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Organization raises questions about service dog giving birth at Tampa airport

PALMETTO, Fla. (WFLA) - When Suzy Wilburn heard about the story of a service dog giving birth to a litter of puppies at Tampa International Airport on Friday, her first reaction wasn't, "Isn't that cute." The news made her upset and angry. 

"I was a tad bit angry because in the state of Florida it's a second-degree misdemeanor to represent your pet as a service dog," said Wilburn. "And they did that twice - with the male dog and the female dog. It's a crime."

Wilburn works with Southeastern Guide Dogs in Manatee County, an organization that has been breeding and training dogs for the sole purpose of being service animals for 35 years. It's a passion they don't take lightly.

The facility can be described as a campus. There is a hospital where the puppies are born. They live for a period of time with their mother and then it's off to school. They begin at the puppy academy, move on to boarding school and then it's on to the university. 

Once they finish there, they pursue a major. Those curriculums include guide dog major, service dog major, facility therapy dog major and genetics and reproduction major.

Wilburn says the environment is highly controlled and all dogs are spayed or neutered before they are given to their new life companions. She says one of their dogs would never be put in a position to give birth in an environment such as an airport.  

"The fire department was called in. You took emergency services away for something they should've never had to deal with," said Wilburn. "And yes puppies are cute, but had something gone horribly wrong, those puppies lives were in danger and so was mom's. "

Wilburn grew up playing sports and was a very active individual until she received news from a physician that would change her life: She was losing her eyesight. A short time later, she lost her mother, who was her best friend. She thought her life was over.

But things were about to look up. Soon after the loss of her mom, she met her husband-to-be and then linked up with Southeastern Guide Dogs. 

That's where she was finally united with Carson. She's been with him for seven years now and credits him, at least in part, with getting her back on track. 

"I am just a different person. I love to talk about my vision loss because I hid it for so long," said Wilburn. "I didn't want anyone to know something was wrong with me."

She, and others at Southeastern Guide Dogs, are concerned with the story at Tampa International. 

On Friday, news broke that Diane Van Atter was at the airport with her service dog Ellie when the dog went into labor. Ellie delivered healthy puppies and, on the surface, it seemed like a shiny happy story. 

But Wilburn wonders who would take a service dog that pregnant and board a flight.

News Channel 8 attempted to reach Van Atter for her take on this story, but have yet to receive a response.

For more information on Southeastern Guide Dogs, you can visit their website


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