When Gov. Rendell signed the dog law outside a Philadelphia area veterinary clinic on Oct. 9, 2008, surrounded by lawmakers and animal advocates, he proclaimed it marked the end of wire cage flooring for adult breeding dogs.
Now the agency charged with enforcing the law has determined that breeding females can be housed on wire flooring for almost one third of the year. The policy also would exempt commercial breeders from the requirement for "unfettered access" to outdoor exercise for part of the year. The ban on wire flooring and exercise requirement were two of the most important components of the legislation sought by animal welfare advocates.
In a policy statement released yesterday, the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement said it would allow female dogs to be kept on wire flooring one week before giving birth and until the puppies are weaned at five or six weeks. Then breeders would be required to return the dog to its solid floor cage.
In a best-case scenario that would mean dogs who are bred twice a year would spend 14 weeks on wire.
Under the new dog law, puppies up to 14 weeks may be kept in cages with wire floors. Adult dogs over 14 weeks must be kept on solid or slatted flooring. There is no mention of nursing mothers. Jessie Smith, the bureau's special deputy secretary, said the bureau determined that it would be more sanitary to keep mothers and nursing puppies on wire with a solid floor whelping box than on solid flooring.
"Our policy promotes the welfare of the neonatal nursing puppies, and at the same time does not risk the mother’s health or welfare," said Smith in an email. She said since there is no requirement that puppies under 14 weeks be kept on solid flooring and nursing mothers must be kept with puppies that therefore mothers could be kept on wire flooring.
Animal advocates swiftly condemned the policy as unenforceable and a reversal of what has been hailed around the nation as a "model law."
Bill Smith, founder of Main Line Animal Rescue, said there also is no requirement in the law to have a whelping box so breeders could allow mothers to give birth on wire - as he said he has seen - and dog wardens would be unable to cite them.
Fran Calvarese, an officer with the Chambersburg Area Kennel Club, called the new policy "an end run" around the dog law. The Animal Law Coalition in a piece posted over the weekend, described the policy as a "subversion" of the dog law.
Bill Smith said moving dogs back and forth from wire to solid flooring, sometimes having access to exercise and sometimes not, all year would amount to "psychological torture."
"They are used to standing on solid flooring and then they'll be moved to wire," he said. "They're acting like dogs' feet and psyches can take all of this. One minute they have access to outdoor exercise, the next minute they are put in small box. It's horrible."
In addition, Smith said, how would wardens, who visit commercial kennels on average twice a year, know a female dog is only a week away from giving birth. "It's giving license to the breeders to keep dogs on wire 24/7."
Even worse, some say, the action is illegal.
"This was a legal interpretation that they received from a lawyer and it is a violation of the law," said Nancy Gardner, a member of the Dog Law Advisory Board and president of the Cumberland Valley Animal Shelter in Chambersburg.
Asked about the new policy yesterday, Rendell aid he was unaware of it and didn't "understand it."
The flooring policy is part of a package of kennel regulations now under consideration by the Independent Regulatory Review Commission.
Tom Hickey, a member of the Dog Law Advisory Board who was involved in drafting the law and reviewing the regulations, said he supports the new policy because of sanitation concerns and said ensuring that breeders follow the regulations could be done with vigorous "enforcement."
But AKC breeder Calvarese said the law was clearly aimed at weaned puppies and that putting small puppies on wire would be "disastrous" and could lead to maimed limbs or death. He disputed the notion that wire was needed for sanitation because mother dogs clean up after puppies and would never eliminate in the nest themselves unless there was no other choice.
Wire flooring is synonymous with the rabbit hutches popular among most commercial breeders for decades because they did not have to be cleaned regularly. The effects of years of living on wire have been well documented by groups that rescue puppy mill dogs: abrasions and cysts on paws, splayed feet and the inability to walk on solid floors.
Among the thousands of breeding dogs rescued from a Pennsylvania puppy mills was Rendell's own dog, Maggie, a Golden Retriever who had spent two years living in a rabbit hutch before being rescued by Main Line Animal Rescue in 2007.
A review of inspection reports shows historically the number one kennel issue in commercial kennels is the condition of the wire floors. The reports reflect countless cases where wire was sagging or had lost its coating - making it even more painful -broken wire and holes so large that dogs' feet slipped through - sometimes with tragic consequences.
The new law applies only to licensed commercial kennels - defined as those selling or transferring 60 or more dogs a year or selling a single dog to a pet store - of which about 110 remain. Roughly 200 commercial kennels have closed since the passage of the new law. The more than 2,000 smaller kennels licensed by the state are not subject to any flooring requirement.
The elimination of wire flooring for breeding dogs and the banning of cage stacking, access to regular exercise and twice-yearly veterinary care were the principle elements of the 2008 dog law. Most provisions however did not come into effect until Oct. 2009 and most commercial breeders (81 of 110) received waivers, allowing them up to three years to come into compliance.
The issue of nursing mothers on wire came to light at the Dog Law Advisory Board meeting last week after Gardner and others saw pictures in an Associated Press story showing adult dogs on wire in what was presented as a model commercial kennel.