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Taking on cruelty to animals

Pa. is a battleground state. Progress has been made, but there is more to do.

Five years ago last week, I took the helm of the Humane Society of the United States, an organization founded in 1954 with the goal of confronting cruelty to animals on a national scale. Inhumane slaughter, animal fighting, puppy mills, wildlife abuse, and other forms of mistreatment were too entrenched and widespread for local humane organizations, with their limited resources, to fight effectively.

Pennsylvania, with 671,000 Humane Society members, has long been one of our battleground states. While we have enjoyed some major recent successes in the state - including last year's groundbreaking legislation addressing some of the problems endemic to puppy mills - a great deal of work remains, and thorny problems persist.

Take pigeon shoots. Pennsylvania is the last state in which they are openly staged. More than 25 years ago, we began our campaign to end the notorious Labor Day shoot in Hegins. While we won that particular battle in 1999, we are still fighting to stamp out these contests in Berks County and other parts of the state.

In last year's four-day event in Strausstown, 150 entrants killed or wounded some 6,000 pigeons in a blaze of gunfire. Especially in light of alternatives such as skeet and trap shooting, pigeon shoots are an embarrassment to a state whose citizens and lawmakers are becoming increasingly progressive on animal-welfare issues.

Similarly out of step with prevailing public sentiment is the National Rifle Association's opposition to an anti-poaching bill before the state legislature. Introduced by State Rep. Edward Staback (D., Lackawanna, Wayne), the legislation would make it a felony to assault an officer enforcing the wildlife code; increase the state's penalties for poaching, which are among the weakest in the nation; add jail time for chronic or serial poachers; and require the forfeiture of hunting licenses for poaching violations.

The NRA came out against the measure on the grounds that it would unfairly punish hunters "who may exercise poor judgment" in killing an extra deer or two, shooting outside the permitted times or seasons, or committing other infractions. One NRA representative reportedly told a group of lawmakers that there should be "an acceptable level of illegal activity."

There is no "acceptable level" of theft or armed robbery, and we shouldn't let the NRA leadership browbeat Pennsylvania lawmakers into giving criminals a free pass. Wildlife laws are so weak that poachers flock to the commonwealth from neighboring states with tougher laws, aware that they face only a modest fine for even the most egregious violations.

Another worthy bill under consideration in Harrisburg would make it illegal for anyone other than a veterinarian to "debark," dock the tail of, or perform a Caesarean section on a dog. The bill, which passed the House unanimously and is now before the Senate, is a logical extension of the 2008 reforms that cracked down on and cleaned up what's been called the puppy mill capital of the eastern United States. Pennsylvania has more than 1,500 licensed breeding kennels housing in excess of 50,000 dogs.

State legislators are finally beginning to understand how important animal welfare is to their constituents, as evidenced by the 15 bills on the subject that have been introduced in Harrisburg since Jan. 1. In addition to those dealing with poaching, pigeon shoots, and puppy mills, they include measures to increase penalties for injuring service animals and to ban compression chambers that use carbon monoxide to euthanize unwanted shelter animals.

State lawmakers, Gov. Rendell, and the state Department of Agriculture have made commendable progress on the animal front. But there's more to be done.

For instance, it remains legal to shoot dogs in the state - even after the owners of a puppy mill in Ronks shot their 80 breeding dogs last year, rather than comply with an order to give them basic veterinary care.

And, in Lancaster County, this summer could see the return of contests in which archers use turkeys tied to bales of hay for live target practice. Like pigeon shoots, in which spectators cheer as birds explode in clouds of feathers and blood, these events are a peculiar anachronism in a state that in other respects is making progress toward a more humane future.