Keith Mohler's phone has been ringing off the hook the past 48 hours.
As a humane society police officer in Lancaster County,home to the state's highest concentration of dog breeders, and horse-owning Amish and Mennonites, there's no shortage of animal cruelty complaints, but with the recent cold snap the number of calls spiked.
"Most of the calls are from people reporting dogs outside. But if they have shelter I have to tell them there's nothing I can do," he said.
Under the the Pennsylvania cruelty statute a shelter need only be "clean and sanitary" and "protect the animal against inclement weather and preserve the animal's body heat and keep it dry."
That means essentially any dwelling with four sides and a bottom is acceptable. There is no requirement for insulation, door flaps, bedding, or material for housing.
"What humane officers do is apply common sense to each situation when weather is extreme, even if it has an enclosure," said Mohler.
He said it's frustrating to him because the law applies the same to a thin-coated tiny chihuahua as it does to a large husky - a dog bred for the cold and snow.
"With some breeds under some conditions just having a shelter is not sufficient," he said.
Mohler says he will cite people for keeping dogs in Vari-kennels or Pet Taxis, the plastic airplane carriers, or boxes that are too large, making it difficult for a dog to retain its body heat. But beyond that there is little he can do.
Officers with the Pennsylvania SPCA are responding to a spate of cold weather calls in Philadelphia as well. In one case last week, humane law enforcement officers responded to a report of a dog left out in subfreezing temperatures with insufficient shelter and a frozen water bowl. They needed a search warrant to go in and rescue the dog, who was so sick he could not walk on his own..
Neighbors and animal lovers as far away as New Jersey have been voicing concern about a pair of Labrador retrievers in Lebanon County, Pa., who live outside. The dogs have a dog house on a raised platform in their fenced-in pen and a tarp over one section to give some protection from rain and sun.
But advocates say there is no bedding in the dog house, the water bowls were frozen and one dog is pregnant and soon to give birth. They argue puppies will certainly die outside in the cold.
Janice Fisher, the puppy mill awareness coordinator for Friends of Animals United NJ (FAUN), said the Pennsylvania law needs to amended to better define proper housing, including bedding requirements below certain temperatures.
Others like Tamira Thayne, founder of Dogs Deserve Better, a national group founded in Pennsylvania that advocates for anti-chaining laws, said in addition to banning 24/7 tethering of dogs, the state should make it illegal to allow a dog to be housed outside when the temperature dips below a certain level, say 20 degrees, or above 90 degrees.
"That would be a clear cut, no-argument legal definition, she said."To have temperature restrictions in place is crucial," said Thayne, who has spent the last month in Washington State where she worked to successfully remove dogs and shut down Olympic Animal Sanctuary, a trouble-plagued rescue in Forks.
"It makes me sick to my stomach to know dogs will die and there is nothing I can do about it."
She said at least with a temperature restriction police could not say there is nothing they can do. Thayne and Fisher also said the law should specifiy bedding requirements as the U.S. Department of Agriculture does with commercial kennels.
"The law is vague," said Fisher. "Shelter is not adequately described, as it is in the (federal) Animal Welfare Act, where USDA licensed breeders must provide adequate 'bedding' to dogs if the temperatures go below 50 degrees and must provide 'extra bedding' if the temperatures go below 35 degrees. In the PA Dog law, specific shelter requirements for dogs, no less puppies, does not seem to be addressed."
To report cruelty in Philadelphia, Delaware, Monroe, Lehigh, Northampton, Susquehanna,Union, Snyder, Mifflin, Centre, Huntingdon, Juniata, Montour, Northumberland, Potter, Tioga, Lycoming and Lancaster counties call the Pennsylvania SPCA hotline at 1-866-601-SPCA.
(Photo/Courtesy Dogs Deserve Better)