Pennsylvania’s Problems in Enforcing Animal Cruelty Laws

Humane Police OfficerUnder Pennsylvania law, non-profit humane societies and associations for the prevention of cruelty to animals, have authority to "initiate criminal proceedings" for violations of the state animal cruelty law just like any police officer.  18 PA. C.S. Section 5511(i) 

Agents of these non-profits have authority to obtain search warrants and injunctions and also seize animals or obtain their forfeiture or surrender. With the approval of a county district attorney, the non-profit can be represented by an attorney in these proceedings.    

The non-profits’ authority to prosecute is in reality limited to citations for summary offenses which means a "fine of not less than $ 50 nor more than $ 750 or to imprisonment for not more than 90 days, or both."  Section 5511(M.1) The prosecution of misdemeanor or felony animal cruelty crimes requires the district attorney. But most animal cruelty offenses in Pennsylvania are summary offenses and others are referred for prosecution usually by humane agents, just about the only ones enforcing the animal cruelty law. (Dog wardens hired by the state Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement only enforce the state’s dog laws which include regulation of dog breeders.)

The humane "police officers" provided by the non-profits are appointed and must undergo training and meet certain qualifications. 22 PA C.S. Sections 3705 et seq.

It sounded like a good idea in the beginning to allow non-profits to help with enforcement of animal cruelty laws. But the burden now falls almost entirely on the non-profits. There is no state funding for the training, the officer’s salary and benefits, the prosecutions or the care of seized or surrendered animals involved in cruelty cases. And to make matters worse, Pennsylvania SPCA recently laid off two humane officers in the western part of the state, leaving the animal cruelty law virtually unenforced in that area. More layoffs are expected. 

As Dr. Faith Bjalobok, Professor of Philosophy at Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University and Oxford University Animal Advocacy Fellow, puts it, "As the animal law .. now stands, its enforcement is up to local non-profits. There are numerous problems with this arrangement. Lack of accountability…, arbitrariness,… insufficient training, financial drain on animal shelters….  The victims of this arrangement [are] the animals."

Karel Minor, Executive Director of the Humane Society of Berks County, agrees, adding that prosecutions can be "botch[ed]" by untrained agents and unreimbursed costs for holding animals in cruelty cases can be substantial.  Minor makes the point that because the burden of enforcement falls on non-profits, many, many cases of animal cruelty go unprosecuted.

A View from the Field

One of the recently laid off PSPCA humane officers responsible for enforcement in 26 counties, described her job:

Our main goal … was education. When we responded to a call, our goal was to educate the owners on to how to properly care for their animals. I found in many situations, that they could not afford to care for the animals. At that time, I would use my citations (can carry $50 to $750 in fines and/or 90 days incarceration) to convince them to surrender the animals. Once the animals were surrendered, I would take them to our State College shelter and or private shelters (specific breed that had openings) and they would treat them, adopt them out to loving homes and they would be spayed/neutered.

 If the owners ignored my postings, I would continue to post, obtain a warrant and then seize the animals. This was my last choice as this means the animals must be transported to Philly, and sit is a cage as evidence until the hearing comes up. We of course treat the animals, give vaccines and de wormed, and any other needed treatment. The "evidence" takes up cage space, and funding from the shelter animals. The evidence cannot be adopted out or moved as the court can award the owner the animals back.  

When we do have our day in court, any fines that are enforced go to the state.  If the officer has asked for restitution, then that may occur. But, you can’t get blood out of a turnip!  And the costs of caring for the animals far outweighs what the restitution could be.

Since the end of March, in western Pa, we have answered and closed 288 cases. That means the owners were educated and changes were made, animals were surrendered or warrant issued. I have had over 100 animals surrendered to me. … 

To have a law enforcement section of a shelter is very financially draining. There is a constant outflow of cash but the only financial assistance from the state is the 30.00 reimbursement they pay a shelter to kill a dog. The burden of enforcing the law falls on the shelter. 

With the Pennsylvania SPCA, a no kill minded shelter, law enforcement is a huge financial burden. With the possibility of a law enforcement officers bringing is 200 – 300 animals per month from cruelty cases. This can be an average for the Pennsylvania SPCA from just the inner city officers.

[At the time we wre laid off,] we ha[d] 86 open cases. That means that we answered the call, found something that needed changed and was in the process of changing it. Those cases have now been walked away from.  

Changes Planned For 2011 

Dr. Bjalobok says, "Our goal for 2011 is to obtain a mandate to finance a state agency to enforce [Section] 5511 and for all humane officers to come under that agency whether it be an existing agency like Pennsylvania SPCA which has infrastrcuture in place or the creation of a new state agency. I hope that all animal lovers can get on board with this so we can guarantee that the non-human animals living within the state of PA do in fact have some legal protection and that Section 5511 is enforced uniformly statewide."  

Minor agrees that counties and cities should be required to enforce the animal cruelty laws and that perhaps a state animal police force should be created. He says there should at least be state funding for prosecutions and animal care as well as exemption from liability for enforcement actions.