HARRISBURG - The sight was sad enough: When the Humane Society of Harrisburg Area seized 29 Morgan horses found languishing this month in a manure-choked barnyard near Hershey, many of the animals were down to skin and bones.
Then came the bill: The estimate for the horses' basic veterinary care was $30,000 - not including food, hoof, and dental care, utilities, rent, or the cost of extra help.
"You cannot predict the level of animal cruelty in your budget," said the society's executive director, Amy Kaunas. The monthly care costs for the horses will top $5,000. "We're not Microsoft," she said. "It is a challenge."
Hundreds of animals are removed from cruel conditions across Pennsylvania annually, and virtually every time, shelters pay for care until the ensuing court cases are resolved.
For the state SPCA, which investigates 10,000 cruelty complaints a year, that meant caring for 1,400 dogs, horses, and other animals last year alone. Even when courts finally order restitution, sometimes months or years later, defendants rarely pay up, shelters say.
But legislation poised for final passage in the state House on Tuesday would allow humane organizations to ask courts to compel those charged with animal cruelty to cover the "cost of care" for the animals in question.
"Under current law, cash-strapped shelters have to foot the bill through what can be years of court battles and hope for restitution at the end," said Nancy Gardner, president of the Cumberland Valley Animal Shelter, west of Harrisburg, which has cared for four huskies for three years at a cost of $50,000 while the dogs' owners appeal animal-cruelty convictions. "Not only does that place enormous burdens on nonprofit shelters - many of which lost state shelter funding this year with budget cuts - it also means the animals spend months or years locked in a cage or kennel."
The bill, a version of which got House approval with only a few "no" votes in October at the end of the last legislative session, faces a possible hurdle in a Senate committee.
Greg Warner, counsel for State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R., Montgomery), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he would look into concerns raised by the Pennsylvania Federation of Dog Clubs, which represents about 70 purebred clubs. The group's legislative chairman, Julian Prager, says the bill violates pet owners' due-process rights.
"It's not that we oppose someone convicted paying for the crime or that we oppose adequate care for animals pending trial," Prager said. "We just have do it in a way that protects the rights of owner and animals."
Bruce Wagman, a California lawyer who specializes in animal law and who helped draft the bill - which is similar to laws already on 25 states' books - countered that the Pennsylvania legislation protects due process by providing for a hearing to determine whether there was sufficient basis to seize the animals.
"The law only requires owners of animals to meet their statutory obligation that each owner has with respect to animals," he said, "and that is to provide adequate care, which requires certain costs."
No shelter operator contacted could recall a case where an owner was cleared of charges and animals were returned.
The bill caps per-day boarding fees at $15 and requires shelters to document veterinary costs.