Penny Conly Ellison
Penny Conly Ellison ()

We are 44! We are 44! There’s a reason a cheer like that never caught on. Besides the size of the foam fingers you would need, it’s nothing to brag about. The Animal Legal Defense Fund releases an annual report ranking states and territories by the strength of their animal protection laws. In 2014, I wrote an article in this space noting that Pennsylvania was ranked 41st and discussing all of the bills then pending in Harrisburg that might change that. Those bills included prohibiting tethering dogs outside in extreme weather, a bill raising offense levels and penalties for abuse of dogs and cats, a bill providing for the adoption of an animal abuser registry and the ubiquitous ban on live pigeon shoots. None of those bills saw the light of day and Pennsylvania is again at the bottom of the heap and dropping, ranking 44th, in the ALDF rankings for 2016. In recent years, we have made some progress, most notably with the 2013 passage of the Costs of Care Act, which allows animal shelters caring for victims of cruelty to seek payment from the owners of the animal prior to conviction. This law reduced the number of animal victims who had their cruelty compounded because they were forced to spend months or years in a shelter waiting for their cases to be finally decided.

Now, if the owner/defendant is unable or unwilling to provide for their care, they are deemed surrendered to the shelter and are able to be adopted out to a new home much sooner. Another positive development was the 2016 passage of a ban on ownership of animal-fighting paraphernalia, making it easier to charge and convict dog fighters and cock fighters (yes, both blood sports are alive and well in Pennsylvania). Pennsylvania also gains points because we have a statewide ban on breed specific legislation, prohibiting municipalities from banning the ownership of specific breeds of dogs. Although these laws are important steps in the right direction, as the rankings demonstrate, Pennsylvania continues to lag far behind almost all other states in protecting its animals.

Some of the laws that other states have that place them higher on the list include ­felony-level penalties for some first time animal cruelty offenses, such as those that result in the death of an animal. In Pennsylvania, the only first time offenses that are felonies are killing a zoo animal and animal fighting. If you kill an animal by beating or starving it to death, it is only a first-degree misdemeanor and even then only if the animal at issue is a cat or dog. Cruelty that resulted in the death of another domestic animal such as a horse or rabbit is only a second-degree misdemeanor. Not only are felony offenses rare, most animal cruelty offenses including failing to provide proper shelter, food or veterinary care are summary offenses in Pennsylvania, the lowest possible level of criminal offense, the equivalent of a citation for loitering or public urination. The maximum fine is $750 and, although up to 90 days in jail is a theoretical possibility, defendants convicted of a summary cruelty offense are never sentenced to jail time. Because the court cannot appoint counsel (because public defenders do not handle summary offenses), the court will not impose a jail sentence on an unrepresented defendant so it’s a fine and possibly probation. Incredibly, ­second and ­subsequent offenses are still only summary offenses (and able to be expunged from a defendant’s record) unless the victim was a cat or a dog and was “seriously injured, suffered severe ­physical distress or was placed at imminent risk of serious physical harm.” Keeping the ­offenses at the summary level and allowing them to be expunged makes it very difficult for shelters and rescues to know whether they are adopting out an animal to someone who has previously abused or neglected his pets. Moreover, even if the injury was a second offense and was sufficiently severe to meet that standard, it still only raises the offense level to third degree misdemeanor. By way of comparison eight jurisdictions (Arkansas, Connecticut, Idaho, Louisiana, Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska and Puerto Rico) make repeated abandonment, or abandonment that results in the death or serious injury of an animal, a felony. As has been true for years, three bills are pending now in Harrisburg that would raise offense levels for animal cruelty cases: SB230, SB298 and HB308. They are referred to the judiciary committees of their respective chambers.

Other states also grant civil immunity to civilians who remove animals from cars in emergency situation such as extreme heat. As it stands, if you encounter a dog locked in a car in extreme heat, you risk both civil and criminal liability if you try to provide assistance. Twenty-four states and ­territories offer some type of civil immunity for removing animals from vehicles in these types of emergency situations. Last session, the legislature had a bill, which would have provided such protection under certain circumstances, but it took no action.

Another key, and fairly noncontroversial law that Pennsylvania lacks is allowing for pets to be included in protective orders in domestic violence cases. Currently, at least 32 states and the District of Columbia ­specifically allow pets to be included in protection from abuse orders.

Pennsylvania law is also notably weak in standards of care for animals. The cruelty law requires shelter be provided for dogs kept outdoors but only “clean and sanitary shelter which will protect the animal against inclement weather and preserve the animal’s body heat and keep it dry.” It does not, like other states and even some municipalities in Pennsylvania, require the shelter to be raised off the ground to protect from moisture and cold, have a flap to keep out wind and snow in winter or provide any shade in the extreme heat of summer.

Most people would also like to see those convicted of animal cruelty banned from owning pets for a significant period of time. That does not happen in Pennsylvania and it ties into our low grading of the offense. Because the vast majority of animal cruelty cases are only summary offenses, they result in no jail time, a modest fine and possibly a 90-day probationary period. A ban on ownership of another animal is within the judge’s power to order as part of the sentence but not within the jurisdiction of the animal cruelty officers to enforce since their authority is limited to enforcement of a specific statute, 18 Pa. C.S. A. 5511, the animal cruelty law. So, enforcement of a ban on ownership of a pet can only be enforced by a probation officer and therefore cannot exceed the length of the probationary period.

Pennsylvania has another opportunity this legislative session to decide where it wants to be on animal protection and, if it wants to do better, there are plenty of ­models out there.