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Rendell to push broad changes for kennels

The state, which has been notorious for puppy mills, might have the most stringent dog laws in the nation.

HARRISBURG - Gov. Rendell, in a continuing effort to improve conditions for the tens of thousands of dogs in Pennsylvania kennels, wants to eliminate wire-floor cages as well as do-it-yourself cesareans and other at-home medical practices, and ban anyone convicted of animal cruelty from holding a kennel license.

Those are among proposals that Rendell will present next month in an effort to push bad kennel owners out of the industry, and improve housing and health care for dogs in the state's 2,600 commercial kennels.

A draft copy of the proposals, which would strengthen and expand statutes and regulations, was provided to The Inquirer by a person in the administration.

Among the most significant changes would be larger cage sizes with exercise runs and veterinary care requirements, additional tools for the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement to enforce kennel regulations and cruelty laws, and increased fines and penalties for cruelty citations.

Experts in animal law say that if the legislation is approved, Pennsylvania - criticized as the "puppy mill capital of the East" - would have the most stringent kennel laws in the nation.

The legislation attempts to address critics who objected to regulations proposed by Rendell last year as part of his effort to overhaul the Bureau of Dog Law.

While hailed by animal welfare advocates, Rendell's proposal came under fire from breeders and sporting groups, which called it burdensome and costly.

In April, a state regulatory panel criticized the proposal as having "significantly understated the cost to breeders and failing to consider the diverse types of kennels in the state."

Administration officials say they have not abandoned the regulatory process but are seeking to move forward on a second track through the legislative process.

They say the legislation will more clearly define the target of the changes - commercial kennels that sell primarily to pet shops - while strengthening both the dog law and the animal cruelty law.

The new approach is aimed at "substantially improving the lives of breeding dogs . . . who could spend much of their lives in facilities in extremely small cages under existing law," according to the summary of the draft proposal.

The proposals were developed from a near-record 16,000 comments submitted by various interest groups, legislators and the public.

John Gibble, a member of the Dog Law Advisory Board who represents sporting groups, said he would have no comment on the proposals until after the board meets to discuss them on Jan. 16.

Board member Tom Hickey Sr. said the legislative proposals directly address continuing problems with the roughly 300 large commercial kennels in the state, the majority in Lancaster County.

"These are clearly more focused on what the governor wants to do with the requirements for larger enclosures with attached runs," said Hickey. "And you can't kill your own dogs; they must get medical treatment."

In 2006, Rendell, a dog lover fed up with the state's bad reputation, pledged to improve the lives of commercial breeding dogs - many of which get little socialization and never leave their cramped cages. He fired the members of the Dog Law Advisory Board; hired more kennel inspection staff, a new deputy secretary and a special prosecutor in the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement; and proposed sweeping kennel regulations.

His legislative package goes further.

"Absolutely, it would be the strongest law in the country," said Bob Baker, an ASPCA investigator who helped draft Pennsylvania's dog law in the early 1980s.

The bill would ban the stacking of cages and wire-floored cages, which are popular because they allow waste to drop through for easier cleaning. Wire floors can cause health problems, including sores on dogs' paw pads and injuries when a paw or leg slips through the wire.

It also would mandate license revocation for an owner convicted of animal cruelty within the previous 10 years. Now, the secretary of agriculture has the discretion to allow those convicted of animal abuse to continue to operate.

Another provision would require that dogs receive annual veterinary care and bar kennel operators from giving their own rabies shots.

Animal welfare advocates say allowing breeders to give their own rabies shots means many dogs rarely, if ever, see veterinarians for routine check-ups or even complex procedures. The new law would require a vet to perform cesareans and debarking procedures, a response to evidence that some kennel operators perform their own C-sections or debark their dogs by plunging sharp objects down the animals' throats.

"At least dogs would see the vet once a year when they get rabies shots," said Baker.

The bill also would require that old or sick animals be euthanized only by veterinarians. It is legal in Pennsylvania to destroy a dog by shooting it.