Does Tom Corbett Not Love Puppies?

Two years in, Pa.'s war on bad breeders falls victim to government mismanagement. What you can do to help.

Pennsylvania has among the most stringent laws governing dog breeding in the nation. Unfortunately, we don’t appear to be enforcing them.

According to a report released this week from the state’s Auditor General, the Corbett administration continues to drag its feet on implementation of the 2008 Dog Law, which placed new restrictions on breeding operations and was widely hailed as a game-changer by animal rights activists. Among other things, the heightened restrictions require commercial breeders (defined as operations with 60 dogs or more) to submit to random biannual inspections, provide their animals “unfettered access to exercise” and install an engineer-certified ventilation system in their facilities.

Besides structural and fiscal mismanagement (more than half of the $15 million allotted to the Department of Agriculture to implement and enforce the law was diverted to other uses), the audit found lax inspections, inadequate equipment and a policy of giving noncompliant breeders a pass rather than citing them — or better yet, shutting them down.

The law went into effect six months after Corbett took office, but its enforcement clearly wasn’t high on the new governor’s list of priorities. His first order of business was to sack the long-time head of the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement, Jessie Smith — a Rendell appointee and former president of the Humane Society of Harrisburg Area’s board of directors — and replace her with Lynn Diehl, a former bank manager and Republican party volunteer whose only experience with animal welfare is caring for her own dachshund. It wasn’t until 15 months into the governor’s tenure that he called the first meeting of the state’s Dog Law Advisory Board — a violation of the bureau’s mandate to maintain a “regular” meeting schedule — and when it did, most of the meeting was devoted to Diehl defending the widely reported failures of her office to enforce the new law.  Records showed that out of the 35 breeders who failed to comply under the new law, all but four were still in operation; and the enforcement bureau was so understaffed and in such disarray that a number of kennels were operating without licenses due to a backlog of applications.

Diehl was driven out of office within months of that meeting and is now reportedly working as an administrator in the Corrections Department. (Who says patronage is dead?) But dogs and their owners are still paying for her lapse in leadership.

“As a result of lax enforcement, people could be exposed to dangerous dogs, consumers could be emotionally and financially affected by sick dogs from puppy mills, and the dogs themselves could be physically harmed by living in unhealthy conditions,” said State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, in a statement announcing the new report.

DePasquale’s report is the second in less than a year to reflect the Corbett administration’s blundering on implementing the Dog Law. Last September, a probe launched by the Dog Law Advisory Board made many of the same claims, and faulted the administration for denying proper resources for enforcement. Perhaps most disturbing, the report claimed that breeders convicted of animal cruelty were still having their licenses renewed.

In his response to the September report, Michael Pechart — who has been acting as Diehl’s replacement — defended the agency’s record and accused the report’s authors of being “on a witch hunt to rid Pennsylvania of all commercial kennels.” But the evidence is hardly in his favor.

The failure to adequately enforce the Dog Law threatens to undermine the progress Pennsylvania has made in reversing its reputation as a haven for unscrupulous breeders. For years prior to the passage of the 2008 law, the commonwealth was considered the “Puppy Mill Capital of the East” by animal advocates — with some 350 commercial kennels in operation, and regular reports of cruelty and neglect. With the passage of the 2008 law the official number has dropped considerably. How many of those breeders are now operating underground is hard to say; according to the Dog Law Advisory Board, the state failed to follow up on the nearly 200 commercial breeders who shut their doors since 2009. Unofficially, thousands of small breeders operate all over the state, including a number of them in Philadelphia.

While the government is a tempting target for outrage, when it comes down to it, it’s consumers who really foot the blame for the exploitative practices of dog breeders. As commercial endeavors, the health and welfare of the animals is not typically high on the list of breeder concerns. All the more reason it needs to be number one on yours and mine.

According to Main Line Animal Rescue, located in Chester Springs, Pa., five million dogs are bred in U.S. puppy mills every year, roughly the same number that are euthanized each year in shelters. (These statistics are hard to come by, but according to the Humane Society, nearly three million healthy, adoptable cats and dogs are put down each year. The  New Jersey Department of Health’s Office of Animal Welfare says the number is much higher.)  The point is, while would-be animal lovers are patronizing puppy mills, millions of perfectly lovable canines — a full quarter of them purebreds — languish in the country’s shelters.

In 2012, Philadelphia’s Animal Care & Control Team took in 10,104 unwanted dogs; more than 3,500 of them were euthanized. In June alone, 815 dogs came through the shelter. Life is full of small sacrifices. Giving your love to a homeless dog who faces almost certain death instead of paying $1,000 to a commercial breeder who may or may not care properly for his animals should be an easy one to make.

But if you must get a dog from a breeder, insist on seeing their facilities first. Not all breeders are bad, and it’s usually pretty easy to spot the ones who are. Among the requirements of the new Dog Law, breeders must offer increased cage size, eliminate wire flooring except in limited circumstances, give dogs unhindered access to exercise, and provide treatment by trained veterinarians. Be sure there is proper food, water and ventilation in kennel areas, and (this is important) ask to see the breeding female — since she is not for sale, this is the dog most likely to be living in reprehensible conditions. If you see violations, call the state’s Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement (just don’t expect too much). And if the breeder refuses you the tour, take your business elsewhere.  It’s simple: If the state agency in charge of stopping puppy mills isn’t going to do its job, it’s up to dog lovers to do it for them.