Animal abuse bill in hands of Senate

| Sunday, April 21, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

HARRISBURG — The Senate could take action before summer recess on state legislation that would require abusers to pay for shelter costs of rescued animals.

The House-passed bill is pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where officials met with interested parties about two weeks ago to fashion a compromise.

“I think the prospects for this bill are excellent,” said Sarah Speed, Pennsylvania state director of the Humane Society of the United States.

The bill is meant to defray costs shelters incur to care for abused animals, she said.

Rep. Brian Ellis, R-Butler County, the bill's prime sponsor, said he believes the latest version addresses concerns some dog breeders raised about giving people accused of abuse “due process.” The House approved his bill by a 163-34 vote in January.

The concept under consideration would hold that if a person accused of abuse is acquitted, he or she would get back any money paid for shelter care, Ellis said. The cap on costs is $15 a day, though it might be lowered to $10 per day, he said.

Ellis said abusers also would be responsible for “reasonable veterinary fees.”

“It is a step in the right direction,” said Kathy Burkley, executive director of the Humane Society of Westmoreland County. But, she noted, it's “too soon to tell” whether the legislation would have a significant impact.

“Most of these people don't have any money,” Burkley said of animal abusers.

Court judgments in cases involving animal abuse can take a long time, she said, noting that one case involving dogs and horses wasn't adjudicated for seven months.

“It runs into thousands of dollars. It's because they kept appealing,” Burkley said.

In a case last year, the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society spent about $12,000 to care for 12 dogs rescued from a filthy home in North Braddock while the owner fought for control of the animals in court, said spokeswoman Gretchen Fieser.

Allegheny County Children, Youth and Family workers discovered dozens of cats, dogs and chickens inside the house when they went to check the welfare of a 10-year-old girl. In addition to the dogs, 18 cats were seized, which the owner released, and were adopted last summer.

But the owner fought for the dogs, Fieser said. After several legal postponements, the owner agreed to release the dogs to the society for adoption if she did not have to reimburse the society for their care.

“In the end it was in the best interest of these animals for us to walk away from the money so we could place them for adoption,” Fieser said. “The judge let her go and ordered that she could not own any more animals.”

According to Ellis, more than 90 percent of cases against animal abusers are upheld. Those accused of abuse would start paying if a judge approves, he said. “The most important thing, from our perspective, is if the animal is safe,” Burkley said. “With us, they will be safe.”

Burkley said shelters would need to set aside money collected from accused abusers, in case they are subsequently cleared and need to be repaid.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery County, plans to bring up the bill, his office said. Greenleaf sponsored the 1997 so-called “Puppy Lemon Law,” which enables pet owners to recover losses from sellers of sick dogs. He is working on legislation to revise and strengthen that law.

Staff writer John D. Oravecz contributed to this report. Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or

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