New law helps animal shelters cover care of seized animals

Mary Ann Thomas
| Monday, Feb. 17, 2014, 11:21 a.m.

Bella, a boxer mix and her five puppies were unexpectedly abandoned in Arnold when their owner was incarcerated in the Allegheny County Jail last month on burglary charges.

Luckily, a family member turned the animals over to Animal Protectors of Allegheny Valley in New Kensington. The nonprofit will try to find homes for the puppies next month.

That's not always the case when shelters are stuck with mounting expenses of housing and treating animals seized from abusive situations or other legal entanglements.

A new state law that helps shelters deal with seized animals has helped push Pennsylvania up in the rankings, from 17 to 12, for having the best animal protection laws in the country.

While there is improvement in the state's animal treatment laws, a number of officials say the state still has a way to go.

For the ranking, the Humane Society of the United States reviews animal protection laws in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., on a number of issues, including animal cruelty and fighting, pets, wildlife, equines, animals in research and farm animals.

The new law, known as the Cost of Care of Seized Animals Act, was a game changer for the state's ranking for 2013.

“The shelters have had to carry the costs to care for those animals until appeals are exhausted, which can take years,” said Sarah Speed, Pennsylvania state director for the Humane Society of the United States.

With the legislation, a shelter can make a motion to require a defendant to pay for the cost of boarding pets before trial.

Plus, the threat of being hit with those expenses will cause owners to voluntarily relinquish the animals.

“Animals held in cruelty and other cases are in limbo. They can't be adopted out,” Speed said.

“In general, it's good for the shelter,” said Lynette Vybiral, executive director of the Butler County Humane Society.

“We can recover some of the costs involved in taking care of those animals,” she said.

Locally, animal shelters and officials who enforce cruelty laws are still working with the new law.

Some animal protection officers don't think that Pennsylvania does enough to protect animals, including Brian Bucek, a humane officer for the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society.

“As it goes with cruelty laws in Pennsylvania, they address the bare minimum, “ Bucek said. “In other states, the penalties for abuse are much higher.”

The new law handling the costs of care for abused animals in the state is a good start, he said.

“It's effective tool in limited use so far,” he said. “As we understand the law more, it will be even more effective.”

Although Animal Protectors of Allegheny Valley have had some animals that were part of cruelty and other legal cases, it doesn't represent the majority of their shelter animals, according to Jeanne Lessig, president of board of directors at Animal Protectors.

Most of their shelter animals are strays and injured animals.

In the case of the boxer-mix puppies, the “shelter is stuck paying for the dogs now,” said Jody Berisko, officer manger for Animal Protectors.

But since the owner's family released the animals to the shelter, the animals will be adopted into new homes in about a month.

Rural shelters such as Orphans of the Storm in Kittanning don't often deal with animals that are seized, and the new law has had little impact on them.

“We're a rural farming kind of community here,” said Bethann Galbraith, assistant manager at the small shelter in Kittanning.

“Yes, we have animal abuse issues but it's surprising,” she said. “People are treating animals better than they used to. Animals have become part of families and life.”

The biggest complaint the shelter receives concern people keeping their animals outdoors – tethered to dog houses or porches – in inclement weather.

With the cold weather, the shelter has received a lot of complaints,' Galbraith said.

A new bill in the state house and senate seeks to limit when animals can be confined, especially outdoors, by a tether.

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or

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