(Harrisburg) -- Thousands of dogs are languishing because the Pennsylvania Dog Law Enforcement Office has failed to enforce regulations meant to eliminate the substandard commercial kennels known as puppy mills, a state advisory board said Thursday.
Dozens of kennels have been permitted to skirt tough new rules on ventilation, humidity, lighting, flooring and ammonia levels, the Dog Law Advisory Board's enforcement panel said in a new report.
The report was issued five months after board members first publicly raised concerns about regulatory lapses that threatened to undo years of hard-won progress in the fight against breeders who mistreat their dogs. The panel said it has come to the "disturbing conclusion that, through either studied indifference or by design, the (Dog Law Enforcement Office) has failed in its enforcement of critical components of the dog law and canine health regulations."
This "laxity in enforcement," the report continued, "has allowed thousands of dogs to languish in pre-2008 conditions despite protections in the law that as of today largely exist only on paper."
The report's release came as the state-sanctioned advisory board met Thursday in Harrisburg. Michael Pechart, an Agriculture Department official who serves as acting director of the Dog Law Enforcement Office, had asked the advisory board in April to form committees on several issues, including enforcement, and report back with recommendations.
Thursday, dog law enforcement officials said they have been hampered by severe budgetary constraints but that enforcement efforts are moving in the right direction.
"We want to do what's right and we're going to do that," Pechart told the board.
Pennsylvania had long been known as a breeding ground for puppy mills when then-Gov. Ed Rendell signed off on the 2008 dog law overhaul. The legislation, two years in the making, was a response to appalling conditions in many large commercial breeding kennels, where dogs spent most of their working lives inside cramped wire cages, stacked one atop the other, and got little grooming, veterinary care or exercise.
Key provisions that went into effect in October 2009 required large-scale breeders to double cage sizes, eliminate wire flooring, and provide unfettered access to the outdoors. The new law also banned cage stacking, instituted twice-a-year vet checks, and mandated new ventilation and cleanliness regulations that went into effect in July 2011.
Most commercial kennel operators went out of business rather than comply. Many of those who remained open have found ways around the law, the report said.
"Kennel owners have learned that they may evade the legal kennel requirements with virtual impunity," the report said. "An examination of inspection reports leads to the conclusion that kennel owners have likely realized that although they lost their battle against enactment of the law, they are usually free to ignore it."
The panel's analysis of 18 months worth of agency records shows that inspections are way down; that the Dog Law Enforcement Office has all but stopped issuing citations and didn't revoke a single license in 2011 or 2012; that regulators have allowed operators to abuse a waiver process; and that the agency is not verifying that substandard kennels that claim to have shut down have actually done so.
In addition, the report found that 69 former commercial operators now hold a less stringent type of license that allows them to sell fewer dogs but does not require them to make improvements to their kennels — yet at least 31 of them still likely fit the legal definition of a commercial kennel.
The advisory panel also asserted that regulators misled them about their enforcement efforts.
The Dog Law Enforcement Office "has been ignoring illegal behavior rather than enforcing kennel laws and regulations," the report said. "This approach must change."
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