Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade imposes new rules for puppy sales

Mila, a one-year-old black and tan terrier, is waiting to be adopted at Miami-Dade County Animal Services on Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014.
Mila, a one-year-old black and tan terrier, is waiting to be adopted at Miami-Dade County Animal Services on Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

How much is that doggie in the window — also, was it imported from Colombia?

A new Miami-Dade law requires pet shops to advertise the source of dogs for sale, a measure designed to flag some far-flung providers of local puppies.

With Colombia the top exporter of dogs into the United States and a heavy user of Miami ports, local regulators expect to see Bogota show up as a puppy source in Miami-Dade. Backers of the new law say it will give potential dog buyers a chance to research breeders and rethink whether it makes sense to buy.

“For puppies coming in from Missouri, which is a big source in Miami-Dade, the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] posts its reports online. So it’s very easy,” said Kathy Labrada, chief of operations and enforcement for Animal Services in Miami-Dade. “For a farm in Colombia, that presents a bit of an issue.”

The disclosure rules are part of a larger package of regulations for local pet sellers, and the latest piece of legislation fueling an already hot debate over whether it’s okay to buy a dog rather than adopt one. The ordinance, adopted unanimously earlier this month, states the rules will “encourage pet consumers to adopt dogs and cats from shelters.”

Neither side of the argument embraces the county law. Animal-rights advocates wanted the “Miami-Dade Puppy Mill Cruelty Prevention Ordinance” to outright ban retail dog sales the way some local cities have, while the nation’s top breeding group slammed it for ignoring the reliability of a pure-bred puppy.

Once Animal Services begins fully enforcing the new ordinance over the next several months, pet stores will be required to post the breeder’s name and address near the animal’s cage. The rules also ban stacking most cages on top of each other, and bars the wire-mesh floors that can sometimes result in injured paws.

“It’s making Miami-Dade County a more humane county,” said Lynda Bell, the county commissioner who sponsored the ordinance and an owner of three formerly stray dogs. “As long as those stores are purchasing puppies from reputable dealers and following the rules, they won’t have a problem.”

At the Puppy Store at Doral, a tidy and compact shop in a strip mall off Northwest 52nd Street, owner Maria Eugenia Bolivar said the paperwork rules shouldn’t be a problem. She pulled out a binder with hundreds of plastic sheets containing breeder certificates for each puppy sold in the shop. She also produced the canine family tree provided by one breeder, which took a silky terrier born in July back four generations of parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.

“Most clients want a pure breed,” said Eugenia Bolivar, who owns the store with her husband, Francisco. “If it’s a mix you don’t know the pedigree.”

Miami-Dade’s ordinance implies “that all breeders are irresponsible and inhumane,” the American Kennel Club’s lobbying arm told members in an urgent alert sent the day before commissioners’ unanimous vote on Sept. 3 approving the rules. “It asserts that obtaining a shelter pet is superior to purchasing one from a responsible breeder without acknowledging that the paramount need of a family in getting a new pet is to get one whose temperament, grooming and exercise needs and personality are a fit for their lifestyle.”

Advocates for stricter pet-shop rules said outlawing retail puppy sales was the only way to prevent the flow of mistreated animals into the county. “As long as you continue to allow for the retail sale of dogs in Miami-Dade County, you will be selling puppy-mill dogs,” Michele Lazarow, a Hallandale Beach commissioner leading the dog-sale ban efforts in South Florida, told county commissioners before the Sept. 3 vote.

Miami this month voted to explore banning the retail sale of dogs, with commissioners giving initial approval for a six-month moratorium on new pet stores selling dogs or cats while the city considered the matter. It would join about two dozen cities throughout Florida with similar bans, including North Miami and Hallandale Beach.

PetSmart and PetCo, the nation’s top pet-store chains, do not sell dogs or cats, and instead encourage customers to adopt shelter animals at in-store events and then sell the new owners accessories and food.

Miami-Dade attorneys said federal law prevents a county from imposing a retail ban on dog sales. It’s an unsettled issue, with a similar ban in Cook County, Ill., tied up in a court challenge. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals maintains counties can impose dog-sale bans, though Miami-Dade’s would have been the first in Florida.

Road-side puppy dealers were a main target of the ordinance, and the regulations seek to close a loophole that allowed the makeshift pet stores to waive off enforcement by claiming to sell fewer than 20 dogs per year. The new rules eliminate the threshold, subjecting road-side dealers to disclosure requirements and maintaining a license for whatever facility is used to actually breed the dogs. While roadside pet sales are still allowed, the ordinance is designed to expose the zoning and licensing violations suspected at most of the transient operations.

“It makes you subject to inspections,” said Alex Muñoz, Miami-Dade’s director of animal services. “Now we can go to your house.”

The plight of dogs and cats became sensitive political territory in 2012, when county voters overwhelmingly supported a non-binding ballot question calling for higher property taxes to expand animal services. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and commissioners ultimately rejected the recommendation, but agreed to a funding boost for Animal Services that brought its budget from $11.5 million in 2011 to nearly $17 million next year.

A larger, modernized shelter is under construction and Muñoz points to expanded adoption events, sterilize-and-release programs for cats, reworking the foster program and operational changes that helped bring the shelter’s euthanasia rate for dogs down from 28 percent in 2012 to 18 percent this year, according to county figures.

Animal advocates aren’t satisfied. Leaders of Pets Trust Miami, the group behind the 2012 ballot question, recruited a candidate this summer in a failed bid to unseat County Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz and mounted a brief recall effort against Bell in 2013. Bell lost her reelection bid last month to newcomer Daniella Levine Cava,

Muñoz is under pressure to achieve a “no-kill” designation for the county’s shelter, which last year put down about 10 dogs and eight cats per day, according to county statistics. The shelter takes in about 250 dogs a week — and that’s not counting those received by non-profit rescue groups across the county.

“I probably get 20 calls a day,” said Dee Chess, who runs the Friends Forever Humane Society in Homestead. “Every rescue group is totally full.” Alicia Aballi, an 85-year-old retired teacher who started the Born Free shelter in southern Dade, said she’s caring for 138 unwanted dogs, including a shih-tzu she nabbed from the middle of the road several days ago.

With her shelter at capacity, Aballi said she tries to resist hearing of new dogs needing homes. “They tell me not to answer the phone,” she said. “I can’t help it.”