The laws, the courts, local governments and the sheltering crisis

In Harrisburg this weekend police officers picked up two pit bulls, who had escaped from their yard, took them to the city incinerator site and shot them. Why? Because Harrisburg Humane Society refused to pick them up, saying it had received no payment from the city of Harrisburg for animal control.

Fifty miles west the Cumberland Valley Animal Shelter is hoping for restitution after spending $20,000 in the past year caring for four Siberian Huskies that belonged to a couple with a history of animal cruelty. But there is no guarantee they will get that money back. In northeast Pennsylvania a dog breeder convicted of animal cruelty is fighting an order to pay $31,000 to the Luzerne County SPCA for the care of dogs rescued from deplorable conditions in her kennel in 2009. 

What do these cases have in common?

They illustrate the dysfunctional state of animal sheltering in Pennsylvania and the hit-or-miss nature of justice system when it comes to animals and their abusers. As long as shelters have to go hat-in-hand to each and every municipality seeking donations for amounts that have no bearing on the actual costs, there will be no guarantee that animals will be safe. And judicial discretion combined with weak laws means judges can ignore pleas by these nonprofits for help caring for the four-legged victims of abuse.

Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals were founded for a century ago to give aid and comfort to the legions of stray dogs and cats and abused carriage horses. Are we to return to Victorian times, when dead animals littered the streets and animal abuse went unpunished? 

We can't completely blame the shelters for this mess. Pennsylvania desperately needs shelter funding reform. Shelters need sufficient operating dollars and a consistent funding stream. In Maryland for instance, the counties provide the bulk of funding for countywide shelters through county tax dollars. 

In Delaware County, municipalities and animal welfare advocates are scrambling to figure out what to do with the thousands of animals who will be left out in the cold come July when the Delaware County SPCA goes out of the animal control business. The future of the Philadelphia animal control contract is not certain. In January, Gov. Rendell said he would be exploring partnering with prisons to help shelter animals statewide, but we've yet to hear any more from him on that.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking for animals in Delaware County. It's already expired for two pit bulls in Harrisburg.