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New bill could jail pet owners who abandon animals during hurricanes

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Naomi Coto carries Simba on her shoulders as they evacuate their home after the area was inundated with flooding from Hurricane Harvey on August 27, 2017 in Houston, Texas.

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — People who leave their pets behind during hurricanes could face jail time and/or a $5,000 fine if a new bill passes.

Most Animals Services across the Bay Area say they were overwhelmed by the number of people who came to the pet-friendly shelters during Hurricane Irma.

“Instead of one or two, we had someone come in with 20 (animals). So you can fill up a 200 capacity shelter quick when people are bringing in every animal they have,” said James Terry, Hernando County Animal Services manager.

Hernando County was expecting 200 pets but took in nearly 740.

Pinellas County expected 600 and ended up with nearly 2000.

“It was quite chaotic,” said James McGill, Pinellas County Animal Services field services manager.

Both counties say they quickly improvised adding several more pet-friendly shelters. Pinellas County stressed that it should be your very last option.

“Going into the cramped shelter is not fun. You’re not with your pet during it. They go into one side of the shelter, you go into another. It’s very stressful,” said McGill.

Now a new bill pushes even harder for people to have a plan in place.

Senate Bill 1738 proposes that people who leave pets restrained outside and unattended during natural or manmade disasters would face up to a year in jail or a fine of up to $5,000. The measure was approved Monday by the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Though counties we spoke with say thankfully abandoned animals weren’t a huge issue during Hurricane Irma, they say had the storm been worse, it could’ve been.

They say people need to have a plan for their pets.

“Wherever you’re going talk to them, make sure you can bring your pet with you and have a to-go kit ready. A carrier with food and supplies, everything you need just to-go,” said McGill.

They say regardless of your emergency plan, as a pet owner, you’re responsible for your animals too.

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