If a pet owner in unincorporated Shelby County doesn't feed or water his dog every day, he might not be guilty of any crime.
Shelby County commissioner Steve Mulroy hopes to change that with an animal care ordinance aimed at residents living outside city or municipality limits. But he's hitting roadblocks with other county commissioners.
The ordinance requires pet owners to feed and provide fresh water for their animals daily, provide them relief from extreme temperatures, pick up pet waste, and groom animals to avoid health risks.
"There's a city ordinance and a state law, but nothing that applies to the county," Mulroy said. "Although you can enforce state law in the county, the state law only deals with the most extreme forms of cruelty. The point of this ordinance is to do what Memphis and every other metro area in the state has done, which is to put in minimum standards of care so we don't reach the level of aggravated animal abuse."
The ordinance was up for its first reading at last week's commission meeting, but after several commissioners voiced concerns for the need of such an ordinance, it was sent back to committee. They'll be discussing the ordinance again at a committee meeting on November 30th.
Commissioner Wyatt Bunker expressed concern over the provision that requires pet owners to provide relief from extreme temperatures by either taking the animal indoors or giving them "comparable temperature control measures."
"Quite frankly, I like dogs and cats, but there's not one of them going to live in my house, period," Bunker said.
Commissioner James Harvey said the language of the ordinance is too intrusive, specifically the provision that requires owners provide fresh water daily.
"Changing water isn't necessary. I drink out of my same water bottle for a couple of days. I leave it on the dresser," Harvey said.
But Mulroy contends that his ordinance, drafted with the help of local animal welfare advocates, only covers the most basic needs. Although the state law does include a provision that makes it illegal for anyone in the state to fail to provide water, food, or care for a pet, it doesn't specify how often to provide food or water or what "care" means.
"We're putting in easily enforceable, clear guidelines as to what the absolute minimum standards of care are," Mulroy said. "We say feed your animal once a day. Water it once a day. Don't tie it up in such a way that it will choke itself. Allow it to have enough space to move around so it can defecate in one corner and lie down in another corner."
Cindy Sanders with Community Action for Animals has sat in on more 4,000 animal neglect and cruelty cases in Environmental Court over the past three years. Out of that number, she's only witnessed a handful of cases involving pet owners in the unincorporated county, which she said is a result of county officers not having an animal-care ordinance in place.
"I asked one of the county officers about it, and he said they don't do this type of thing because they don't have the laws for it," Sanders said.
Commissioner Terry Roland objected to the proposed county ordinance, which is somewhat stricter than the city ordinance, because he felt it imposed more rules on those in rural areas. He said the ordinance would lead to more disputes between neighbors, if one neighbor alleged another was abusing their animal.
"You can't legislate morality. Those who are going to take care of their animals are, and the ones who aren't aren't," Roland said. "That's like telling someone how to treat their kids."
Mulroy said he'll be tweaking the language on his ordinance before the next meeting. If passed, he hopes to work with the city to tighten its animal ordinance as well.
"I was very surprised by the reaction of other commissioners," Mulroy said. "If they want to tinker with the language, I'm open to that. But to question the most basic need for minimum standards of care for animals or to suggest that this isn't important enough for us to spend time on, I just can't see how anyone would say that."