Is the Dog Law Office violating the dog law?

On Oct. 9, 2008, Gov. Rendell signed Act 119, Pennsylvania's new "landmark" dog law.

Approved after a grueling two-year battle, the legislation set forth  sweeping changes in the way commercial kennels operate in the state once known as the "puppy mill Capital of the East." 

In the first major overhaul of the existing dog law in 25 years, cage sizes were doubled. Cage stacking and wire flooring were banned. Dogs were to get twice yearly veterinary exams and be provided outdoor exercise. It also established an all-veterinarian Canine Health Board to set standards for ventilation, ammonia levels and lighting.

But now we ask: Is the newly-named Dog Law Enforcement Office (formerly known as the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement) in fact enforcing the dog law?

In 2010 the first issue with the law cropped up: exemptions for wire flooring in the case of nursing mothers with litters of puppies. Under fire, Rendell claimed it was an unfortunate "loophole" in the law and said there was nothing he could do about it. Activists argued the state was giving in to dog breeders over a critical piece of the law.

Now one year into the new administration of Gov. Corbett there is evidence the Department of Agriculture is failing to uphold other equally critical provisions of the law.

Take inspections. Under the law all kennels are to be inspected by dog wardens twice a year. No gray area there. However a review of inspection reports posted on the Department of Agriculture website shows that half of the commercial kennels in Lancaster County, which has the highest concentration of large breeding operations, were inspected only once in 2011.

Of the remaining 60 commercial kennels - that's down from roughly 350 at the time the law was signed - 27 are located in Lancaster. Of those, 13 had received two inspections at the end of 2011, while 14 received only one inspection - some of them as long ago as one year, according to the state database. 

In Chester County none of the seven remaining commercial kennels was inspected twice in 2011.

Many smaller kennels, records indicate, had only one inspection in 2011.

It is unclear why those inspections have not taken place. Repeated requests for an explanation have gone unanswered by the dog law office.  

Equally alarming to animal welfare advocates who fought for the law is the dearth of citations for kennel violations such as unsanitary or dangerous conditions or lack of veterinary care.

Under the Rendell administration, the number of citations filed against poorly performing kennels rose exponentially. 

In a cursory review of problem kennels receiving three or more inspections in 2011, only "verbal and written" warnings were given. 

Among them are two of the most publicized kennels in 2011, both in Lancaster County: Silver Hill, now known as Golden Acres, which had a total of six inspections. Warnings were issued in all inspections, most of them listing violations including one this fall identifying ten dogs that needed veterinary care for dental disease and ear discharge. 

The Narvon kennel changed its name after the state issued a license to kennel operator John Zimmerman's wife following his conviction on animal cruelty charges which disqualifies him from holding a license.

Conditions at Turkey Hill kennel in East Earl caused alarm early last year after reports that the ammonia stench was so bad that dog wardens needed masks to inspect the kennel.

At the first inspection in January - before the arrival of office director Lynn Diehl - the owner was cited for the high ammonia levels. But at subsequent inspections the kennel was issued only warnings, including for similar ventilation violations and was not cited. Nor was it cited for housing dogs in conditions so dark that wardens needed flashlights to see them, a clear violation of minimum lighting standards set by the Canine Health Board.

Or consider Plantation Delight kennel in West Grove, a breeding facility and dog day care center. That kennel received warnings in each of five inspections in 2011, including for cages that were too small, rodent infestation, poor ventilation and for mixing adult dogs with nursing mothers and mixing intact females and males in the same cages.

To those who fought for stricter oversight of kennels, the lack of citations represents a chilling return to the past.  Before 2007 and the arrival of special deputy secretary Jessie Smith and bureau director Sue West, the philosophy of the agency charged with protecting thousands of breeding dogs in commercial kennels was "education" not enforcement.

This meant breeders - many of whom had been in business for decades - were given repeated chances, year after year after year, to clean up their kennels. Now advocates fear dog law could be headed back to the dark ages.