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Public awareness drives changes to animal cruelty laws

| Monday, May 18, 2009

Kathy Burkley's application form to operate the Humane Society of Westmoreland's kennel went from one page last year to a multi-page booklet this year.

But the executive director of the animal rescue agency in Greensburg doesn't mind the additional work that resulted from the new state dog law — not if the 21-page form helps to reduce the number of puppy mills or incidents of animal abuse, Burkley said.

"I think the law is a good law," Burkley said. "Overall, it will be a good law in that it makes people be more accountable and opens their eyes when they get into animal rescue."

The law is one of several enacted across the nation as more people view dogs and other animals as more than servants of man, said Lee Nesler, director of the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society, based in Allegheny County.

"I would say more and more people are considering animals as a part of the family and less a watchdog chained outside," she said.

In 1993, only seven states had felony animal cruelty laws. Today, all but five do, according to the Humane Society of the United States.

Pennsylvania's new dog law involves nonprofit humane societies, which need a kennel license if they handle 26 or more dogs yearly, and commercial breeding kennels that handle, sell or house 60 or more dogs annually.

Among the requirements for humane society-type kennels is setting up a veterinarian-approved exercise plan and having fire alarms or extinguishers in place, said Chris Ryder, spokesman for the state Agriculture Department, which enforces the law with 62 dog wardens, six supervisors and four kennel compliance specialists.

For breeding kennels, the law sets minimum sizes for cages, eliminates wire flooring in the containers and prohibits housing receptacles from being stacked on top of one another, Ryder said. These changes will take effect Oct. 9.

An additional requirement for breeding facilities is that dogs must be euthanized by a veterinarian. This stipulation resulted after 80 dogs were legally shot to death last year after a warden ordered kennel operators in eastern Pennsylvania to hire a vet to check the animals for fleas.

In particular, the dog law was created because of problems in some facilities, especially so-called puppy mills, Ryder said.

Reporting requirements in the law can give inspectors a better idea of where commercial breeders are located, he added.

In 2008, about 300 nonprofits kennels were operating in Pennsylvania, according to agriculture department figures. Agency officials estimate there are 650 commercial kennels in the state.

Nesler said she "absolutely" supports the new dog law if it helps eliminate puppy mills.

"The fact that we have to do a little more administrative work ... that's not a concern to me," Nesler said.

Dawn Backos, a dog breeder and member and former officer of the Bushy Run Kennel Club in Westmoreland County, said only a handful of commercial breeders in the county and most others in western Pennsylvania are affected by the law.

She said many dog breeders, like her, participate in dog shows and have one or two planned litters, at most, each year.

"I don't make a living off my dogs," Backos said. "These people (commercial breeders) often do."

Ron Smith, who has enforced laws for the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society for 36 years, said he believes the media is partly responsible for the change in people's attitudes about animals, especially those viewed as pets.

Media reports show people what a mistreated animal goes through, he said. It also educates in other ways.

"Public awareness, there has been a dramatic change," Smith said. "I think the public is more aware of animal cruelty laws and that animal cruelty is a crime. I've seen a big change in that way."

But while some say progress is being made, other animal advocacy groups say the changes aren't coming fast enough.

LuAnn Hutcheson, manager of Action for Animals in Derry Township, said there's one area that people seem to forget about their dogs.

"There's still a lot of people who don't realize that in Pennsylvania, your dog needs a dog license," she said.

Nesler said an important part in enforcing the animal laws is that district judges, court judges and prosecutors are taking cases involving animal law more seriously than they did a few years ago.

"People are recognizing the link between animal abuse and what happens to people," Nesler said. "Animals are sentient beings that deserve care."

Additional Information:

Dog housing

Number of various types of kennels housing from one to 500 dogs in 2008:

Allegheny County: 32

Butler County: 41

Fayette County: 38.

Indiana County: 33

Westmoreland County: 84.

Source: Pennsylvania Dog Law summary

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