PA set to ban pet gas chambers, AKC fights bill to aid shelters

Dog breeders are putting 11th-hour pressure on the Pennsylvania Senate to kill two animal welfare bills sought by shelters and their supporters.

The American Kennel Club and its affiliate Pennsylvania Federation of Dog Clubs Legislation are seeking to block a bill that would end the gassing unwanted pets in shelters, a practice widely considered inhumane. 

That bill, HB 2630, however, appears poised to become law with Gov. Corbett saying he will sign the bill and Senate leaders giving signs it will win final approval next week.

But opposition by the AKC breeder groups threatens a second bill aimed at making those charged with animal abuse to relinquish their pet or cover the cost of their animal's care until the case is adjudicated.

Senate leadership says HB 2630, which would ban carbon monoxide to euthanize stray and unwanted cats and dogs, is on the fast track for passage during the final few days of the 2011-2012 legislative session next week.

Only three shelters, all in western Pennsylvania, still use this practice banned in 19 other states and many municipalities. When the bill becomes law all shelters would be required to destroy animals by lethal injection as virtually all other shelters and veterinarians do.

Teetering on the edge is a bill to make animal abusers - for the first time - pay for the cost of care of the animals they have mistreated.

Pennsylvania shelters are being crushed from all sides: the state's grant program has been decimated and may well be dissolved entirely and local government support is miniscule or non existent, leaving shelters to struggle to make up the difference with private fundraising.

That bill, HB 2409, sponsored by Rep. Brian Ellis (R., Butler) sailed through the state House on a 192-5 vote. It would mandate that individuals pay a daily fee, capped at $15 a day, and require shelters to document veterinary expenses for the weeks, months or even years the animal is in a shelter.

If someone were to add up the total costs to all shelters in Pennsylvania who feed and provide medical care to animals in abuse cases, it would easily stretch into the millions.

Now shelters can only hope for court-ordered restitution. Shelter operators I talked to said with a handful of exceptions - usually deductions from government-issued checks - they never see any reimbursement for the costs of care for the abuse victims they care for.

In one case in Franklin County alone, the cost of care for four huskies, whose owners were twice convicted of cruelty but are continuing to appeal, is nearing $50,000. At the same time the dogs have been confined in a kennel at Cumberland Valley Animal Shelter for two years.

Enter the American Kennel Club, the world's oldest dog registry, which sent a letter opposing the bill to House leaders last month, arguing it violates the "due process rights" of dog owners.

Now its affiliate Pennsylvania Federation of Dog Clubs - which fought the landmark 2008 dog law bill to clean up the state's puppy mills - is turning up the heat on the Senate which is in session for only three more days next week.

In a nine-page letter the federation says the bill "deprives persons of property rights without a conviction on the underlying offense," among other issues.

Bruce Wagman, a San Francisco-based animal law expert, said the bill has "clear and extensive due process protections built in" and requires the court to find there was sufficient basis to seize the animals.

In his response to the challenge Wagman wrote, "The law only requires owners of animals to meet their statutory obligation to care for their animals...and is a matter of undisputed Pennsylvania law. That is, if a defendant cannot pay for the care of the animal they would be engaging in neglect and therefore animal cruelty, so that costs required do not demand anything more than that defendants comply with their legal obligations."

The bill received clearance from the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association and has been reviewed by a number of lawyers, its supporters say.

"If the cost of care bill does not pass, I think many small non-profit shelters are going to re-think the work they do with cruelty investigations," said Nancy Gardner, president of the board of the Cumberland Valley Animal Shelter. " The expenses just aren't sustainable."

Gardner adds: "Actually, if people are breaking state law, this should be a function of law enforcement, not local animal shelters who receive no funding for it.  The question then is, how good a job will the state and local municipalities do in enforcing laws that protect animals?"

If the cost of care bill dies in the Senate, the process would start from square one in 2013.