The Department of Agriculture has eliminated its fulltime dog law veterinarian position, prompting concerns among animal advocates that the state is backsliding further on its commitment to improving the health of dogs in breeding kennels.
Danielle Ward, who had served exclusively as the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement staff veterinarian since 2009, will work only on a per diem basis as needed, according to an email distributed to dog wardens that was obtained by the Inquirer.
Ward was appointed to the new post as part of the sweeping overhaul of dog law during the Rendell administration. In that role she accompanied dog wardens on inspections of many of the worst kennels in the state, evaluating animal health and ordering many kennel owners to get treatment for dogs in poor health within 48 hours
Last year for instance, Ward ordered a total of 19 veterinarian exams on dogs belonging to Marlin Zimmerman, owner of Turkey Hill Kennel and a chronic violator of health and safety standards in kennels.
Among her findings: dogs with mammary tumors, severe eye and ear infections and advanced dental disease She reported that documents signed in 2010 by veterinarian Tom Stevenson - who was convicted of animal cruelty that year but was allowed to practice medicine on probation - found dogs needed dental cleaning but there was no follow up ordered by him.
Ward also identified a potential genetic defect in a dog and referred the unresolved cases to the Humane League of Lancaster County to conduct a cruelty investigation.
According to the email from acting director of the Office of Dog Law Enforcement Michael Pechart, Ward will still be available to wardens for inspections, but as a per diem employee her work will have to be scheduled in advance.
The elimination of the state veterinarian is just the latest action in the department that has inflamed advocates about the direction of dog law under the Corbett administration.
Office director Lynn Diehl was removed in June - one year after taking office -after animal welfare advocates expressed outrage that nearly a year after commercial kennels were mandated to meet strict kennel regulations governing ammonia levels, humidity, temperature and lighting, only a handful were in compliance.
The email did not indicate why the agency made the change and neither Pechart, nor the press office would respond to a request for an interview on this or any other changes in dog law. When asked about the proposed change several months ago, an agriculture spokeswoman said the agency would not comment on "personnel matters."
The email says Nan Hanshaw, chief of Animal and Poultry Health for the Dept. of Agriculture will "assist with veterinary needs."
Though Hanshaw worked as a small animal veterinarian, advocates say bureau staff told them in the past that it was difficult to send Department of Agriculture staff veterinarians from other departments on kennel inspections.
Dog wardens can order veterinary exams but their medical training is minimal.
Animal advocates point to the recent hoarding case involving 180 chihuahuas in northeastern Pennsylvania as evidence that health crises in kennels demand a medical professional who can respond quickly.
In that case, and others like Turkey Hill involving potential cases of animal cruelty, time is of the essence, said Libby Williams, founder of Petwatch New Jersey, an advocacy group that monitors kennels, pet stores and rescues in the region.
"When a dog is in dire straits you need someone there immediately, not days later," said Williams.
"It's a setback," said Williams."Ward was methodical and validated problems that we have known are inherent in breeding kennels.
I feel like we are going back 10 or 15 years to the time when there was no enforcement and inspection reports were filled with smiley faces and exclamation marks."