Given concerns about ‘unintended consequences’ related in emails, Sarasota city commissioners hold off on final vote on no-kill animal shelter ordinance

City attorney asked to take one more look at draft, with eye toward potential tweaks

 After they voted unanimously on July 3 to approve a new ordinance, on first reading, that provides for no-kill animal shelters in the city of Sarasota, city commissioners this week acknowledged that emails they had received about that action talked of “unintended consequences.”

As a result, during their regular meeting on July 17, the commissioners voted unanimously to continue the approval of the ordinance on second reading until a later date. In the meantime, they asked that staff take another look at the proposed regulations to determine whether any amendments would be prudent.

“I’d like to have a different set of eyes look at it and see if there’s anything” that should be tweaked, Commissioner Erik Arroyo said of the ordinance.

Arroyo was the board member who proposed the measure during a discussion that was part of the commission’s regular meeting on May 1. He noted at that time that he had heard about the potential of new shelters opening in the city and wanted to make certain that the animals taken to those facilities did not face being destroyed if staff members were unable to find them homes. Approving a no-kill shelter ordinance, he added, would show “we are opening the door to innovative and humane solutions for managing our city’s abandoned animals.”

The second reading of the ordinance was listed on the board’s second Consent Agenda of routine business matters for the July 17 meeting. Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch pulled it for discussion.

Noting that she was certain that her colleagues had received “a number of emails,” as she had, Ahearn-Koch was the first of the board members to suggest continuing the second reading.

“I think we all had a good intent,” she added, based on the information they had received when they voted for the ordinance on July 3. However, she pointed out, the emails had reported that requiring shelters to be no-kill facilities “could cause more harm than good …”

In fact, Ahearn-Koch continued, some cities — including Austin, Texas — were considering eliminating their no-kill shelter ordinances, because some of the facilities will accept animals and end up putting, for example, “five dogs in a cage where it’s meant for one, or six cats in a cage that was meant for one.”

Then Ahearn-Koch referenced the section of the proposed City of Sarasota ordinance that defines an animal shelter as “a place where animals that have been mistreated, or lost, abandoned, or not wanted can be [properly] taken care of and may include a kennel.” (She noted that instead of “properly,” the ordinance said, “property.”)

Perhaps the ordinance needs to define “properly,” she said. “I don’t know if there’s something we can do to keep the good intent of what we mean to do and avoid the unintended consequences of the shelters actually warehousing animals way beyond their capacity, way beyond their staffing level, which is happening in other cities.”

Ahearn-Koch suggested that she and her colleagues could direct City Attorney Robert Fournier to look into how other cities are dealing with the situation.

Commissioner Debbie Trice said she had received the emails, as well. One of them, from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), had an attachment that described socially conscious animal sheltering, Trice pointed out.

That document said, “Socially conscious shelters are committed to full

transparency. This can include reporting accurate statistics, sharing policies, and fully disclosing and quickly admitting to mistakes. All decisions must be based on integrity.”

It offered details regarding each the following statements:

  • “1. Making every healthy and safe animal available for adoption.
  • “2. Ensuring that every unwanted or homeless animal has a safe place to go for shelter and care.
  • “3. Assessing homeless animals’ medical and behavioral needs and ensuring that they are thoughtfully addressed.
  • “4. Alleviating suffering and making appropriate euthanasia decisions.
  • “5. Enhancing the human-animal bond through safe placements and post-adoption support.
  • “6. Considering the health, well-being, and safety of the animals in each community when transferring them as well as that of the humans.
  • “7. Fostering a culture of transparency, ethical decision-making, mutual respect, continuous learning, and collaboration.”

However, Trice continued, “It seemed like we had built most of that into the ordinance.” She read, for example, the sentence in the new law that says, “No-kill shelters strive to save at least ninety percent (90%) of the animals that they take in and to find them loving permanent homes or provide them with sanctuary until they can be placed in a suitable environment.”

In her view, Trice continued, the ordinance has language that goes “above and beyond no-kill.”

Therefore, she added, she was comfortable with it as written.

“I like that ‘socially conscious’ [phrase],” Ahearn-Koch responded.

Vice Mayor Liz Alpert then noted that the commissioners had not considered the fact that the “no-kill” provision would prevent euthanizing animals even if they were sick, or staff members taking appropriate action if the shelters became too full.

From what she had read, Alpert indicated, some owners had returned to no-kill shelters to retrieve animals they had left in those facilities and then threw the pets “in a lake or whatever.”

She concurred with Ahearn-Koch on continuing the second reading until the commissioners all were comfortable that they were not approving regulations that would lead to unintended consequences.

“We obviously want to get it right,” Arroyo said. “So I have no problem with continuing it and finding out where the flaws are and make it where it’s palatable for everybody.”

Mayor Kyle Battie agreed with that, as well.

Nonetheless, Arroyo said that he, like Trice, believes that the draft of the ordinance includes the necessary protections to prevent issues that had been described in the emails.

On a motion by Alpert, seconded by Arroyo, the commissioners approved continuing the second reading.

City Attorney Fournier did ask for clarification about the board’s intent. Should he seek information “perhaps from some other jurisdictions that have done this and look at their experience,” and then bring the proposed ordinance back for discussion in the event the commissioners wanted to authorize any changes?

No one disputed that direction.

Alpert suggested he also review the “socially conscious” information from PETA that was provided in an email attachment.

The motion then passed 5-0.

A sampling of the emails

Through a public records request this week, The Sarasota News Leader received copies of the emails that the commissioners had received. Almost all of the writers used a form letter that said the following:

“I’m a tax-paying Sarasota resident and constituent, and I’m writing to urge you to vote NO on Proposed Ordinance No. 23-5490, ‘No-Kill Shelters.’ Despite the good intentions likely behind the proposal, ‘no-kill’ policies at animal shelters result in unintended consequences that harm animals and endanger the public.

“When shelters refuse to euthanize in order to meet legislative mandates, they typically resort to warehousing animals (often for months or years) and refusing entry to countless others — usually the neediest and most vulnerable, including animals who may be aggressive.

“And turning away even one unsterilized dog or cat from a shelter can result in the births of thousands more unwanted and homeless animals.

“Please vote NO on Proposed Ordinance No. 23-5490, ‘No-Kill Shelters,’ and work on legislative efforts to address the root cause of the homeless-animal crisis — breeding and neglect.”

One person did send an original message. It included the following statements:

“The ordinance you will be voting on [on July 17] is well-intentioned. However, a shelter can only stop killing if it limits intake. They should be called ‘let someone else kill’ shelters. The killing will continue at open-admission shelters, like the one run by Sarasota County Animal Services. You demonize these places by passing such an ordinance. The workers doing the euthanasia are already traumatized: they should be respected for doing society’s dirty work. When there is a large influx of homeless animals, should they turn the animals loose, and let them die slowly? Cram them into cages, even if they need to do it so tightly that the animals can’t even turn around? Can they bring 100 or more to each of you, will you care for them?

“You have the power to help stem the flow of bodies to the landfills and crematoriums,” the writer added. “One way to do so would be to commit additional funds for shelter expansion. Another would be to pass an ordinance that incentivizes people to spay and neuter their dogs. For example, why not work with the County to pass an ordinance requiring that anyone with an unaltered animal must purchase an annual permit for say, $100?

“We need meaningful action to stop companion animal euthanasia, not something that makes everyone [feel] better and accomplishes nothing.”