ALLENTOWN, Pa. – The state office that regulates Pennsylvania's dog-breeding industry is running out of money, has been slow to enforce new regulations meant to improve the lives of tens of thousands of kennel dogs, and faces charges that it's once again going easy on operators of so-called "puppy mills."
Members of the state-sanctioned Dog Law Advisory Board say the problems threaten to undo years of hard-won progress in the fight against substandard breeders who mistreat their dogs — and recall a time in the not-so-distant past when Pennsylvania was known as the puppy mill capital of the East.
"I see no leadership. I'm seeing nothing that shows me there is any concern about the welfare of animals," said advisory board member Tom Hickey Sr. "Pennsylvanians care about dogs, and when they hear what's going on, there will be an uprising about this."
The panel intends to grill Agriculture Department officials when it meets Wednesday for the first time since Gov. Tom Corbett took office in January 2011.
An Associated Press review of documents, as well as interviews with dog-law experts, highlight why critics are concerned that Pennsylvania is putting enforcement on the back burner.
The Dog Law Enforcement Office didn't revoke or suspend a single license in 2011, records show, while most commercial kennels received only one inspection last year, not the two required by law.
The office is only now beginning to enforce regulations that impose strict new standards for ventilation, humidity, lighting, flooring and ammonia levels, despite the fact they took effect July 1. And the new director of the Dog Law Enforcement Office — a onetime banker with scant experience in dog law or animal welfare — has told wardens to give slack to kennel operators, according to a former employee.
Former dog warden supervisor Diane Buhl said she quit in the fall because she disagreed with policy changes that made it more difficult for wardens to enforce the rules. Buhl said wardens could no longer issue citations, or contact Humane Society police officers responsible for enforcing animal cruelty law, without first getting permission from Director Lynn Diehl.
Before, "if we felt things were bad, we were able to issue citations," Buhl said Tuesday. "Then the new policy was we had to discuss it (with kennel operators). We were told not to cite, but to warn them and go back." She said that model — education without enforcement — doesn't work because operators learn they can simply ignore the law.
Diehl also told wardens "we were not to contact humane societies," Buhl said, making it harder to catch and prosecute animal cruelty violators.
Agriculture Department spokeswoman Samantha Krepps would not respond to Buhl's assertions, but denied there's been any change in policy and said the agency remains committed to kennel oversight.
Walt Peechatka, a lobbyist for commercial breeders, also disputed the notion that enforcement is no longer a priority. He said a 2008 overhaul of state dog law succeeded in driving bad kennels out of business, so it's logical there would be fewer violations and kennel closures than in the past.
"The group that remains, by and large, are some of the better kennels," he said.
The most serious problem facing state kennel regulators is the looming insolvency of the Dog Law Restricted Account, their sole income source. Funded primarily through the sale of individual dog licenses, the account's balance plummeted 91 percent between 2007 and 2011, and the dog law office is projected to run out of money next year.
The Agriculture Department, responding to an AP inquiry, acknowledged that it continues to use the account to pay salaries of six employees unaffiliated with dog law — a practice condemned last year by Auditor General Jack Wagner. Krepps defended it, saying the employees, "support" the functions of the Dog Law Enforcement Office. State law prohibits the use of restricted account money for anything other than dog law enforcement.
Agriculture officials, meanwhile, face fresh criticism of their decision to give a kennel license to the wife of a man convicted of animal cruelty. After Lancaster County kennel owner John Zimmerman was convicted in 2010, he automatically lost his license to operate. But his wife applied for and was granted a license for a smaller kennel on the same farm.
Hickey, the advisory board member, asked Verne Smith, an animal law professor at Widener University, to examine the case.
Smith concluded that the department violated state law and "committed a serious abuse of discretion and the public trust" by entering into a "strikingly unorthodox" settlement agreement with the Zimmermans last August.
"To permit this settlement to stand would effectively permit any licensee convicted on animal abuse charges to remain in business as a practical matter by simply having his or her spouse intervene to secure a license," Smith wrote in a memo.
Hickey submitted Smith's memo to the Agriculture Department for review on Monday.
Krepps said the department relied on its own lawyers in the Zimmerman matter, but that "other counsel may have different interpretations of the law."
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.