A few weeks ago, just after the new state dog law went into effect, Pennsylvania dog breeder Marcus Lantz made what he said was a simple business decision.
He could not meet the larger cage-size requirements under the law, so he called his veterinarian and asked him to come to his farm west of Harrisburg to euthanize nine dogs. One was a nine-year-old St. Bernard and the rest were 4-to-6-year-old “lap dog” breeds among them, Bichons and Coton de Tulear – whose puppies bring top dollar at pet stores.
“Today eight retired breeders are scheduled to die because my cages are now too small,” Lantz wrote in a letter to the state Independent Regulatory Review Board, which is considering additional standards of care for commercial kennels.
“How do I answer my small children’s questions when they see the dead dogs?” he continued. “Example, Sherry and Charlotte don’t have enough room anymore, so Charlotte must die so Sherry can have more room.”
The words were chilling. Why did Lantz destroy his dogs rather than comply with the law designed to improve conditions in commercial breeding facilities, otherwise known as “puppy mills?”
The primary provisions of the law require commercial breeders (defined as those selling 60 or more dogs a year or anyone selling a single dog to a pet store) to double the cage size and eliminate wire flooring and cage stacking. The law – which went into effect on Oct. 9 - also requires regular veterinary care for breeding dogs and outdoor exercise.
In addition, breeders are no longer allowed to shoot their dogs. (That measure was inserted in the bill after the August 2008 incident where a Berks County breeder slaughtered 80 dogs rather than treat them for flea infestation.)
For years breeders and their representatives have vehemently opposed all attempts to enact tougher kennel standards, arguing that most Pennsylvania kennels are clean and that a “few bad apples” have brought on this undeserved reputation. Inspection reports, court dockets and the rising number of kennel revocations would suggest there are more than a few bad apples.
The Professional Dog Breeders Association and the American Canine Association – the primary breed registry for commercial kennels - have refused multiple requests over the past three years to take this reporter to a commercial breeding facility.
Lantz said he would show me his kennel as long as I didn’t take pictures. I agreed and he took me inside the two small cinder block buildings. It was stark but clean. Wire cages lined each side, containing his remaining 31 breeding dogs – Bichons, Coton de Tulear, Yorkshire Terriers, Daschunds. Puppies are born and spend the first weeks of their lives in barren wood boxes attached to a small wire enclosure. Three females and their puppies were housed in those whelping, or birthing boxes, in the center of the back room.
One box was so small that a Jack Russell/beagle-mix female had only a few inches of head room. Lantz said he realized it was too small and that he planned to build larger boxes after determining with dog wardens what was required under the new law.
The space was illuminated by a large, high-tech skylight. The dogs’ waste passes through the wire in the bottom of the cages into a trough that Lantz hoses out with water and bleach. A large fan set at the rear of the rectangular building pushes air through the center of the kennel. Water is delivered through an over head drip system and feed bowls were scrubbed.
Space heaters and lights are powered by propane. Lantz is Amish and uses no electricity in his house.
Lantz said he spent more than $10,000 to modernize his kennel and now the state is ordering him to remove cages put in new flooring (the wire is illegal) and expand his kennel again to accommodate outdoor exercise. He showed me the dismantled chain link pens where his three St. Bernard dogs had lived.
“There wasn’t going to be enough room,” he said.
The dogs were clipped and appeared to have no visible health problems or injuries. But they are rarely handled and most never experience life outside the kennel. One Coton – a small, white, fluffy dog - cowered in corner of her cage. Others frantically jumped against the sides of their cages. There was no bedding. No toys. No view to the outside. Their world is contained within the cinder block walls.
Asked whether his dogs ever get outdoor exercise, Lantz said some of the favored dogs were, on occasion, taken outside by his children.
“They’re not treated as pets,” he said.
The Independent Regulatory Review Board is currently considering the new requirements on commercial kennels proposed by the Canine Health Board – a nine-member body made up of veterinarians appointed by the four legislative caucuses, the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association (PVMA) and University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School.
The board was charged under the dog law with establishing adequate flooring, lighting and ventilation requirements for large kennels.
Now those proposals are facing widespread opposition from the same groups who fought the dog law last year: the PVMA, the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, which represents pet stores, the Sportsmen’s Alliance, Republican members of the House Agriculture Committee and Sen. Michael Brubaker – chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee - whose committee created the board to appease the aforementioned groups in 2008.
Lantz said he has applied for a waiver that would give him up to three more years to make the required upgrades to his kennel, but he has not yet received a response from the Department of Agriculture. (A spokesman said today that 48 waiver applications are pending.) Lantz said he wants to comply with the new law, but needs more time because he has not paid off loan for the improvements two years ago.
“It’s politics,” said Lantz of the proposed regulations and the stepped up enforcement of the dog law. “They want to get rid of dog breeders; they don’t care about the welfare of dogs.”
So, why did Lantz feel he had no choice but to destroy Charlotte and the other dogs in his kennel?
In his letter to the state regulatory board, Lantz wrote that although he was urged by dog wardens to surrender his unwanted dogs to a humane society, he said he didn’t want people to “teach tricks on them” or “housetrain them.”
Lantz elaborated during my visit, telling me that he’d heard humane societies were overcrowded and that he was concerned his dogs would be adopted to people who would keep them on “four-foot chains.”
“I’d rather see them euthanized,” he said. “I couldn’t bring myself to adopt them out.”