very complicated and difficult subject, because of three-year tags," Dr. Mark Griffin told the commission.
"The basic ordinance we've got here is good, it just needs to be tweaked," Commissioner Jim Brooks said. "(The veterinarians) need definitely to have input, but I don't think we need to throw the whole thing out and start over."
Commissioner Don Elwell agreed: "We need to do this."
However, Richie prevailed and appointed the veterinarian's committee. The commission then tabled the ordinance brought to them by the animal control committee.
"The motion to table is premature," Elwell said, hoping Handley would withdraw so the commissioners could continue discussions. Handley did not, so the motion passed, 4-1 with Elwell voting against it.
Spiegel couldn't recall which ordinances the veterinarians endorsed earlier this year. "It's been so long."
The animal control committee, said County Administrator June Fisher, had voted to recommend a $5 annual fee and tag for animals that have been spayed or neutered, or $15 for unaltered dogs and cats. Fines should be assessed for non-compliance: $50 the first offense; $100 for the second; $500 for subsequent offenses.
Impounded animals should be held for their owners to claim for seven days, the committee recommended, without differing between dogs and cats, the animal control committee also suggested.
The state recommends five days, Scott said, which most counties follow.
"Allow the animal to stay alive at least 10 days," begged Audrey Stansbury, one of the animal rights activists in the audience. "That would give us time to get their picture out there."
Highly adoptable animals are already held that long, Scott countered, but others are put down quickly if they're sick, injured or if the owner has given it to the shelter.
The committee also recommended that volunteers assist the department; that Animal Control's computer be updated with PetPoint Software, which the Humane Society also uses; that pictures of the animals should be released two days prior to the end of the hold time to facilitate the adoption process; and that two more caretakers should be hired. The funding for one caretaker is in the fiscal year 2014 budget.
"We are proposing several ordinances," Spiegel said. "Feral cats are one small part of it." Two years ago, the veterinarians proposed a ban on feeding feral cats. Cat advocates countered with a trap-and-release program which would allowed cats to be countered, neutered and then returned to the streets, where they said the overpopulation problem would solve itself.
Richie said he talked with Dr. Elton Gissendanner recently. "It should be soon, but with the budget and several other things we're working with, I don't know when. It is moving, though."