Back to the future at the Department of Agriculture?

CORRECTION AND UPDATE - We incorrectly reported that Sue West was removed from the post as director of the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement. West tells us she requested the transfer for personal reasons. She is now working in the agency's administrative services bureau. Jessie Smith, the agency's special deputy secretary, says she will run the bureau until a new director is named.

It didn't take long for the commercial dog breeding industry - such as it is - to try to again exercise their power in Harrisburg following the inauguration of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and the shift to a Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

In the state House, Rep. Gordon Denlinger, who represents Lancaster - the epicenter of dog breeding in the state - introduced a resolution to examine the negative economic impact of the 2008 dog law on the commercial dog breeding industry

The legislative commission tasked with conducting the review was to have issued a report by July, the same month that new regulations governing temperature, ventilation and lighting for commercial kennels is to take effect.

That resolution, which was later amended to include instructions that the commission also examine the positive aspects of the new law, has yet to be voted on by the full House.

Now we learn that Sue West, who was named director of the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement by Gov. Rendell in January 2008, has left her job.

In her role overseeing enforcement of 2,500 licensed kennels, West helped lead the effort to pass the dog law in 2008 and was responsible for closing a number of problem kennels during her tenure.

She was, however, the target of criticism by animal welfare advocates for failing to recognize serious kennel violations and animal neglect in several high profile cases. most notably at the notorious Almost Heaven kennel, two months before it was raided by the Pennsylvania SPCA and cruelty charges filed. (Kennel owner Derbe Eckhart was recently released after serving prison time for animal cruelty)

A recording on West's voice mail by Deputy Secretary Jessie Smith, says West, as of April 18, no longer holds the director position and has been transferred to another department.

In a related development, West's predecessor, Mary Bender in March was promoted to a top job in the Department of Agriculture.

Bender was the focus of years of criticism by animal welfare advocates for failing to enforce the dog law and rarely citing breeders, even those with chronic history of neglect and abuse. As policy director of the agency Bender, who in 2007 was reassigned by Rendell to run a farmland conservation program, was named policy director for the Department of Agriculture.

In her new role as policy director Bender will enjoy unfettered access to newly-confirmed Agriculture Secretary George Greig - a former Pennsylvania Farm Bureau director - and be responsible for implementing his vision for the agency. 

"You can't minimize the influence a policy director will have," said Chuck Ardo, who served as a spokesman for Gov. Rendell. "Given the anti-regulatory bent of the new administration - that less rules inhibit profit - it would seem dog reproduction would be no different."

Rendell increased the complement of dog wardens in the state to an all-time high of 59 covering 67 counties. With the passage of the new dog law and with the implementation of even stronger regulations in July, the number of commercial kennels has plummeted from more than 300 to just 66. (Another 66 former commercial kennels still operate below the threshold selling or transferring fewer than 60 dogs a year.)

Today large swaths of Pennsylvania have no dog warden coverage - including Mercer in the far west and a large two-county area (Tioga and Potter) in the northern tier of the state left vacant with the death of warden Ron Adams in January. Making matters worse, the closure of the Pennsylvania SPCA shelter in Wellsboro today means neither county has an animal shelter.

A spokeswoman for the agency said this week it is a priority to fill the Tioga/Potter warden job.