In 2010, after at least 23 years in the dog breeding business, it looked like the end of the road for commercial kennel operator John Zimmerman of Lancaster County.
Once one of the largest breeders in Pennsylvania selling more than 700 puppies a year, Zimmerman, who ran Silver Hill kennel in Narvon, had racked up a long string of state dog law violations, capped by a conviction on animal cruelty charges last year.
Under the 2008 dog law the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement must revoke the kennel license of breeders convicted of animal cruelty. In August, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture prepared to revoke his federal license to wholesale puppies to pet stores, he voluntarily gave that license up.
On Sept. 14 dog wardens conducted the first inspection of a new kennel called Golden Acres which is located at the same address as the supposedly defunct Silver Hill kennel.
The new owner? Zimmerman's wife, Nancy.
The state says it had no choice.
Samantha Krepps, spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture, confirmed that Nancy Zimmerman is the owner of the Golden Acres Kennel.
"Legally, we have no authority to prevent Mrs. Zimmerman from operating a lawful kennel on the property," said Krepps. "We do, however, have the right to prevent Mr. Zimmerman from any involvement in the kennel." She said under the dog law John Zimmerman "cannot play a role in the ownership of the kennel care for the dogs or participate in the management of the kennel."
Animal welfare advocates who helped draft the new law disagree, saying the law was written to prevent exactly this scenario, which convicted animal abusers had used to continue to operate in the past.
The applicable section in the new law defines the roles a person convicted of animal cruelty may not play any in a kennel and that "shall include ownership of a financial interest in the kennel operation, caring for the dogs or participation in the management of the kennel."
"We had hours of conversation about this developing the law to ensure anyone convicted of animal cruelty could not transfer to someone living in the house or the same property," said Tom Hickey, a member of the Dog Law Advisory Board. "The intent of legislation was to stop the transferring of a kennel license once someone was convicted of animal abuse. Either the bureau doesn’t understand the law or they understand it and are doing it anyway."
The number of large - or commercial - breeding kennels has now dwindled to 70 from a high of over 300 when the dog law was signed by Gov. Rendell almost exactly three years ago.
But at the same time the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement is cutting back the number of dog wardens in the face of a funding crisis and is being led by the newly appointed director Lynn Diehl, a former bank officer with no animal sheltering or legal background. The bureau no longer has a dedicated prosecutor, nor does it have a special deputy secretary, both new positions created in 2007 by Gov. Rendell to combat Pennsylvania's puppy mills.
Zimmerman was a commercial breeder - defined as those who sell more than 60 dogs or a single dog to a pet store - who was required to comply with strict regulations including larger cage sizes, outdoor exercise, solid flooring and mandatory veterinary care. An all-veterinarian Canine Health Board established regulations governing temperature and air flow - effective in July - making it impossible for kennel operators to house breeding dogs in wire-floored rabbit hutches exposing them to the extreme heat, cold and wind.
Zimmerman's kennel was notable because of its location, immediately adjacent to the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The rows of rabbit hutches where he housed his dogs are still clearly visible to thousands of cars traveling on the highway every day.
In March 2010, wardens discovered dogs in Zimmerman's kennel suffering from severe dental diseases and called in humane officers. He was cited after two of the dogs, a 5-year-old male Papillion and a 5-year-old female Dachshund were seized and brought to the Humane League of Lancaster. Veterinarians pulled twenty teeth from the Papillion and numerous teeth from the Dachshund. Both of the dogs required antibiotic therapy and pain medication, according to the Lancaster Intelligencer.
At the same time Zimmerman's kennel inspection reports noted worsening conditions: matted dogs, rusty, exposed nails protruding into cages, filthy and undersized cages.
In the adult dog kennel room wardens noticed the presence of ammonia, strong enough that it burned wardens’ eyes and nostrils.
Wardens observed dogs’ feet passing through openings in the coated metal strand flooring. More specifically, the smaller breed dogs.
Last month Nancy Zimmerman received a non-commercial kennel license to house as many as 250 dogs on the same property. As a non-commercial kennel, she does not have to comply with many of the strongest rules required for commercial breeders.
Why this large category of non-commercial license exists we don't know. Simple math suggests anyone with more than 6 breeding dogs could easily produce 60 puppies and require a commercial kennel license. The dog warden reported 125 adult dogs on the property. In that case, does she have scores of pet dogs?
Regardless, without the commercial kennel restrictions to abide by, the owner could now move them back into the wire rabbit hutches visible from the turnpike.
Animal welfare advocate Bob Baker, who has investigated puppy mills in Pennsylvania for decades and helped draft two generations of state dog law, was stunned and angered by the news.
“The fact is the governor is the former attorney general he knows this is blatant circumvention of law – it’s outrageous bureaucracy at its worst. This transferring of licenses has happened many times before across country and every other agency, including USDA is taking action to stop it," said Baker, executive director of Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation. "It wouldn’t fly in front of a jury and sets a dangerous precedent. Every breeder in state could do this."
Said an exasperated Hickey: "Three years later and we are going back to old way, we're going back to transferring the title and conducting business as usual: abusing animals."