Oh What A Tangled Web We Weave: The Deception of Pennsylvania’s Dog Law

By  Jenny Stephens, North Penn Puppy Mill Watch, www.nppmwatch.com

Puppy millsGo ahead.  Shoot your dog.  Or your cat.  Or your horse.  Representative Dan Moul, (R) Adams County, thinks a bullet to the head is a befitting and humane death for beloved companion animals and, as most Pennsylvanians recently learned, it’s even possible to mow down 80 dogs with bullets and experience no dramatic criminal repercussions.

Ever since Elmer and Ammon Zimmerman, owners of E&A and A&J Kennels in Berks County, shot and killed their 80 dogs sometime between Thursday, July 24 and Tuesday, July 29, questions about the law that makes this cowardly and inhumane act ‘legal’ have surfaced.  Many have inquired as to why licensed kennel operators are permitted to legally shoot their breeding stock, believing that private citizens were prohibited from this same gruesome form of euthanasia, and if you think so too, think again.

In Pennsylvania it’s perfectly legal to shoot an old, diseased or injured dog as well as a young and healthy frisky pup.  No questions asked.  Thanks to Pamphlet Law #83 of 1983 (introduced as HB-350 of 1983) that was signed into law by then Governor Dick Thornburg, any person old enough to legally possess a firearm may decide at any time to end the life of their personally owned pet animal by putting a bullet in their head.

On the surface, this law appears outrageous, perhaps even irresponsible, but a closer look as to why this law was drafted in the first place reveals a scenario where animal loving elected officials were once again forced to choose between the worst of two evils. 

The original intent of then HB-350 was, first and foremost, to do away with decompression chambers that were indeed a most inhumane way to destroy unwanted pets and, in fact, by 1983 many states across the country had already outlawed this depraved and practically medieval contraption.   Alas, nothing legislative is simple in Pennsylvania’s agriculturally driven general assembly. 

When push came to shove, the verbiage that permits the use of firearms to destroy pet animals by both humane society organizations and private citizens was used as leverage to outlaw the use of decompression chambers.  In other words, disallow the use of firearms and the legislation won’t pass.  Quite the trade off.

If you’ve been following the attempts to revamp the state’s Dog Law as it pertains to puppy mills, this tactic is all too familiar and underscores the power of an agricultural community that now encompasses commercial dog breeders and the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association.  By banding together these farm and animal related special interest groups, and their lobbyists, have held hostage the will of the majority of Pennsylvanians who realize that the state’s laws, especially as they pertain to dogs, are largely antiquated and ineffective.

One need look no further than to the tragic events that transpired in late July at a formerly state licensed commercial canine breeding facility in Maxatawny Township to realize what happens when the power of special interest groups over-influence publicly elected officials. 

Realistically, however, when it comes to the deaths of those unfortunate 80 dogs, there’s plenty of blame, and questions, to go around.

For those of you who are not clear on who’s who and what’s what when it comes to authority over dogs in Pennsylvania, here’s a crash course: there are two sets of laws – the Dog Law that is enforced by dog wardens and Section 5511 of the Crimes Code that is enforced by humane society police officers. 

When a dog warden encounters any animal who exhibits signs or symptoms of animal abuse, cruelty or neglect that warden has an obligation to contact a humane officer.  It is the responsibility of the humane officer to investigate cases of suspected abuse, cruelty or neglect and, if substantiated, press charges against and prosecute the alleged animal abusers. 

By law, licensed kennel operators must allow a dog warden access to their property however humane society police officers must have either an invitation from the property owner or a warrant to access that same property.

Sometime during the July inspection of Elmer Zimmerman’s kennel a humane society police officer was contacted by the dog warden and summoned to come to the property and here’s where it starts to get really interesting. 

First of all, it’s rare that a humane officer is called to a commercial breeding kennel for the purpose of evaluating
dogs during a routine kennel inspection.  Secondly, and most importantly, Section 5511 of the Crimes Code is clear: a dog need not be ‘near death’ in order to exhibit signs of abuse, cruelty or neglect or to be deserving of the protections offered by state law.
 
According to the Reading Eagle, humane officer Allison Rudy remarked that she believes dog warden Orlando Aguirre would have alerted her had any dog in Zimmerman’s kennel been ‘near death’ but the crux of the issue is really this:

Why would a dog warden summon a humane officer to a puppy mill in the first place if there wasn’t a situation that placed dogs in danger?

Labrador puppiesAccording to the newspaper account, upon arrival at the kennel, Allison Rudy supposedly learned that Zimmerman’s wife would not allow her to enter the kennel.  Someone, either the dog warden or the humane officer, had to advise Mrs. Zimmerman that if the dogs exhibited signs of abuse, cruelty or neglect that the possibility of filing criminal charges against her husband existed. 

Logically, there is but one reason why Mrs. Zimmerman refused to permit the humane officer to enter the very same kennel that the dog warden had just toured.  Hypothetically, shouldn’t the inability to have seen the dogs provoked enough suspicion about their safety to justify securing a search warrant so that entry would have been possible? 

Elmer Zimmerman opined openly to advocates who lingered at the conclusion of an August 15 candlelight vigil held to remember the lives of the 80 dogs whom he and his brother had recently slaughtered.  He was confused as to why the 2008 July inspection produced such a dramatically different and financially expensive outcome versus that of previous inspections especially when so many of the conditions noted during the current inspection had been present for years yet never had a single citation or financial penalty been issued.  

Zimmerman was apparently confounded when he was ordered to have 39 of his dogs seen by a veterinarian due to flea and fly bites that, rest assured, went above and beyond that of minor skin irritations.  Indeed, since dog wardens are now outfitted with digital cameras it would be of tremendous interest to know if photographs of the doomed dogs exist.  Nevertheless, Zimmerman contacted a large animal veterinarian for advice despite the fact that the state’s Dog Law requires all licensed canine kennels to have documentation providing the name and contact information for the veterinarian of record who cares for the dogs.  Could it be that Richard Martrich and Orlando Aguirre, the two dog wardens who had inspected the kennel over the previous six years, had overlooked this detail and is it possible that the dogs in Zimmerman’s care had never been seen by a veterinarian?

A review of the inspection reports for both E&A and A&J kennels reveal environments that were plagued with problems and distinct patterns.  Active rodent and insect infestation, open food bags, dirty food and water receptacles, matted dogs, dogs in need of grooming, insufficient heat to preserve the dogs’ body heat, cobwebs, lack of lighting and excess excreta were all noted during inspections that took place from 2003 through 2008 yet not one citation was ever issued for poor kennel conditions or for a lack of veterinary care. 

It’s important to note that Section 21.30 of the Dog Law DOES allow dog wardens to cite kennel operators for a lack of veterinary care although it is rarely, if ever, used.

By law, Pennsylvania licensed commercial breeding kennels are subject but not limited to a once a year unannounced inspection.  Many, however, are inspected twice annually.  Between 2003 and 2008, a total of six years, both E&A and A&J kennels were inspected as follows:

E & A Kennel

Total Inspections = 15
Problematic Inspections = 7
Follow-Up to Problematic Inspections = 4
Satisfactory Inspections = 4

Read E&A Inspection Reports:      2008 Click Here     2007 Click Here      2006 Click Here

A & J Kennel

Total Inspections = 17
Problematic Inspections = 7
Follow-Up to Problematic Inspections = 6
Satisfactory Inspections = 4

Read A&J Inspection Reports:       2008 Click Here     2007 Click Here      2006 Click Here

Puppies in cageIn other words, almost half of all inspections for both kennels reflected infractions of the Dog Law that affected the physical kennel structure and its impact on the dogs and/or the actual health and welfare of the dogs kept in those kennels. 

One inspection for E&A on April 17, 2006 reflected several problems and while a follow-up inspection was supposed to be conducted, it never was. 

A&J failed it’s inspection on October 12, 2006 although absolutely no warning or citation was ever issued even though many of the problems had occurred in the past and the recurrence alone should have warranted action.
 
Truth be told, no one will ever know exactly what provoked the Zimmerman brothers to pull the trigger of a gun at least 80 times in order to kill the breeder dogs who had served their masters well by producing approximately 2,000 puppies that the brothers sold over a six year period.  Even at a modest fee of $250.00 per puppy the financial gain realized by these "poor" farmers (see Fun Facts, below) was easily in excess of half a million dollars…. much more than most Pennsylvanians make over the same span of time.

In the end, the most plausible explanation as to why the dogs were destroyed has to be for the purpose of avoiding criminal charges.  Clearly, the dogs could not be turned over to a shelter or rescue for fear of a criminal prosecution and their years as farmers gave the Zimmerman brothers the knowledge that through the process of natural decomposition it would indeed be difficult to ascertain the physical condition of the dogs on the day of the inspection once they had been dead and buried for several days.

Between a Bureau of Dog Law that does not mandate its warden employees to enforce the state’s regulations, humane society police officers who believe they may only assist animals who are near death, a loophole law that allows anyone to shoot a companion animal on a whim and a general assembly who is being bullied by a rogue group of its own, this story, were it not so sad, has the makings for a Three Stooges episode.

This is an election year.  As voters, we all shoulder some responsibility with regard to the stalled legislation that’s designed to protect dogs.  After all, every representative who is refusing to support House Bill 2525 and/or 2532 secured his or her position by way of the popular vote. 

If you’re reading this commentary chances are you’ve already picked up the telephone on more than one occasion to ask your elected representative to support what are now known as the ‘Puppy Mill Bills‘ and, chances are, you won’t hesitate to do it again a few more times.  Just remember that should House Bill 2525 or 2532 fail to pass in September, come November there’s another way to send a message. 

Undoubtedly, most eyes will be focused on the presidential election this fall, but never forget that it’s local and state politics that affect you, your family and your companion animals the most. 

Right about now is an excellent time to start letting those elected officials who refuse to support the Puppy Mill Bills know that there are more dog lovers in Pennsylvania than there are breeders and that you will be voting for candidates who refuse to support the pet profiteers and their breed for greed mentality as well as for those who place compassion above cash contributions.

If you care about dogs you need to use your power as a constituent for the purpose of questioning incumbents and candidates alike as to their position on the Puppy Mill Bills and you won’t hesitate to ask your family, friends and colleagues to do the same. 

This year your vote really counts and the dogs in Pennsylvania’s puppy mills are counting on you to help them. 

Fun Facts

Did you know that your tax dollars help finance Pennsylvania puppy mills by way of farm subsidies? 

John Blank, owner of the recently closed Limestone Kennel in Chester County received more than $26,000 in farm subsidies and Representative Arthur Hershey (R) Chester County, author of more than 40 superfluous amendments to House Bill 2525 and co-owner of Ar-Joy Farm, received in excess of $300,000 in subsidies from 1995 through 2006.

Look up other Pennsylvania Farmers – Click HERE

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Check out www.nppmwatch.com for all the latest info on puppy mills. Click here for more on the pending Pennsylvania puppy mill bills and how you can help pass them.