Four months after the passage of the new dog law, the state has agreed to suspend enforcement of a core provision of the law until a federal lawsuit is decided.
In an order filed Feb. 18 in U.S. District Court, the state will allow commercial breeders appealing their license revocations to continue to operate pending the outcome of the case. In exchange, the Professional Dog Breeders Advisory Council, which is suing the Department of Agriculture on constitutional grounds, agreed not to seek an injunction to stop the enforcement of the entire law.
Under the law, the department has the right to issue cease and desist orders restricting breeders from selling or buying more dogs while their revocation cases are on appeal. It has issued such orders on two occasions since Jan. 10 when the law went into effect, officials said.
Now lawmakers who supported the bill to crack down on the state's puppy mills and animal welfare advocates, who fought for years for its passage, accuse state officials of conceding to breeders before the lawsuit has been heard.
"This litigation stops the enforcement of key provisions of the legislation and every day that this law is not being enforced is another day that dogs are potentially being abused in commercial facilities," said Rep. Bryan Lentz (D., Delaware).
Neither the council's spokesman, Robert Yarnall Jr, nor the plaintiff's attorney, Leonard Brown of the Lancaster-based firm Clymer & Musser, could be reached for comment.
Bill Smith, founder of Main Line Animal Rescue, which has taken in and treated hundreds of injured and diseased puppy mill dogs, called the agreement "cowardly."
"I feel cheated," he said. "They told us for three years that they couldn't do anything without a law and now we have a law and they are giving in."
A spokesman for Attorney General Tom Corbett denied that the state had capitulated to commercial breeders.
"Our goal is simple; to get the federal district court to rule that the statute is constitutional," said Corbett's spokesman Kevin Harley. "This allows [us] to move forward in an expiated manner toward that goal without extraneous issues."
Rep. Douglas Reichley (R., Lehigh) called it "a strange tactic that could set a precedent for other breeders to forestall revocation."
Reichley, a former prosecutor, represents the district where Almost Heaven kennel - which received a cease and desist order - is located.
"Mr. Eckhart and his cohorts have been thumbing their noses at law enforcement authorities and this puts more animals in danger," he said.
Agriculture Department spokesman Chris Ryder said the agreement helps dogs by allowing dogs to leave more quickly and preventing additional dogs from coming in.
Ryder said the agreement was made to preserve the rest of the dog law from injunction and sets a six-week timeline for filings in the case.
"The department does believe in the constitutionality of the dog law and will very vigorously defend it," he said.
Ryder also said the agreement is temporary and does not allow kennels to buy or breed more dogs, only to sell them.
But Garen Meguerian, a Philadelphia-area attorney representing a plaintiff in a consumer fraud suit against CC Pets - one of the largest dog sellers in the state - fears that the state's strategy may backfire.
Meguerian said the deal "could demonstrate to the court that the Commonwealth was so concerned about an injunction and about the merits of the claims that they essentially entered into a stipulation acquiescing to one."
Both Lentz and Reichley say they want administration attorneys to explain their rationale for agreeing to such a deal.
The state has issued two cease and desist orders since the law went into effect last month, both of them are kennels with troubled histories of dog law and animal cruelty convictions.
In addition to Derbe Eckhart's Almost Heaven kennel in Lehigh County, the bureau also sent a cease and desist notice to Daniel Esh of Scarlet-Maple Farm in Lancaster County. The two are among the largest breeders in the state and both have long, troubled histories including multiple dog law violations. Eckhart has twice been convicted on animal cruelty charges.
In addition to the unamed members of the Pet Breeders Advisory Council, plaintiffs in the suit include Nathan Myer, one of the largest breeders in the state, as well as two New Jersey pet store owners, Nat Sladkin and Susan Inserra.