Keith Mohler, a towering figure in animal protection in Pennsylvania for a quarter century, died Tuesday of complications from lung cancer. He was 62.
Mohler spent most of his career as a humane society police officer investigating cases of animal abuse in the stockyards, puppy mills and farms of Lancaster County.
For 25 years he represented various organizations on behalf of animals in cruelty cases. Mohler was known for building meticulous cases that led to convictions and won him the the respect of animal welfare advocates, district attorneys, local judges and the farming community.
By day Mohler responded to reports of animal abuse involving creatures of all sizes from pigeons and puppies to sheep and steers. By night he was a well known jazz bassist, a fixture in area clubs.
Since last year Mohler had been employed by the Pennsylvania SPCA to handle cruelty cases in Lancaster County where Mohler had worked for 15 years in a similar role for the Humane League of Lancaster County.
“The animals have lost a strong and unique voice,” said Jerry Buckley, chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania SPCA, which hired Mohler after the Humane League laid off its law enforcement staff in a budget cut.
"Keith exemplified the kind of officer we all aspire to be, balancing our compassion for the animals with our compassion for people,” said Nicole Wilson, Mohler’s supervisor at the PSPCA. “He helped animals across Pennsylvania but the animals and people of Lancaster County were closest to his heart. For Keith, this wasn't just a job it was part of him."
Mohler made his mark decades ago taking action against horrific cruelty at the Lancaster Stockyards and infamous Hegins pigeon shoot.
“He was a pioneer in using laws to protect farm animals in the modern era,” said Gene Baur, president of the Farm Sanctuary, who worked with Mohler to improve conditions in the Lancaster Stockyards in the 1980s.
Baur said Farm Sanctuary incorporated in Pennsylvania and employed Mohler in order to focus on cruelty at the stockyards, at one time the largest stockyards east of the Mississppi River.
It was Mohler’s pursuit of a case at the Lancaster Stockyards in 1992 involving a disabled or "downed" cow left to suffer in a pen for a day that led to the first-ever conviction related to the abuse of farm animals in Pennsylvania – and likely anywhere, said Baur.
In the early 1990s, when there was no formal training for humane society police officers and there were cases of officers abusing their authority, agriculture interests mounted a campaign to exempt farm animals from cruelty laws in Pennsylvania.
Mohler played a key role in crafting a compromise in 1994 that led to formal training for all humane society police officers, said Anne Irwin, vice president of the Federated Humane Societies of Pennsylvania, which now trains officers throughout the state.
"He was a vegan who could go into a working farm or an auction barn and talk practically and unsentimentally about the animals there," she said.
In the mid-1990s, Mohler became the first plaintiff in a court case against the operators of the infamous Hegins pigeon shoot in Schuylkill County – a four-day long mass slaughter of pigeons, a gory spectacle that made national headlines – that would lead to the event’s demise.
“The Pennsylvania animal community has lost a true champion and unsung hero in the fight against animal cruelty,” said Heidi Prescott, senior vice president of campaigns and outreach for the Humane Society of the United States and a longtime friend of Mohler’s. “From pigeon shoots, to puppy mills, to farm animals, no cruelty case was too big or too small for Keith Mohler to tackle.”
Soft-spoken and limelight averse, Mohler was a supremely dedicated law enforcement officer who never let the emotion of the cruelty he witnessed color his ability to deal with farmers and other animal owners, say those who knew him
When the Humane League announced it would no longer employ any humane officers, and laid off Mohler and others, he continued to handle cases on a volunteer basis.
Bob Baker, executive director of the Missouri Alliance for Animals and former Pennsylvania puppy miller investigator, called Mohler’s death a great loss for animals especially in Lancaster County.
“If an animal was in distress in Lancaster County, you could always count on Keith,” said Baker, who related a story of their first meeting.
I first met Keith many years ago when I made a visit at night to the New Holland Auction and discovered an ailing cow that was abandoned in the dead pile. I made a dozen calls before being referred to Keith. Despite being late on a Sunday, Keith had a veterinarian and the police out to the barn in a matter of 30 minutes and the cow was able to be saved. Keith will be missed by all who care about animals and most definitely all the animals in Lancaster County.
Baur described Mohler as "very pragmatic and realistic".
"You do what you can do when you do it and hopefully change how we relate to animals, including farm animals," he said.
But when an animal was in distress Mohler went above and beyond to rescue it, said Baur.
"One time there was a report of a goat running wild in Lancaster and people said if no one captured it they were going to shoot it," recalled Baur. "We got a tranquilize gun but it went up a tree over a river and ended up falling into the river. Keith just went right into the river to save goat. I went too, but he was out there first."