HARRISBURG - Two Berks County kennel operators killed nearly their entire kennel population - 80 dogs - after wardens ordered veterinary exams on dozens of their animals.

After receiving a poor inspection report on July 24, Elmer Zimmerman of Kutztown shot his 70 small-breed dogs and threw them onto a compost pile on his property, according to officials with the state Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement. His brother, Ammon Zimmerman, who operated A & J Kennel next door, shot 10 dogs about the same time, they said.

It is legal for dog owners in the state to put a dog down by shooting it. Gov. Rendell, as part of his effort to improve kennel conditions, is seeking legislation to allow only veterinarians to euthanize commercial kennel dogs.

Elmer Zimmerman, owner of E & A Kennel, said in an interview yesterday that he feared the Department of Agriculture was trying to close him down and that he destroyed the dogs on his veterinarian's recommendation.

"They were old, and we were hearing that they don't want kennels anymore," said Zimmerman, who has held a commercial kennel license since at least 2003. "The best thing to do was get rid of them."

Ammon Zimmerman, reached yesterday by phone, told a reporter his decision to destroy his dogs was "none of your business."

Jessie Smith, the dog-law bureau's special deputy secretary, said Elmer Zimmerman told dog warden Orlando Aguirre that the dogs had been shot.

Aguirre, who had cited Zimmerman for multiple dog-law violations and ordered vet checks on 39 dogs for flea and fly bites, told him he didn't believe he had shot the dogs. Zimmerman then got out the backhoe and uncovered the bodies of dogs - among them poodles, shih tzus and cocker spaniels - that had been thrown onto the compost pile, she said.

"It's horrible, but it's legal," said Smith of the shooting.

"That someone would shoot 70 dogs rather than spend money to do a vet check is extremely problematic," she said. "If the definition of a puppy mill is putting profits over care of the dogs, this is a stark example of doing that."

Smith said Aguirre ordered Zimmerman to destroy the wooden hutches that held the dogs in order that the brothers not go back into commercial breeding.

Smith said the bureau had stepped up its enforcement of current kennel regulations in an effort to improve conditions. If they don't improve, she said, kennels should "go out of business."

Ken Brandt, lobbyist for the Pennsylvania Professional Dog Breeders Association, which represents 300 commercial kennels, said his group did not support the Zimmermans' actions.

"There are others ways to take care of the situation, like in a court," he said.

Howard Nelson, chief executive officer of Pennsylvania SPCA, called the shootings inhumane and evil and said the breeder could have easily surrendered the dogs to rescue groups.

"He could have treated the dogs with medication for $40 or $50," said Nelson. "Every humane society in the state would have taken those dogs."

Elmer Zimmerman said he felt he had no alternative because business had been so bad he couldn't "give away" his puppies, let alone his older, breeding dogs.

Both men surrendered their kennel licenses and Elmer Zimmerman pleaded guilty to four charges of violating the dog law, she said.

During the inspection on July 24, wardens found, in addition to the skin infections, 19 other violations. They issued citations for maintenance, extreme heat, insufficient bedding, and wire flooring that allowed dogs' feet to fall through.

Zimmerman said he had never had problems with wardens before. Inspection reports dating to 2006 show instances where wardens noted severe matting of dogs' fur and inadequate shelter, but no citations or formal warnings were issued.

Smith said the shootings were reason for tougher legislation, under consideration by the state House, that would require that dogs be euthanized only by a vet.