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Hard time for animal crime: Abusers going to prison

In the space of about 48 hours this past week three convicted animal abusers in our region were hauled off to jail - two of them in Pennsylvania.

Remember May 18 as a day for justice for animals in our region. Three convicted animal abusers were hauled off to jail that day - two of them in Pennsylvania.

In Allentown, Derbe Eckhart, one of the most notorious kennel operators in the state, was sentenced to six to 23 months in prison by Lehigh County Judge Robert Steinberg who didn't buy Eckhart's tearful apology and excuses, ranging from blaming others to saying he was overwhelmed by all the unwanted animals he rescued. This didn't sit well with the judge who noted that he was selling these dogs at his Almost Heaven kennel for exorbitant prices.

But it's over for Eckhart now. He also was barred from owning or being in the presence of animals - besides the ones he already has - for almost five years. The state says he will never possess another kennel license again. Still, at the time of his kennel license revocation, Eckhart was left with 25 dogs (the most an individual can own without a kennel license) and untold number of cats, birds, horses, guinea pigs and monkeys. The fate of those animals is unknown and it does not appear that either the state or the PSPCA asked the judge to allow follow-up inspections of the property.

In New York, a former top horse breeder/trainer got the maximum sentence of two years in jail for starving dozens of horses. Ernie Paragallo was convicted earlier this year on 33 misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty for neglecting the thoroughbred horses on his upstate New York farm. He also was fined $33,000. Some of the horses were too ill to recover and had to be euthanized.

Said Keith Dane, director of equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States: "While there is no punishment that can make up for the loss of life and severe suffering at the hands of this neglectful owner, we are grateful that Judge George J. Pulver Jr. recognized the severity of the cruelty inflicted by Paragallo. Hopefully, this case will send a strong message that animal abuse will not go unpunished.

And finally, back to Pennsylvania, a Harrisburg-area man who beat his Cocker Spaniel puppy to death was sentenced in Cumberland County court to eight to 23 months in county prison. Police say Matthew Mulch beat the 8-month-old puppy with a metal tool after an argument with his girlfriend last fall.

Animal cruelty laws have been on the books in Pennsylvania for decades. They are tough to prosecute and rarely end in convictions, let alone the jail sentences handed down on Tuesday.

Are judges finally waking up to seriousness of animal abuse? Are they becoming more aware of how the public views the inhumane treatment of animals - that pets are now considered beloved companions and true members of families?

The most recent sentences come six months after a Lancaster County district justice found a well-known commercial kennel veterinarian, Tom Stevenson, guilty of animal abuse for cutting off a puppy's tail under scalding water without anesthesia.

Because the district attorney declined to call a second witness (Helen Smith of Main Line Animal Rescue), the case boiled down to a he said/she said. District Justice Stuart Mylin found the testimony of Pennsylvania SPCA officer Tara Loller more credible. (Stevenson's license has been suspended and the state veterinary medical board is considering revocation.)

Animal welfare advocates say puppy millers in Pennsylvania have long brushed off kennel violations, paid their $35 fines and continued neglecting their animals. The court dockets reflect this, showing many commercial kennel owners with repeated violations - usually the same violations for poor maintenance - dating back years.

Perhaps these convictions and the prison terms ordered for abusers this week will send a message to anyone considering harming an animal that the courts - even in Pennsylvania - will not tolerate mistreatment of animals any longer.