According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s U.S. Animal Protection Laws Rankings, Pennsylvania ranks in the bottom tier of U.S. states and territories, coming in at an abysmal 41st. Significantly, these rankings were determined after Act 50 of 2013, the so-called Costs of Care Act, passed last summer. That law requires defendants in animal cruelty cases to pay the ongoing costs that humane societies incur in caring for their seized animals during the pendency of the criminal proceeding or forfeit them to the shelter. Even after that momentous leap forward, Pennsylvania remains out of step with the majority of states in protecting animals. The states at the top of the list provide stiffer penalties, especially for repeat offenders; make animal neglect resulting in death of the animal a felony; and give humane police officers broad enforcement powers. The states toward the bottom, including Pennsylvania, treat most animal cruelty as a minor or summary offense and provide vague or low standards of care for animals.
Pennsylvania has a chance to climb up the ladder a few rungs with bills being proposed in both the House and the Senate. The pending bills address many of the weaknesses cited in the survey, including the low grading of offenses against animals and the lack of specificity in our standards of care, as well as provide a means to fund greater enforcement of the laws affecting commercial kennels including breeding operations. The following bills are currently under consideration in the legislature:
• Anti-tethering bills (SB 522 and HB 41): These bills address dogs being tethered 24/7 in all types of weather. They specify the type and length of the tether, require access to shelter, food and water, and prohibit tethering dogs outside in extreme weather conditions. Neither bill in its current form protects dogs left outside in extreme cold or heat but not tied to a tether. Pennsylvania’s current anti-cruelty statute requires that dogs be provided with shelter adequate to preserve their body heat but does not specify any temperature or weather condition during which outdoor tethering is prohibited. This is the kind of vague standard that landed us in the basement of the rankings. The weather this winter provides a powerful context for the need for this type of legislation. In addition, the current anti-cruelty law fails to address extreme heat at all. Dogs kept outdoors are in danger in extreme heat, even if provided with shelter, since doghouses can act like ovens holding in the summer heat, with the interior temperatures far exceeding the ambient temperature.
• Increasing penalties for abuse of dogs and cats (SB 965): This bill would raise first offenses for basic animal cruelty from summary offenses to third-degree misdemeanors and second offenses to second-degree misdemeanors. It is similar to a bill pending in the House as HB 760 (Angel’s Law). The vast majority of animal cruelty cases in Pennsylvania are summary offenses. They are tried before local magisterial district judges alongside underage drinking and public-urination cases. The result is usually a fine and possibly forfeiture of the animal. This bill would bring these cases into courts of common pleas and raise the penalties to include the possibility of jail time.
• Amending the Pennsylvania Cruelty Code (HB 2015): The change would replace “willfully and maliciously” with “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly” when an individual is accused of engaging in cruelty to domestic animals under Section 5511(a) relating to killing, maiming or poisoning an animal. This change deals with the state of mind a prosecutor is required to prove to establish guilt in more serious cruelty cases. It is generally easier to prove that a defendant did something “knowingly” than “maliciously.”
• Restrictions on ownership of exotic animals (SB 521): According to Born Free USA, which has compiled a wealth of online resources regarding laws relating to exotic animals and wildlife, 33 states have more stringent laws regarding ownership of exotic pets than Pennsylvania. SB 521 would prohibit private ownership of exotic wildlife, including bears, big cats, primates and other potentially dangerous animals. People who already have such pets would be allowed to keep them, as long as they have a permit. It also expands and strengthens the definition of exotic wildlife and of exotic-wildlife dealers but does not include reptiles.
• Restricting dog law fines for use in dog law enforcement (SB 718): Commercial kennels including large-scale breeding operations are routinely inspected by dog wardens and fines are assessed for violations of the kennel regulations. Those fines were intended to go into a segregated fund to support enforcement of the dog law but most have been diverted to the commonwealth’s general fund. Ensuring that dog law enforcement has the funding to do more rigorous enforcement against breeders could prevent bad situations from becoming large-scale cruelty cases. A similar bill is pending in the House as HB 913.
• Banning live pigeon shoots (SB 510): Where are we not just in the bottom tier but dead last? Pennsylvania is the last state to permit live pigeon shoots. The practice involves the launching of live captive pigeons from a box into the air to be shot in contests. Bills banning pigeon shoots have been floating around the Capitol for close to 20 years. Perhaps the time is ripe, because a 2013 poll concluded that 70 percent of Pennsylvanians support the ban.
• Animal abuse registry (SB 320): Persons convicted of an animal abuse crime would be required to register their names, aliases, addresses, place of employment, date of birth, Social Security number, a recent photograph and the offense for which they were convicted within 10 days. The main aim of the bill is to prevent convicted abusers from adopting or purchasing more animals.
• Animal cruelty in domestic-violence situations (SB 863): If a person with a protection-from-abuse order against him or her commits animal cruelty against the pet of his or her spouse or partner, this bill would increase the minimum monetary fine to $2,000 and set a maximum fine of $15,000.
• Liability for intentional or negligent killing of pet by another (SB 628): On the civil side of animal protection laws, this bill would expand the civil action that could be brought for a negligent or intentional act that hurts or kills a pet dog or cat. Noneconomic damages would be limited to $5,000 in negligence cases and $12,000 in cases involving intentional conduct.
• Tax credit (HB 850): This bill would amend the Tax Reform Code of 1971, providing for a tax credit for adoption of a dog or cat.
Given the plethora of proposals, most of these bills are unlikely to pass this year but, if even some do, it could go far in bringing Pennsylvania into the mainstream of animal protection. •