A busy time for animal crimes and punishment

Former Lehigh County kennel owner Derbe Eckhart is planning to drop his guilty plea on animal cruelty charges. The Morning Call of Allentown has the latest. Morning Call columnist Bill White has a nice take on Eckhart's argument that he was in fact trying to "save animals from abuse." Eckhart, former owner of Almost Heaven kennel, pleaded guilty last month to two misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty and five violations of the state’s dog law. Eckhart, twice convicted on cruelty charges before, faces a maximum sentence of three years in prison and a maximum fine of $7,500 when he is sentenced Nov. 16. In June, the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement removed 216 dogs from the kennel after Eckhart lost an emergency appeal of his kennel license revocation. A raid at the Emmaus property last year by the Pennsylvania SPCA exposed horrendous conditions inside the kennel where as many as 800 animals, also including cats, horses, birds and guinea pigs, were found living in filthy, crowded cages and kennels.

Jury selection is set to begin Jan. 25 in Sullivan County for Laura Antretter (aka Lauren Wolf), owner of Autumnbriar kennel, who after being raided earlier this year, spent two weeks on the lam and returned to face 76 counts of animal cruelty and 30 dog law violations. Humane officials and dog wardens twice raided her kennel and found a number of dead animals, including eight Jack Russell terriers, five Lurcher puppies. an adult Lurcher, and a goat. The surviving animals were in poor condition, had no food or water and were living in feces-filled cages. Antretter's kennel license had been revoked in 2008 and under state law was permitted to own only 25 animals. Her court-appointed lawyer was granted leave and Antretter will represent herself, according to court documents.

There is word of a possible plea deal in the case of Chester County veterinarian Tom Stevenson who was charged with animal cruelty after two undercover witnesses in March saw him cut off the tail off a puppy - with no anesthesia - as he held it under hot water at a kennel. The incident occurred at Sam King's Country Lane Kennel in Lancaster County. King, whose kennel license was recently revoked, has long history of dog law violations and also was charged with animal cruelty in the case, but the charge was dismissed. District Justice Stuart Mylin in July found that there was enough evidence against Stevenson to hold him over for trial. A pre-trial conference was held yesterday in Lancaster, during which the case was returned to Mylin's court, but it is unclear why. Neither the charging agency- the Pennsylvania SPCA - nor the Lancaster County District Attorney's office are responding to requests for comment.

Animal welfare advocates were up in arms over a plan to allow puppy mill operators amnesty from prosecution on cruelty charges if they turned their unwanted dogs over to shelters participating in the apparently short-lived Safe Harbor program. Prosecutors point out that only they have the authority to offer immunity. The Safe Harbor program, a joint effort by the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association and the Federated Humane Societies of Pennsylvania, was formed to save dogs that might otherwise be destroyed as breeders downsized or closed as a result of the tougher state kennel regulations. The idea was that participating humane societies would take in the unwanted dogs and the PVMA would provide volunteer veterinary services for them. While shelters are taking in dogs from commercial kennels - some in desperate need of costly veterinary care - the PVMA has pulled the plug on the program and erased all references to it from its Web site.

On the topic of tougher kennel regulations, the Department of Agriculture holds a hearing tomorrow at 9 a.m. at the agency's headquarters in Harrisburg on the proposed Canine Health Board regulations. The board - whose members are all veterinarians - was formed largely at the behest of the PVMA and dog breeders in order to secure passage of the new dog law last year. Its task was to set first-ever standards for humidity, temperature, lighting, ammonia levels and ventilation in large commercial kennels. Scheduled to testify are: Walt Peechatka, lobbyist for the Pennsylvania Professional Dog Breeders Association, Dr. Kenneth Lavan, of the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association, Tom Hickey of DogPac, Helen Ebersole of United Against Puppy Mills and Cori Menkin of the ASPCA.