Animal Protection Remains at the Forefront of the Legislative Agenda

Animal Protection Remains at the Forefront of the Legislative Agenda

Author: Nicole Trayer/Monday, July 31, 2017/Categories: News and Views

Just last month the commonwealth celebrated the passage of HB 1238, a package of several measures bringing the penalties for animal abuse to new heights in Pennsylvania, which was dubbed the most “comprehensive animal protection bill in the history of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania” by the Humane Society of the United States.

 

Building on this achievement, the General Assembly has demonstrated there is still work to be done to protect Pennsylvania’s animals and has a lineup of legislation awaiting further action.

 

Rep. Todd Stephens (R-Montgomery), prime sponsor of HB 1238, explained that the increased interest in animal protection laws by the General Assembly is in response to the demand by Pennsylvania’s citizens for legislative action to be taken.

 

“We heard them loudly and clearly and have acted to provide greater protections for our animals,” he said.

 

Sen. Judy Schwank (D-Berks) and Rep. Eddie Pashinski (D-Luzerne) have introduced legislation, SB 738 and HB 1463 respectively, in order to continue funding the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement (BDLE) under the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA). 

 

The BDLE is responsible for ensuring the welfare of breeding dogs and puppies in commercial kennels and is at the forefront of putting an end to the state’s ongoing puppy mill problem. According to the 2017 list of the “Horrible 100” worst puppy mills by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Pennsylvania remains in second place.  

It is the dog wardens of the BDLE who have the authority to inspect breeding kennels without a warrant and, therefore, are often the ones to provide the evidence humane society police officers or municipal police officers need to support a reasonable belief that the owner is in violation of animal cruelty law.

However, the Dog Law Restricted Account, the main financial source for the BDLE, is at risk of running out of funds without a change in the law.

“Today we find ourselves at a point where there is a structural deficit in this dog law restricted account and we face the very real prospect of going negative sometime within the current fiscal year,” said Mike Smith, executive deputy secretary for the PDA.

The account for the BDLE is primarily funded through licensing fees which have not increased in over 20 years meaning, as expenses have risen with inflation, license fees have been putting the BDLE at risk of running out of money. In a letter regarding the proposed legislation, PDA Secretary Russell Redding, noted that the state has already had to eliminate the reimbursements to local shelters that accept stray dogs due to insufficient funding.

“In short, without a reasonable increase in dog license fees and other modernization improvements to help the bureau operate more efficiently, Pennsylvania risks undoing all the good work done since 2008 to protect the welfare of dogs and puppies in the state,” he wrote.

The bills previously mentioned propose to require all fines, fees, and costs collected to remain in the BDLE’s account and used to fund dog law enforcement efforts. This is in direct response to the transfer of $4 million from the account to balance the state budget in 2009. The fee for a dog license would also increase by a rate commensurate with inflation and a single, statewide online platform for selling dog licenses would be created. Additionally, Sen. Schwank said the Secretary of Agriculture would have some “leeway” in raising the annual dog license and lifetime license fees so that the BDLE would not have to continually come back to the legislature for funding.

Currently, there is one dog warden per county, or in some cases one warden for multiple counties, with responsibilities including the inspection of kennels, responding to severe dog bites, picking up stray dogs, and maintaining the state’s dangerous dog registry. Smith said the BDLE has already had to decrease its complement from 90 people to only about 65 today.

“We do not want to find ourselves in a position where we have to make other additional difficult decisions that would further hurt our ability to ensure the safety of dogs and the public,” Smith said.

Based on a report by the Department of Agriculture, the BDLE sold 966,198 individual dog licenses in 2016 resulting in $6,281,117 in revenue. If the bills are passed, the cost of a yearly license fee for one dog would rise from $8.50 to $11 and the lifetime license fee would go up from $51.50 to $74. For a spayed or neutered dog, the one year license fee would increase from $6.50 to $10 and the lifetime fee would go from $31.50 to $47. Overall, this would generate an estimated additional $1.25 million in revenue per year for the BDLE.

Sen. Schwank said there has been some bipartisan support on the legislation and explained it was introduced late in the legislative season with the hope of having it folded into one of the different code bills, specifically the administrative code bill, within the budget. She said putting it into a code bill would achieve the same results more quickly, but did say that prospect is “up in the air” right now.

“We really are on the ropes in terms of being able to enforce dog law,” she said.

Organizations like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) have voiced their support for the legislation.

“The Humane Society of the United States was instrumental in the crafting of tougher penalties for violators of dog law and supports the funding necessary to do the work,” said Kristen Tullo, HSUS Pennsylvania State Director. “We thank Senator Judy Schwank and Representative Pashinski for introducing legislation to help the dog law.” 

As it stands, both pieces of legislation remain in their respective Agriculture and Rural Affairs committees. Sen. Schwank said if the legislation is not included in a code bill her goal is that it will be addressed by both the House and Senate when the general assembly returns to session in the fall.

Historically, Pennsylvania does not have the best track record in terms of preventing animal abuse. Puppy mills have consistently been an issue throughout the commonwealth, particularly in Lancaster County who led the state in licensing fees in 2015. For the humane society police officers and dog wardens that inspect breeding kennels, the findings have often been horrific ranging from dogs infected with parasites to cages stacked on top of one another without protection from extreme heat or cold.

Former Gov. Ed Rendell began legislative efforts to rid the state of this black-eye during his administration. In October 2008 he signed HB 2525, or Act 119, which increased the standard of care for dogs living in Pennsylvania kennels in hopes of forcing large-scale commercial breeders to either upgrade their facilities or lose their license. Under the new law, large-scale breeders were required, among other things, to double cage sizes, eliminate wire flooring, institute twice-a-year vet checks, provide unfettered access to the outdoors, and adhere to new ventilation and cleanliness regulations.

The law also defined a commercial kennel as one that sells or transfers at least 60 dogs per year and allowed for those with 26 or fewer dogs a year to forgo the kennel licensing process altogether. As a result, concerns were raised about the rise of unlicensed backyard kennels with little oversight as well as large commercial kennels misleading authorities on their sales.

Smith acknowledged this concern and said it’s an “ever-present challenge” that breeders will find “loopholes” within the dog law or will fail to abide by their obligations once they reach the 26 dog threshold. “We rely on the public and other law enforcement to report those instances because we can’t have eyes and ears everywhere at all times,” he said.

The number of licensed and commercial breeders has continued to fall following the implementation of Act 119 with over 2,700 kennel locations licensed in 2007 to roughly 2,340 licensed last year. Smith attributed this decrease to the tougher regulations imposed in 2008 and said they helped to “weed out the bad actors.”

Rep. Stephens said the passage of his bill as well as those being pursued by Sen. Schwank and Rep. Pashinski are important to combatting these issues because without the laws being enforced they become “meaningless.”

“We’ve got to make sure that we are fully funding the enforcement mechanisms to oversee dog law,” he said.

Rep. Frank Farry (R-Bucks) has also introduced his own legislation, HB 1216 and HB 1040.

HB 1216, or the Motor Vehicle Extreme Heat Protection Act, would prohibit the confinement of a dog or cat in an unattended motor vehicle in a manner that would endanger the health of the animal with the violation being a summary offense. Under the bill, a police officer, humane society officer, or other public safety professional would be authorized to remove the dog or cat from the unattended vehicle without liability after conducting a “reasonable” search for the owner or operator of the vehicle.

Rep. Farry said many other states have already implemented similar legislation and that it is “common sense.”

His other legislation, HB 1040 or “Cash’s Law,” seeks to allow for a judge to have a sentencing enhancement in a case where a domestic or farm animal is injured or killed during the commission of a burglary or criminal trespass.

Cash, the Cane Corso breed that inspired the bill, was shot and killed while trying to protect his owner during a failed robbery attempt on his home. Rep. Farry said the legislation has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee and he is hopeful it will be acted on during the fall session.

A 2016 ranking of U.S. animal protection laws by the Animal Legal Defense Fund placed Pennsylvania in the bottom tier at 44th, but with the plethora of animal protection legislation being worked on by the general assembly, members are confident those numbers will improve.

Rep. Stephens said he is hopeful that the passage of his legislation will help the commonwealth to move up in the rankings in terms of animal protection and added that legislation like his “demonstrates this general assembly’s firm commitment to protecting all the animals in Pennsylvania.”

Rep. Farry echoed his sentiments and said these pieces of legislation, in addition to HB 1238, will help to “chip away” at the issues. “I hope when were done with these various pieces of legislation we’ll be able to look back and say alright we really tackled the issue and we’re in good shape at this point,” he said. 

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