Officials, animal advocates clash over lax dog-law enforcement

HARRISBURG — An admission by state agriculture officials Wednesday that fewer than half the large breeding kennels in Pennsylvania were meeting the full requirements of the 2008 dog law and that the state had decided not to enforce some provisions of the law touched off a series of heated exchanges between officials and animal-welfare advocates.

Officials told members of the governor’s Dog Law Advisory Board — meeting for the first time since Gov. Corbett took office 15 months ago — that only 17 of 52 commercial kennels were in compliance with regulations governing temperature, humidity, ventilation, and ammonia levels that were supposed to take effect almost one year ago, prompting one board member to ask why they were allowed to stay in business if they were violating the law.

Lynn Diehl, director of the Office of Dog Law Enforcement, said state dog wardens were working with the remaining kennels to get them into compliance.

“Nowhere in the law does it say unless the state takes a different position,” said Tom Hickey, a board member from West Chester. “They were supposed to be in compliance on July 1, 2011.”

Advisory board members also took issue with the agency’s admission that it was not monitoring ventilation in kennels once engineers had certified them.

“That’s like the Department of Transportation saying you passed the emissions test once, so we’re not going to check it again,” said Marsha Perelman, a board member from Wynnewood. “It’s illogical and illegal.”

By the end of the exchange, Michael Pechart, executive deputy secretary to Agriculture Secretary George Greig, said he would consider reviewing the agency’s policy on ventilation requirements.

But that didn’t assuage the board members or many of the 50 attendees, among them representatives from the ASPCA and the Humane Society of the United States, the nation’s two largest animal-welfare organizations. Those groups, whose staff were involved in helping draft the dog law, are angry about what they see as a pattern of the agency’s ignoring the law, including in one case awarding a kennel license to the wife of a convicted animal abuser.

“It’s appalling that the department has unilaterally decided they have the ability to ignore part of the law and regulations when convenient,” said Sarah Speed, Pennsylvania state director of the Humane Society, one of several groups considering suing the state over nonenforcement of the law.

Since the passage of the landmark dog law, the number of commercial kennels in Pennsylvania supplying puppies to pet shops in the region plummeted from a high of 350, with most breeders deciding they could not afford the costly renovations needed to comply with the law. The issue of the treatment of dogs living in puppy mills was one of the most hotly debated in Harrisburg in the last six years, generating record numbers of e-mails to the governor and lawmakers, turnpike billboards, rallies, and two years of legislative debate. Since the new administration took office, animal-welfare activists have become concerned that the philosophy of the Department of Agriculture was shifting away from enforcement in an effort to keep kennels, which are often located on farms, in business.

The meeting came amid a dismal fiscal outlook for the Office of Dog Law Enforcement, which is supported largely by individual dog licenses, and is on track to run out of money next year.

Contact Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inkyamy.