HARRISBURG - With animal shelters closing their doors to homeless dogs and other shelters facing financial pressures, the question plaguing animal-welfare advocates is this: Where to put the thousands of stray dogs found roaming throughout state each year?
The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture convened the first-ever statewide meeting of shelters Tuesday to address this issue.
About 50 representatives of shelters from Erie to Philadelphia, along with humane officers, municipal officials, rescue groups, and state dog wardens, outlined an array of animal-control problems facing communities.
"We are at a tipping point," said Jessie Smith, special deputy secretary of the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement. "The law says we must pick them up, but there isn't anyone on the other side whose duty it is to shelter the dogs."
Shelter operators said they were having trouble persuading municipalities to pay what they considered their fair share to cover the costs of transporting and caring for stray animals.
State dog wardens, whose duties include stray-dog pickup, said they were being turned away from area shelters and have had to transport dogs as far as 100 miles to find a shelter to take them to.
The issue was brought to light in the southeastern part of the state last summer when the Delaware County SPCA announced that, beginning in July 2011, it would no longer take in stray dogs.
"We're in a crisis in Delaware County," Springfield Township Police Chief Joe Daly told the group. "There are 7,500 animals a year that go there, and there's no other shelter in the county. I will have no place to put them."
The Delaware County SPCA, which did not have a representative at the meeting, said it would no longer accept strays because it wanted to become a "no-kill" shelter.
Other shelters are limiting admissions for space.
Dog warden supervisor Harold Walstrom said the number of stray dogs in his Central Pennsylvania region, which had been on the decline, increased again as shelters stopped taking in all animals.
The Philadelphia-based Pennsylvania SPCA, which won the contract to handle the city's animal control in 2008, says the $1 million from the city is not covering the costs of caring for the majority of the 32,000 animals it takes in each year.
Executive director Sue Cosby says her group is reevaluating its options for next year.
Driving the problem here, Cosby said, is that Pennsylvania, unlike New Jersey and other states, has no state law mandating that counties provide for animal control as a government service.
Animal shelters that take strays rely on private donations, municipal support, minimal state contributions ($30 per dog), and grants.
Delaware County SPCA gets $119 per animal from municipalities, up from $20 in 2009. But the hike has caused at least three municipalities - Aston, Lower Chichester, and Chadds Ford - to opt out.
Some shelters, such as the Humane League of Lancaster County, are refusing services to municipalities that don't pay.
"We raised the fees to match the cost," said the league's executive director, Joan Brown. "We lost $250,000 last year taking in strays and not being compensated."
Tom Hickey Sr., a member of the state Dog Law Advisory Board, is meeting with municipal officials and county commissioners to figure out a solution to the Delaware County problem.
One idea: building a state-of-the-art regional facility to provide animal control, adoptions, and behavior training.
"Without a place to go, we're going to have sick and wounded dogs wandering the streets, and more animal abuse. That's not acceptable," Hickey said. "It's not just dog owners' responsibility; it's everyone in the county's responsibility."