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Dog lovers unleash outrage over changes to Pennsylvania law

| Sunday, Sept. 12, 2010

LANCASTER COUNTY — The rusting cages along a country road caught Bill Smith's eye.

When he noticed them on the edge of a farm in the heart of Amish country, Smith slammed on the brakes, threw his old Subaru into reverse, parked on the gravel shoulder and jumped out of the car.

"This is it," Smith said, hands on hips. "This is what these dogs live in their whole lives. This is exactly what we fought so hard to get rid of."

For a living area, the cages were tiny: a couple feet tall, a few feet wide. They were elevated off the ground on stilts. They had wire walls and flooring.

To Smith — an animal rights activist who runs Main Line Animal Rescue in neighboring Chester County — such cages symbolize what is wrong with commercial dog breeding in Pennsylvania, and with legislators' failures to protect dogs.

Especially in Lancaster and Chester counties, known as the "puppy mill capital of the East," many breeding dogs languish in hot, dark barns, rarely seeing daylight, according to activists, politicians and inspection records. Many live entire lives without access to the outdoors, constantly on wire flooring that allows urine and feces to pass through but can trap paws.

In 2008, such conditions were supposed to change. Dog lovers and politicians, led by Gov. Ed Rendell, pushed through the Pennsylvania Dog Law aimed at improving the lives of commercial breeding dogs.

The law banned wire flooring; mandated unfettered access to outdoor exercise areas; required breeders to adhere to strict temperature, humidity, ventilation and lighting requirements; doubled cage sizes; barred stacking cages; and ordered that only veterinarians can euthanize dogs. The last requirement was added when two Berks County breeders shot to death 80 dogs in kennels after an inspector issued citations for extreme heat, insufficient bedding and dangerous flooring, and ordered veterinarian checks for 39 of the dogs.

"The people of Pennsylvania had spoken," Smith said. "They wanted these dogs to have better lives. ... We won. The time for debating was over."

Or so he thought.

Controversial policies

In July, the state Department of Agriculture issued two controversial policy statements, one reversing the outdoor-exercise regulation and another saying that pregnant and nursing dogs can be kept in cages with up to 50 percent wire flooring. Last month, the Independent Regulatory Review Commission in Harrisburg approved, despite nearly five hours of testimony opposing the changes.

Activists and politicians who helped draft the law were outraged.

"The law says no wire flooring for any dogs in commercial kennels, and that all dogs must have access to an outdoor exercise area," said Rep. Jim Casorio, D-Irwin, who co-wrote the law. "Commercial breeder dogs have suffered long enough."

"I don't understand it," said Nancy Gardner, a member of the Pennsylvania Dog Law Advisory Group. "Not much will change now."

The altered Dog Law was sent to the Attorney General's Office for a legal review. The office has until Sept. 23 to approve the regulations. If it does, the law takes effect in July 2011.

On Monday, a group of "companion animal advocates" will rally on the steps of the Capitol, said organizer Jenny Stephens, director of the animal advocacy group North Penn Puppy Mill Watch. The dog law is among issues they will address with legislators.

"We absolutely maintain that the (amendments) break the law," Stephens said. "It's very clear that no dogs should be on wire."

Breeders: Law too strict

Commercial breeders are angry, for different reasons. Even with the changes, they say, the law is too strict.

"Next thing you know, they'll come after the cows and horses," said Elmer Fisher, a former Gordonville breeder who sold poodles, shih tzus and bichons.

"I shouldn't say anything more, but I'm fed up with it all," Fisher said, standing barefoot on a scooter when the Tribune-Review interviewed him at his farm last month. "It was a good business."

Fisher closed his kennels this year because upgrading them would be too costly, he said. He said he made $50,000 a year with "50 or so" dogs, a lucrative second income. The new law, he said, will force hard-working farmers — many of them Amish or Mennonite — to close their kennels.

At the beginning of last year, the state had more than 300 commercial dog kennels, according to Department of Agriculture records. Today, 111 exist.

Michael Glass, a breeding industry lobbyist with America's Pet Registry Inc., said breeders will have to shut down. The law is designed not to protect dogs, he said, but to drive breeders out of business.

"Someone please explain this to me: In this country, it is socially acceptable to take an animal, raise it, give it all the proper health care and maintenance it requires, and then kill it and eat it," he said, referring to livestock. "But it is not socially acceptable to take an animal, raise it, give it quality care, a quality living environment, and then sell it as a companion. For some reason, there is a large group of people out there who says that's taboo."

'Empty cages'

Breeders complain that regulations requiring them to install monitors to record temperatures and humidity levels make them feel like criminals needing constant supervision.

"They don't want clean cages," Glass said of the activists. "They want empty cages."

The dog law debate soured many commercial breeders and left them distrustful. The Trib visited a dozen breeders in Lancaster and Chester counties, most of whom would not answer questions. Some agreed to talk only anonymously. None gave the Trib permission to photograph, or even look at, kennels.

"I want you off my property — now!" shouted Melvin Nolt of East Earl, pointing to the end of his driveway. A cacophony of barking dogs drifted from a barn with no visible windows.

Nolt runs one of the state's largest commercial kennels and is licensed to keep 501 or more dogs per year, according to Department of Agriculture records.

Last year, investigators noted puppies' and adult dogs' paws sticking through metal strand flooring in Nolt's kennels and found several dogs needing veterinary care, including limping dogs and an adult silky that was "severely drooling and tongue hanging out of the mouth," according to inspection records. Follow-up inspections this year showed Nolt fixed the problems.

Glass said most breeders love their dogs, provide quality care and are being treated unfairly.

"We've been burned so many times," Glass said. "We need someone willing to print that there's a group of dog breeders out there who enjoy doing this but are being made to feel that because they're making a living off it, they're like criminals."

Legal action vowed

In Chester County, Smith's Main Line Animal Rescue has about 200 dogs, most from puppy mills. He can point to dogs and tell their stories:

• Trista, a 1-year-old cattle dog, is so terrified of humans that she hides under a small bed in her enclosure when staffers walk past.

• Marlene, a 3-year-old coonhound, lost an eye in a puppy mill. Smith does not know how.

• An Australian shepherd named Kyle was pulled from a wire-floor cage with a broken leg.

Rescuers found Sonoma, a huge, 5-year-old Alaskan Malamute, crammed into a rabbit hutch in East Earl that was so small the 100-pound dog could not lift her head.

Several dogs try to bark, but emit only a scratchy wheezing sound. "They've been de-barked," Smith explained. "That's when someone hammers a pipe down their throats so they can't bark anymore."

Many traumatized dogs require weeks of therapy.

"They don't even know how to be a dog anymore," said Jen Darby, an assistant kennel manager at Main Line. "Eventually, they come around, though. It's amazing. They're so forgiving."

Smith is not.

He promised legal action if the amended dog law survives the legal review, and he has turned on Rendell, who adopted three golden retrievers from Smith's shelter.

Despite their history, Smith funded billboards reading: "Why is the Rendell administration bending over backwards to accommodate PA's puppy mills?" And he bought those cages left on the side of the road with the intention of placing them on the state Capitol steps so lawmakers can get a good look.

Rendell declined to comment for this story. His chief of staff, Steve Crawford, said the criticism is unfair.

"It's ironic that the one governor who has paid the most attention to the condition of dogs in Pennsylvania is subjected to these bulletin boards that say what they say," he said. "It's exasperating."

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