The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement under Gov. Tom Corbett reminds me of the Abbott & Costello routine "Who’s on First?" that famously illustrates the confusion and frustration in communications when someone, in this case, the Department and BDLE, give the simplest words a meaning most of us would not expect.
Except it’s not funny.
Under the 2008 Pennsylvania Dog Law, 3 P.S. § 459-211, a license for a commercial dog breeding kennel may be refused or revoked if "the person holding or applying for a license has a person who does or will play a role in the ownership of the kennel or caring for the dogs, and such other person would be refused a license if that person had been the applicant. A role shall include ownership of a financial interest in the kennel operation, caring for the dogs or participation in the management of the kennel".
To most of us this clearly means that a breeder facing suspension or revocation of a kennel license should not be able to put the business in a spouse or other relative’s name and avoid shutdown of the breeding operations.
But to Michael Pechart, Pennsylvania Executive Deputy Agriculture Secretary , it means a breeder convicted of animal cruelty after years of receiving citations for violations of the dog law, can simply put his license in the name of his wife, for example, and the exploitive business of breeding dogs can continue unabated.
It happened recently. John Zimmerman owned and operated Silver Hill Kennel, a Class C commercial dog breeding kennel in Lancaster County. Pechart confirms that Zimmerman was recently convicted of animal cruelty in Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas. The dogs he breeds for profit suffer from severe trench mouth. This on top of years of inspections revealing violations of the dog law. Read them for yourself here.
Pechart indicated that "[b]ased upon this conviction, the Department revoked [Zimmerman’s] license under § 211(a) of the dog Law". Pechart does not explain why Zimmerman has been allowed to operate for years in violation of the dog law.
Zimmerman appealed the conviction to the Superior Court which has the matter under submission. Zimmerman also appealed the license revocation. Pechart explained "that appeal was continued pending a final decision from the Superior Court", meaning the state will not bother to revoke or even suspend Zimmerman’s license if the animal cruelty conviction is not upheld. It makes one wonder about the purpose of the dog law if first there must be a conviction for animal cruelty to stop the puppy miller.
Zimmerman has continued to operate his commercial breeding kennel under a supersedeas bond pending the appeal of his revocation.
Pechart explained, "We were recently contacted by Ms. Zimmerman’s attorney, and she requested that Nancy Zimmerman be granted a kennel license. The attorney’s proposal was that John Zimmerman… would go out of business and withdraw his license revocation appeal. Nancy Zimmerman would be granted a K Class Kennel license. Upon receiving that request, there was a discussion between our attorneys and the Office of Dog Law Enforcement to decide whether this was something PDA would even want to consider, with the then current condition of the dogs being the primary concern. The State Dog Law veterinarian and a member of the Kennel Compliance team, both of whom were familiar with the kennel, were consulted during this process, and they indicated that they did not believe the dogs were being mistreated or were in harm."
Except for that trench mouth that so severe as to warrant a criminal conviction for animal cruelty. And, there are all those dog law violations that include dogs kept in unsanitary conditions and too small enclosures, pools of wastewater in the kennel, ammonia in the kennel so bad it burned the dog warden’s mouth and nose, dogs’ feet falling through the illegal wire flooring, the failure to provide exercise, the matted hair, the grooming so poor that the dogs’ nails are literally curling, and the list goes on. A disgusting puppy mill.
Pechart, however, cheerfully noted, "if Nancy Zimmerman violates the terms of the Agreement (i.e. allows John Zimmerman to participate in the operation of the kennel) we can immediately revoke her license pursuant to the Agreement as well as for any violations of the Dog Law. …To the contrary if Nancy Zimmerman does not violate the terms of the Agreement or requirements of Dog Law then a successful, authorized business continues to operate".
Seriously? Presumably Nancy Zimmerman has been at the mill with her husband and apparently did nothing to stop the cruelty, the violations of law; there is evidence she has been assisting in the operation of this mill all along. What makes Pechart think she would operate it any differently? Or that the department with its poor enforcement record would even know if John Zimmerman was involved?
In 2010 Gov. Corbett approved the Department of Agriculture’s move to gut the 2008 Dog Law which was supposed to provide some protections for the dogs especially those trapped in Class C kennels. At that time Corbett decided to let stand the regulations that despite the 2008 Dog Law allow dogs about to give birth or who are nursing to live in cages with 50% wire flooring. These dogs are also not be required to have "unfettered access" to an exercise area as required by the 2008 law. Now with this, the Corbett administration continues to signal its indifference to dog law enforcement.
This week Pennsylvanians who worked hard to pass the 2008 Dog Law stood up and sent the following letter to Agriculture Secretary George Greig:
On behalf of The Humane Society of the United States, Main Line Animal Rescue, Animal Care Sanctuary, Keystone Dockdogs, The Humane League of Lancaster County, The Elk County Humane Society, Morris Animal Refuge, The Pennsylvania Legislative Animal Network, The Pennsylvania SPCA, The Furry Friends Network, and The PA Animal Welfare Network we are writing to encourage you to re-evaluate your Department’s decision to grant Nancy Zimmerman, the wife of John Zimmerman, a Pennsylvania kennel license.
As you know, Mr. Zimmerman was convicted of animal cruelty in Lancaster County last year based on the mistreatment of animals at the Silver Hill Kennel, which is located at their joint residence. Though the appeal of this conviction and the appeal of the subsequent revocation of his kennel license are both pending, we are concerned that the Department has chosen to grant his wife a license to operate a dog breeding kennel on the same property.
There are numerous reasons why this decision to grant Nancy Zimmerman a license to operate a kennel on the same property should be reconsidered. Both federal and state inspection documents show that during the years 2001, 2004, 2006, 2007, and 2008, Nancy Zimmerman’s name appeared along with John Zimmerman’s name on USDA license lists and some USDA inspection reports for Silver Hill Kennel. She is also listed as a breeder on the paperwork of several dogs sold by Silver Hill Kennel in recent years. During these years the kennel was cited for numerous animal care violations, according to inspection reports. These violations included improper sanitation, inadequately sized enclosures, and a lack of proper exercise and veterinary care for the dogs. Moreover, the public record includes a letter to the Pennsylvania legislature signed by Nancy Zimmerman on behalf of "Silver Hill Kennel."
In light of these undisputed facts, there is, at minimum, good cause for the department to reexamine Mrs. Zimmerman’s role in operating the previous, discredited facility.
We are also concerned that the Department determined that it was appropriate to issue her a class K4 kennel license. As you are well aware, this type of license specifically exempts Mrs. Zimmerman from complying with many of the strongest rules required for commercial breeders in Pennsylvania.
When the legislature overhauled the Dog Law in 2008, the intent was to protect dogs from systematic and continuous abuse and neglect in commercial breeding facilities. To the extent that the Department is allowing sub-standard operations to simply rotate license holders whenever the authorities discover animal care violations, the Department is neglecting its statutory duties and putting all animals at risk.
We urge the Department to take immediate action and re-evaluate Mrs. Zimmerman’s kennel license and the Department’s current policies regarding licensure of dog breeders in the state. We hope to resolve this issue cooperatively with the department, and avoid the need to consider litigation regarding the decision to issue Mrs. Zimmerman a license.
Let’s hope for the dogs’ sake someone at the Department of Agriculture is listening.