A funny thing happened in Harrisburg this month. A few majority legislators introduced a resolution filled to the brim with unsubstantiated “facts”, specific calls to “refine” a wildly popular law, and a call for a “study” of the impact of this law. Twenty years ago, ten, five even, this House Resolution would have flown right by. But this year, legislators are discovering that there is a new furry third rail in Pennsylvania politics: dogs.
The Prime Sponsor of HR 89, Rep. Gordon Denlinger, represents Lancaster County, widely considered to be the epicenter of cruelty by puppy farmers in their previously woefully poorly regulated puppy mills. He is joined by others who either opposed the 2008 Puppy Mill law to the bitter end or those who fought it tooth and nail in committee, tried to kill it through death by a thousand cuts and amendments, and then heroically vote “Yea” for when it became clear that it would pass by unprecedented numbers in the PA House and Senate among Democrats and Republicans.
Despite their protests to the contrary, and many felt they doth protest their innocence too much, HR 89 was clearly an effort to, at best, impotently assuage their puppy mill lobby supporters by showing they could be tough on dogs or, at worst, at attempt to reopen the amended Dog Law in order to weaken it, roll it back, or hold it hostage for tax credits for those who can only make a profit by tormenting dogs. Animal welfare advocates saw it, newspaper editorial boards saw it, legislators who fought for the 2008 Dog Law saw it and, ultimately, even their own party leadership saw it.
In response to an avalanche of negative feedback from constituents, the sponsors of HR 89 changed their tactics from boldly attempting to drive their resolution through to claiming that it did not call for what it explicitly called for (those pesky words again) to trying to turn the tables and asking, “Gosh, who’s afraid of a little study?”, as if that was the issue.
However, people who care about animals in Pennsylvania, who worked hard to get the Puppy Mill Law passed in 2008, and who have been ignored for decades by their “representatives” in Harrisburg, have learned a lesson from their experiences and from their more politically deft friends in the NRA and Agriculture lobby. We learned that an attack on the laws we believe in, no matter how supposedly innocuous or inconsequential, needs to be responded to swiftly, powerfully and with unanimity. Canine shock and awe.
We are not stupid, we know how to read and we know how to read between the lines. HR 89 was a pile of dog crap. Claiming there was nothing to fear from an independent study sponsored by puppy mill apologists is like a prosecutor telling an innocent man not worry about going to trial without a defense lawyer because he’s sure to get a fair jury. Would you risk your life or freedom on that? The sponsors had presupposed a litany of offenses in HR 89. These sponsors weren’t asking if the Puppy Mill Law was guilty of something, they were asking how guilty it was.
Now here is the funny thing that happened. The session closed yesterday with HR 89 stalled and an omnibus amendment, an amendment which nearly entirely replaced the text of the original HR 89, being offered by John Maher, the majority head of the Ag Committee to be considering it. Oh, snap! We’ve always said animal welfare was not a partisan issue. There are good, bad and indifferent on both sides of the aisle. It just so happens that Rep. Maher was quite proud of the 2008 Puppy Mill Law he helped to pass.
We asked him why, if this HR 89 was so innocent, were there only a few pro-breeder sponsors, why did it make unsupported negative claims only, why did it specifically include a call for “reconsidering” implementation, why was it being fast tracked, why was it being considered before the law was even fully implemented, why didn’t it call for questioning why wire floors are still allowed and blanket exemptions and delays were given by the BDLE to kennels? He answered, “Why, indeed?” and he returned with a gutting of the very resolution which so many of us felt was intended to start the gutting of the Puppy Mill Law.
In Harrisburg, a response like that is a rare and beautiful thing.
I will diverge from many on this issue by declaring that I do not fear a truly independent study on the 2008 law. In fact, I believe that the blanket exemptions given kennels and the decisions to allow breeders to keep dogs on wire floors without access to exercise are a travesty and circumvention of legislative intent which would be exposed by a review. I called for the termination of a study based on a biased and surreptitious HR 89 and asked it to be completely revised and re-introduced with true bi-partisan sponsorship we can believe in. Prime Sponsor Denlinger is correct. There is nothing to fear from a fair study. But that’s not what he and his kennel posse were calling for.
It is what John Maher is calling for and I’d like answers to a few of my questions about the mishandling of implementation of the Puppy Mill Law and enforcement. Questions like why are dogs are still on wire floors when the law is explicit that this is not permitted? Why were kennels not collecting sales tax for years without intervention by the State and how many are still in violation of the law? How many kennels are in violation of local zoning ordinances and State and Federal labor laws? Why does the State, through its “agriculture” promotion arm, the Department of Agriculture, continue to prop up an industry which now seems to claim it can only make money through the abuse of dogs and the circumvention and violation of PA law and the will of the voters? And why would we give tax breaks to people whose prior deplorable business practices are now criminal business practices?
Is it safer to leave the whole matter closed? Without a doubt. Do I love every word in the new amendment? No. But when the leaders of the very party of the people who tried to get a crummy resolution through intervene, drastically alter it, and challenge us to take puppy mill apologists and the pro-cruelty lobby on head to head, I believe we should do exactly that. We have a lesson to teach here. I’d like to make it an unforgettable one.
Denlinger wanted his answers. Now I want mine. I am encouraging the support of the Maher Amendment to HR 89. And we should all be watching very, very carefully to make sure they stay far, far away from our furry third rail.