by Walter Brasch
In Johnstown, Pa., two abandoned puppies died from starvation and freezing weather in an unoccupied house.
In Lancaster County, two puppies were left in a backpack in freezing weather.
In Centre County, a dog was frozen to the floor of its doghouse.
In Edwardsville, a woman abandoned 19 dogs after she was evicted from her mobile home. Seven dogs had died of starvation. The others were near death.
In Monroe County, police found three dogs, each in a plastic bag, abandoned along the side of roads. Each was dead. One had been shot.
All the cases were reported the past two weeks in Pennsylvania. These aren’t the only cases; hundreds aren’t reported.
Four years ago, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) rescued 253 dogs from the Almost Heaven puppy mill near Allentown. “It was the most horrific house of horrors I had seen,” says Sarah Speed, Pennsylvania HSUS director.
“When you walked into the kennel,” says Speed, “you got slapped by the stench of filth and disease.” The kennel had a make-shift “hospital.” “If they got better, usually without treatment,” says Speed, “they went back to the kennel; if they didn’t, they died.”
The owner had been convicted twice before of animal cruelty. This time he was given a three to six month jail sentence.
Sentences for animal abuse and cruelty in Pennsylvania are minimal. For killing or mutilating a domestic animal, the fine is usually no more than $50-$75, and jail time is usually no more than 30 days, if it’s even imposed.
The reason the penalty is so small is because Pennsylvania, like most states, believes pets are nothing more than chattel. Like a kitchen chair, an animal may be bought, sold, traded, or thrown away. Pennsylvanians may kill their own pet, and there are no charges—“as long as the death was done humanely,” says Speed. “You can choose where to allow an animal to live and when and how to allow it to die.”
For many breeders, dogs are nothing more than crops. The good crops are sold. The bad crops are destroyed.
Pennsylvania, especially in the south-central region, has a national reputation of being one of the largest “puppy mill” farm areas in the nation. Regulations passed during the Ed Rendell administration improved the conditions of the breeding kennels, and eliminated many that failed to meet minimal standards of care. When he was attorney general, Tom Corbett was vigorous in enforcing those new regulations. However, enforcement declined significantly during Corbett’s first two years as governor. Part of the problem was that he appointed an individual to head the Office of Dog Law Enforcement who had been a banker and not qualified for the position. That has recently changed with a new appointment.
Last year, Pennsylvania shut down 44 unlicensed kennels, and revoked the licenses of four kennels. But the problem, says Speed, “is the number of unlicensed kennels and breeders who used social media to sell to individuals throughout the country, and who have informal contracts with pet stores to supply puppies.”
Most cases of animal abuse aren’t reported; those that are reported usually don’t result in charges being filed. The problem, says Speed, “is that humane officers are so overburdened by the calls they take that they can only pursue the calls of the most egregious cruelty.” If you’re going to abuse an animal, says Speed, “you’ll probably get away with it.”
One of the reasons for a lack of humane officers is the cost to train, employ, and insure the officers. Those costs aren’t borne by taxpayers but by non-profit organizations. About 70 percent of all costs for county dog wardens come from license fees. Wardens often spend their time enforcing dog licensing and kennel licensing laws.
The State Police now have an animal cruelty liaison officer to assist the humane animal police officers.
A contributing factor to animal abuse is the nature of what has become a “throw-away society.”
Some people get a pet and then find out it’s just too much trouble to care and feed it. Maybe, they just got new carpeting and the pet sheds. Some people get a pet—whether it’s a puppy, kitty, bunny, canary, gecko or whatever—and decide a grown-up pet isn’t as “pretty” or as “playful” as it once was. Or, maybe, they just decide to trade a husky for a pug. And then a couple of years later, they trade the pug for a furry golden retriever. Perhaps, a pet becomes ill, and the owner decides that a hundred or so dollars is just too much money to cure whatever problem the pet has. So, it’s off to the local shelter to trade that pet in for another one.
Every year, about 2.7 million healthy and adoptable pets in the United States are killed by the staff of animal shelters, according to the best data the HSUS can determine. But most shelters won’t release the number of those killed. “It’s a PR problem for them,” says Speed, pointing out that the shelters “are afraid of public outcry or backlash.”
The shelters prefer to use the term, “euthanized,” but the reality is that animals that are abandoned or voluntarily placed in shelters and are not adopted within a few months are usually killed. Most shelters in Pennsylvania are usually full, so when new animals are taken in, others must be killed to make room. The problem is so severe that the state now has a new job classification, euthanasia technician; these individuals will now be licensed by the Animal Veterinary Board.
Spaying and neutering dogs and cats is only one way to help reduce the problem. But, until the people’s elected representatives believe that animals are more than chattel and crops, and are willing to write stricter laws and back them up with a budget for enforcement, not much will change.
[Walter Brasch’s latest book is the best-selling critically-acclaimed investigation, Fracking Pennsylvania.]