Is it the final showdown over dog law?
The Independent Regulatory Review Commission, the body charged with taking final action on the 873 pages of regulations governing commercial dog breeding kennels meets Thursday (at 10 a.m. 333 Market St., 14th floor conference room) in Harrisburg to hear from the public and make its decision.
The big issue, in the eyes of animal welfare advocates, is the sudden and unexpected return of wire flooring in cages (like those pictured at left).
To recap, when Gov. Rendell signed the dog law on October 9, 2008 he said it marked the end of wire flooring in commercial dog breeding facilities - exemplified by the rows of crude rabbit hutches, housing dogs as large as Golden Retrievers, visible across Lancaster County and elsewhere.
Act 119 clearly allows adult dogs to stand only on solid or slatted flooring.
But the law also allowed puppies under 12 weeks of age to be housed on wire. Considering half of that time or more is spent with their nursing mothers, adult female dogs could be housed on wire too - as long as eight months by some calculations if dogs are bred twice a year.
The Department of Agriculture said it amended the regulations last month to allow 50 percent of the floor for "late stage" pregnant and nursing dogs to be wire and the rest solid because of that "gray" area in the law. Those same dogs would be "exempt" from the unfettered access to outdoor exercise requirement of the law because officials decided it would be dangerous for puppies to be exposed to the elements.
Animal health experts argue a mother dog would not allow her puppies to remain outdoors in extreme weather. In addition, puppies could be prevented from going outside with a low board that only the mother could step over.
Many animal welfare advocates accuse Rendell and his administration of reneging on its promise to dogs who spend their lives in commercial kennels - which now number about 100 in Pennsylvania - and contend the regulations violate the law they worked for four years to see take effect.
The Pennsylvania Federation of Humane Societies in its Aug. 17 letter to the commission wrote that the compromise "contradicts the statute and sets up a situation, not only for metal strand to be used in 50 percent of the enclosure, but also for other violations to exist, like rusty wire, sagging floors or floor materials that could not be properly sanitized."
As a result the only dogs in commercial kennels not spending at least part of their lives on wire will be the relatively few breeding males.
Others, such as the ASPCA, say if the state fails to take action now, dogs could continue to suffer extremes of heat and cold without adequate standards regarding temperature, humidity and ventilation.
The document, drafted primarily by the Canine Health Board, covers a range of conditions in kennels, including lighting, ventilation and humidity and temperature. The Department of Agriculture amended several of those areas too, and some, including members of the health board, say they have been weakened.
The Pennsylvania Professional Dog Breeders Association, or rather its lobbyist, Versant Strategies, weighed in with its comments last week, saying the Department of Agriculture has exceeded its authority and underestimated the costs of compliance. One of Versant's newest partners is former Department of Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff, who in that role testified before the legislature on several occasions in support of the proposed kennel law.
One of the legislation's arch foes has also signed on with Versant. Former House Rep. Art Hershey, who as ranking Republican on the House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee slapped random sponsors' names on scores of hostile amendments to the legislation - even when they supported the bill - to try to derail it.
More details on the controversy over the regulations in Thursday's editions of the Inquirer.