As animal welfare groups around the world chronicle the many accomplishments achieved in animal protection this year, we ponder Pennsylvania's record for 2011 and we come up with...
an empty stocking.
Well, not entirely. There are a few gifts in the form of a small, but tenacious collection of animal crusaders worth mentioning.
How about the Pennsylvania SPCA humane officers led by chief George Bengal (and soon to be featured on Nat Geo's Philly Undercover)? Just yesterday, the eve of Christmas eve, Bengal and company busted an illegal dog breeding operation and rescued 26 dogs in the Olney section of Philadelphia. The two individuals facing charges, James Hines and Denekei Lawson have a string of past animal abuse charges between them.
We recognize the work of two other intrepid humane officers Floyd "Buck" Hessler who patrols the mean streets and byways of Franklin and Cumberland counties, west of Harrisburg. And Abigail Avery, humane officer for the Adams County SPCA, who has been tenacious in her efforts to investigate several particularly cruel horse abuse cases, including the recent seizure of 21 starving thoroughbred mares and foals.
There have been few positive developments for pets at the state or local level.
Let's start with the fact that - with no shortage of stray pets - many SPCAs are getting out of the animal control business altogether, among them the PSPCA and the Delaware County SPCA. (Bless the Chester County SPCA for stepping in on Jan. 1 to take in Delco strays - though we are not sure if that includes cats as well as dogs. That will be a tall order to fill indeed until July 2012 when the new county-run shelter is expected to open in Upper Darby.)
The Humane League of Lancaster County, home to the largest concentration of dog kennels in the state and arguably the largest livestock population, just laid off its two humane officers. (They will move one staff member into that position, and, in addition the Large Animal Protection Society has agents certified to work in Lancaster. But the loss of veteran officer Keith Mohler is a blow.)
The Lancaster shelter and the Adams County SPCA are among those that were so fed up with lack of support from local municipalities they no longer picking up strays from townships and boroughs that don't chip in.
So consider this: where township lines meet, your pet may be safe on the side of the street in the municipality that's paying, but God forbid he runs across the street where, providing he's not hit while doing so, he is on his own.
Animal control highlights the depth of the dysfunctional and fractured governmental system in Pennsylvania (see Maryland for how to do it right.)
Does this Commonwealth collectively care for its animals? We wonder.
We'd also like to give a special Christmas shout out to Ava Gutierrez, the 11-year youngster who founded Operation Ava, a no-kill shelter Philadelphia in 2009. The shelter, which has adoption centers in Doggie Style stores citywide, recently found a home for its 900th animal. Congratulations Op Ava team!
Ava was just nine when she recognized that kids too contribute to the unwanted pet problem by asking for pets they cannot care for. (See, why giving pets as Christmas gifts is a bad idea.)
In Harrisburg there was not much to cheer about.
The General Assembly has passed no substantive animal legislation since 2009, when Gov. Rendell signed into law an expanded animal cruelty legislation establishing that only vets may perform debarking and C-sections, most ear cropping and tail docking.
True, a bill banning simulcasting of greyhound racing was signed by Gov. Corbett. But Pennsylvania has neither greyhound racing nor simulcasting and the greyhound racing industry - widely criticized for its inhumane treatment of racing and breeding dogs - has been shrinking across the country.
The state now has tougher poaching laws, increasing penalties for killing deer in the off season or killing protected species like bald eagles at any time. A good thing for those animals. Penalties for violating the law now run in the thousands of dollars.
But dog, cat and horse abusers can get off with a summary charge slap on the wrist, a paltry fine of a few hundred dollars. Then they can go home, get new animals and start abusing all over again (see Philly case above.)
Some are calling for tougher penalties in Pennsylvania: higher fines, jail time, restitution to shelters caring for pets and mandatory bans on pet ownership by convicted abusers.
Inching along in the PA Senate are several important bills sponsored by a leading Capitol animal crusader, Sen. Andy Dinniman (D., Chester): one establishing that pets be included in restraining orders in domestic violence cases and others banning gas chambers and pigeon shoots. But with only committee passage, they are a long way from the finish line and have less than ten months to get there. The session ends in Oct. 2012.
There has been no development on a bill to bring Pennsylvania's dogs in from the cold. I am speaking of legislation banning 24/7 dog chaining, which seems to be stalled, once again. Last session dog breeders complained they couldn't tie their dogs up at Starbucks or tether them for a nightly potty break - neither of which would be outlawed by the legislation being proposed.
Add to that the fact that, despite promises, the governor's Dog Law Advisory Board has not met since Gov. Corbett took office almost a year ago.
The Department of Agriculture says Sec. George Greig has not called a meeting of the 24-member board because there are vacancies resulting from expired terms. That didn't sit well with member Tom Hickey, who says that's no reason for the board not to meet.
"Other boards have vacancies and they don't shut board down," says Hickey. "If there was a Gaming Control Board vacancy would we shut down casinos?"
There is no shortage of critical issues for the board to discuss starting with:
The Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement finances. The so-called "restricted fund" - paid for by dog licenses to cover the costs of enforcement - was raided by Gov. Rendell and the legislature in 2009 to the tune of $4 million.
It has not recovered. In fact, it is being depleted daily.
With revenue down the bureau is facing difficult times in the year ahead. Might it be a good time to look at some new ideas for revenue enhancement? How about the dwindling number of wardens and questions about compliance with the strict Canine Health Board regulations for commercial kennels?
Illegal dog kennels. With the number of licensed commercial kennels plummeting by 80 percent, some wonder whether some may still be operating, but now doing so underground? Who is investigating the possible network of illegal kennels?
The sheltering crisis. There is no question that shelters are struggling, cutting back services and laying off staff. Now the state's grant program for shelters is being threatened.
Remember, it was the dog law advisory board's inaction that prompted Rendell to fire all members and start from scratch in 2006.
Will Corbett let the advisory board die a slow death from inaction?