HARRISBURG — In 2008, when Gov. Ed Rendell signed Pennsylvania's toughest-in-the-nation law governing commercial breeding kennels, the objective was to end the state's reputation as the "puppy mill" capital of the East.
Now, nearly a year after key regulations governing temperature, lighting, ammonia levels, and ventilation went into effect, there is little if any evidence that the Department of Agriculture is enforcing that provision of the law. The agency, which is facing a deepening financial crisis, is failing to cite repeat violators and is "committing a serious abuse of its discretion" by allowing the wife of a convicted animal abuser to hold a kennel license, according to state records and one legal expert.
As the governor's Dog Law Advisory Board prepares to meet Wednesday for the first time since Gov. Corbett took office 15 months ago, animal welfare advocates say the lack of enforcement is a "travesty" and calls into question Corbett's commitment to improving conditions for tens of thousands of dogs housed in breeding kennels.
"The regulations were to aid living beings and meant to get them out of abusive and squalid conditions," said Karen Overall, a veterinarian and principal author of the canine health regulations, which took effect July 1. "This was not just an academic exercise. This was about humane welfare of animals ... and they are being completely ignored."
Agriculture Secretary George Greig, in budget hearings, blamed the delay in inspections on difficulties in getting equipment to monitor the climate in kennels installed and staff trained, and assured legislators the inspections would be completed by March 1. But inspection reports indicate that only a handful of the 60 remaining commercial kennels — there were more than 300 before the law took effect — have received even the minimum twice-annual inspections, and of those there is no space on the form for inspectors to indicate compliance with canine health regulations.
A department spokeswoman said the kennels had been inspected but gave no indication of when or why the reports were not posted for public view.
Corbett spokeswoman Kirsten Page defended the Agriculture Department, saying it was "fairly enforcing the law." "Gov. Corbett is committed to ensuring that the dog laws in Pennsylvania are enforced. Any reasonable person who has followed the governor's career knows that he will not tolerate kennels that don't follow the law," she said.
One decision that troubles critics: Last fall, the department issued a kennel license to the wife of a Lancaster man who had lost his license after being convicted of animal cruelty, saying there was nothing in the law to prevent her from receiving one. Those familiar with the dog law said language was inserted into the legislation expressly to prevent operators convicted of cruelty from putting their business in the name of a relative or spouse.
On Monday, a Widener University law professor and animal law expert, Verne Smith, issued his analysis of that case at the request of a member of the dog law board. Smith said the decision to grant the license amounted to a "serious abuse of discretion." "The [agency's] actions also send a signal to other violators that a loophole exists to circumvent the intent, spirit, and letter of the dog law and regulations," he wrote.