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Animal-rights officials: Case is a warning

They urged breeders in Pa. to heed a Lancaster County cruelty conviction, which a judge upheld.

HARRISBURG - State officials say they hope a Lancaster County judge's decision to uphold animal-cruelty charges against a large commercial kennel operator will serve as a warning to other breeders who mistreat dogs.

Judge Howard F. Knisely let on Friday stand a conviction on 10 of 11 counts of animal cruelty and five counts of violating the state dog law against Ervin Zimmerman of Ephrata. The judge also ordered Zimmerman to forfeit ownership of 18 dogs seized by humane officers as part of the case last year.

Zimmerman, who has bred dogs for 17 years, had appealed a ruling by District Justice Daniel Garrett in December. At his trial, humane officers said they had found animals suffering from extreme neglect: a puppy with its hind legs chewed off and dogs so matted they were unable to defecate. Dog wardens said they had found dead rats in the cages and food contaminated with feces.

Sue West, director of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement, said the decision should send a message to breeders that they must focus on the welfare of the dogs in their care.

"Those that choose to allow inappropriate kennel conditions or ignore the welfare of their dogs will also find themselves in court at some point in time," West said.

Zimmerman, reached by phone yesterday, referred all questions to his lawyer, Kurt Geishauser of Reading, who did not immediately return a phone call.

West said the case underscored the need for stronger legislation - under consideration by the state House - that would require regular veterinary care for dogs in commercial kennels, impose higher fines, require restitution, and generally give the agency more enforcement authority.

Zimmerman's license was revoked in November after he failed seven state inspections, but his kennel was allowed to remain open while he appealed. At that time, humane officers seized 18 sick and injured dogs, including one with a broken leg, and dogs with fight wounds, infected gums, and ear and foot infections.

Knisely fined Zimmerman $1,200 for cruelty charges and $425 for the dog-law violations. He declined to prohibit Zimmerman from owning dogs since a Department of Agriculture hearing on his kennel-license revocation is pending this month. If his appeal is rejected, Zimmerman - who recent inspection reports show has 202 dogs in his kennel - would be allowed to own no more than 25 dogs.

West said the cruelty charges, while not automatic grounds for revocation under current law, would have "a major impact" on the case before Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff.

Knisely also did not order restitution for the housing of the seized dogs, mainly miniature schnauzers and West Highland terriers, which have been in the care of the Lancaster Humane League for almost eight months at a cost of $57,500.

Kerry Flanagan, the league's vice president of operations, said that while she was happy that the case was over and that the shelter finally got custody of the dogs - some now available for adoption - she was disappointed that Zimmerman had not been held financially accountable for the housing costs.

"The reality is he barely had a slap on the wrist," she said. "Why should people who donate to the Lancaster Humane League have to foot the bill while the case plays out in court?"

Lancaster Assistant District Attorney Christine Wilson said she would seek restitution to cover at least some of the costs. All 300 licensed kennel owners in Lancaster County, home to the largest number of commercial breeders in the state, have been put on notice, she said. They were sent certified letters last month informing them of an educational sessions to be held by the District Attorney's Office this week.

"It's the first step to allow kennel owners to understand what is a violation and what will be prosecuted by this office," Wilson said.

There is no further appeal on the cruelty charges, she said. Zimmerman faces three additional counts of cruelty stemming from the seizure of three dogs earlier this year.