A little serious, a little satire, and all opinion on animal welfare.
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In the latest, “Sometimes someone else said it better,” it occurred to me that John Kennedy was President for just 1,036 days.  As someone who thinks that words do mean something, I could really use a good speech right now.

If you’ve got a few minutes, use them to listen to this one: JFK’s American University Commencement Address.

“Then we raised a glass to JFK
And a dozen more besides
When I got back to my empty room
I suppose I must have cried

Thousands are sailing
Again across the ocean
Where the hand of opportunity
Draws tickets in a lottery
Postcards we’re mailing
Of sky-blue skies and oceans
From rooms the daylight never sees
Where lights don’t glow on Christmas trees
But we dance to the music
And we dance”

Thousands Are Sailing, The Pogues

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If you’ve followed any of my writing, you know I have been very public in my opinion that animal control services in Pennsylvania are broken.  I have also said that I believe that there will need to be a catastrophic implosion before any of the tough decisions are made which a real solution will require.

Guess what?  It may finally be happening!  It appears that the dying breed of the large-scale commercial breeder in Pennsylvania have found a new way to generate income in a tough economy: contracting with municipalities to provide animal control services!  Isn’t it inspiring when a small business sector discovers a way to transition into the new economy?

The story comes to us from NPPMWatch.com via the TriCounty Record.  In order to save $340 dollars, East Earl Township, Lancaster County, has decided to switch its animal control contract from the Humane League of Lancaster County to Loren Nolt and his CK6 commercial kennel (licensed to house 501+ dogs with no upper limit).  Nolt has a documented history of problem kennel inspections, as well as being one of the largest commercial breeders in the area.  I will leave it to you to determine what the definition of a puppy mill is.

NPPMWatch asks some very good and basic questions that mostly have to do with how Nolt will comply with Pennsylvania stray law.  How will owners access the kennel seven days a week; what veterinary care accommodations will be made for injured strays; how will ownership, licensing, microchipping be determined; will Nolt be empowered to enforce local animal ordinances and press charges against citizens; and the coup de grace, what will he do with the dogs after their stray holding period is up and they remain unclaimed?  “Adoption”?  Sale to the public, breeders or for vivisection?  Euthanasia?  If so, by whom?  

East Earl Township, in an effort to wring $340 out of their budget have decided to opt out of services by a reputable animal welfare organization with decades of animal control experience and humane society police officers and veterinarians on staff in exchange for the barely bargain rate service offered by a major commercial dog breeder.  Bravo- I’m sure East Earl residents appreciate their frugality.  At least until one of their dogs ends up euthanized or sold.

Many have long warned that if the State and Counties do not get involved in animal control in a responsible and comprehensive manner that this will be the future of animal control in Pennsylvania.  Commercial dog breeders, pest control companies and any idiot off the street who applies for a kennel license will be deciding the fates of stray dogs.  And let’s not forget cats, which have no stray holding periods and none of the meager protections extended to dogs.

The Department of Agriculture proudly proclaims a grand new era of “humaness” toward dogs in Pennsylvania.  Yet this is the reality they have been bringing us to after decades of having their head in the sand on animal control.  I have one more question to add to the above list, but this one is for the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement.  Is this your vision of the future of animal control?

Do you know what I’m thankful for this Thanksgiving?  That I’m not a dog in East Earl Township.

Postscript update:  It appears that maybe East Earl jumped the gun a bit.  Below is an email forwarded to me reportedly written by Jessie Smith from the Department of Ag.  The smarmy bracketed comments are mine.

The East Earl Municipal Report published yesterday in the Tri County record is not accurate. [I believe it was accurate since it did not discuss whether the contract was permissible, just that East Earl was apparently entering into it.  But I'll leave the complete re-writing of printed words that speak for themselves to the experts.] The Secretary of Agriculture has not approved Loren Nolt to seize, detain, keep or feed licensed or unlicensed stray dogs. Nor has East Earl Township authorized him to do so, which of course it cannot without approval of the Secretary pursuant to Section 302 of the Dog Law. Please forward my email to all those to whom you sent your email. Thank you.

The fact that they are not giving permission is great!  Especially since they denied permission for Mainline Animal Rescue, one of the most respected, most resourced, and best known animal shelters in the nation, when they offered to take in strays.  At least they made the right decision in one of these two instances.

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After kicking the can past the election with a series of questions regarding the new kennel flooring requirements, Governor-to-be Corbett has authorized their implementation.  By doing so, Pennsylvania has demonstrated that it knows a trick at which my six year old daughter is expert.  I walk into the living room and say, “I told you not to eat ice cream in the living room,” and she replies, “No, you told me not to eat a Popsicle in the living.  You didn’t say anything about ice cream.”

Arguing intent with a six year old may be pointless, but one would expect more from the smart people in Harrisburg.  The intent of the Puppy Mill Bill was clearly to prohibit the keeping of dogs on wire flooring and to provide access to exercise.  However, since that requirement was not explicitly extended to puppies, the State has decided that they may not require puppies to be housed the way adult dogs must.  Therefore, if an adult dog is housed with puppies, the adult dog has its new protections stripped.  It is a complete perversion of a very straight forward “If/Then” scenario.

The obvious scenario is this: If adult dogs must have solid flooring and access to exercise and if puppies are not prohibited from having these things, then adults housed with puppies must have solid flooring.

Instead, it has been turned on its head: If puppies may not be required to have solid flooring and access to exercise, then adults must be stripped of these required protections.  That is absurd.

That is like claiming that although I am required to file my income taxes and my six year old daughter is not, I should be able to claim that because we live together in the same house I should be freed of my obligation because she lacks that obligation.

Or to put it in protection terms, an adult is permitted to go to an adult movie theater but we have legal protections barring children from visiting them.  Should you be able to bring your child to an X-rated movie and claim that your right to choose as an adult to see the movie trumps your child’s legally mandated protection from seeing it?

That is what these new rules allow commercial kennel operators to do.  They have the choice of what flooring to put puppies on, but not adult dogs.  However, as soon as they house them together they can claim that their right to choose trumps the protections- legally mandated protections-  extended to adult dogs.  There must be some legislative or legal justification for this opinion, yet I cannot see what it would be since any other balancing of choice/mandate would seem to fall on the side of honoring the protective mandate, not the choice.

And no one seems happy about these rules.  Hand wringing abounds and even those who are creating and approving these rules seem to be crowing about them as a great step forward on one hand and apologizing for them on the other, blaming the legislation- legislation which they essentially wrote and have had for a couple years now to read over.

They’ve found it all but impossible to find anyone not on the State payroll to say anything good about the rules.  Fortunately, they always seem to have a booster in Tom Hickey, a member of the Dog Law Advisory Board, who manages to talk up the new regs without actually mentioning the problems at issue by talking about all the great things they will do other than actually provide adult dogs the flooring and exercise protections they were supposed to have under the law.  Apparently he thinks we are all dogs who can be distracted if he just points and yells, “Squirrel!”  Fortunately for us and the dogs, he will “work on legislation to fix the wire flooring loophole when the legislature returns.”

OK, please forgive this aside: Can anyone tell me exactly why Tom Hickey gets quoted so much on these issues?  He seems like some dog law Heidi Montag who gets quoted on all this stuff but no one is sure why they are asking him except for the fact that he gets quoted all the time?  How is he going to create legislation?  There are so many highly credible people who could be getting asked these questions but for some reason Mr. Hickey keeps popping up in every interview, press conference, and photo op like our own doggie Zelig.  I really need to hire his publicist.

Anyway, he has one thing right.  The Department of Agriculture mayor may not  be completely disingenuous about their “surprise” discovery of the problems with the Puppy Mill Bill and all the legal brainiacs may or may not be doing their best to find a way around applying the clear intent of the nearly unanimously passed law to protect dogs from wire floors and to have access to exercise.  Either way, the clear answer is tweak the dog law to make it work the way it was intended. 

Failing to do so will mean the one hundred or so commercial kennels who want to maintain their profit margin on dog farming will trump the will of millions of voters in Pennsylvania and nearly every elected legislator who voted for HB 2525.  Well, it wouldn’t be the first time a powerful few bested the less powerful many.  But I think we saw how that can turn out this past November 2 on Election Day.

Maybe next time the decision won’t be as easy to put off until after Election Day and the voters won’t fall for a couple incumbents yelling, “Squirrel!”

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In the old days, you could mostly get away with saying stupid, ill-informed things without having a permanent record of them.  Stupid Google put an end to that.  Now you can be sure that every moronic thing that you have ever said or has been said about you will be there forever.  In my job I have ego-cover for doing vanity searches on my name because I need to see who is saying what about me and my organization. 

That only serves to remind me of two things: 1. I’ve said some mighty dumb things before (like my heart warming early endorsement of Reading’s “public safety ordinance” which I later came to see was an unconstitutional breed specific ordinance) and 2. Don’t get in extensive Internet/email/blog discussions (apparently cocktail waitresses really don’t like me).  Summed up, I’m not always right and I often talk too much.  There’s a news flash.

But I also get to be reminded when innaccurate or completely unfair web and news stories are put out there, again, forever.  One in particular really burned me up when it came out and has nagged at me ever since.  It was a story that HSBC Humane Society Police Officers were “refusing” to show up in court.  It has the added bonus of me saying something really stupid on camera about unfair animal control contracts (something you may know I tend to talk a lot- too much?- about), so I am doubly annoyed with myself.

What I in-artfully tried to make clear was that as soon as the HSBC was no longer appointed or paid by State or municipal government to do animal control, we lost all legal right or ability to enforce any State Dog law or local animal ordinance, no matter how much we wanted to.  Cruelty law, yes, and we continued to do so.  But no license violations, rabies violations, at large violations, barking dog violations, etc.  The most frustrating thing was that we could not get the State to simply come out and say, despite the fact that it was clearly the case, that it was illegal for us to prosecute these cases any longer.  Well, I haven’t always been kind to them at Dog Law in my evaluation of their performance, so I guess I can understand them not being willing to make a clear statement that we weren’t shirking our responsibilities.

Oh, wait, no I can’t.  They work for the government, they have a responsibility to make the law clear on the record.  Sorry, sometimes I forget that.  Anyway, I just wanted to write a “make myself feel better about a petty little thing” post today.  And I have the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement to thank for making it possible! 

In advance of an upcoming meeting to discuss the broken animal control system in Pennsylvania, the BDLE Director sent along a memo.  And it closed with the statement I had hoped they would make over a year ago!  The best thing is the memo was dated over two years ago.  It would have been so nice to know that there was written documentation that we were right, the District Justice who was mad at us shouldn’t have been, and that the press may have floated some bad intel (but they shouldn’t feel too bad about that, after all the NY Times reported mobile weapons labs in Iraq and we all know how that turned out).

From Sue West’s memo dated April 25, 2008 and delivered to me via email on November 17, 2010:

unless

1)    Your county has contracted with the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement to do animal control and your organization is the animal control facility; or

2)    Your shelter resides in one of the few cities which independently handles its animal control / dog licensing and your shelter has been authorized to cite dog licenses; or

3)    Your shelter has independently contracted with the Bureau of Dog Law to perform animal control services,

only employees of the Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement or state and local police have the ability to enforce the PA Dog Law Statute and file dog license citations. 

To translate from the horse’s mouth, unless we are contracted by the government, we are not permitted to enforce animal law violations, except for cruelty violations, which none of the reported citations were, and that prosecution would have to be handled by a legally authorized agency.  Now, was that so hard?

I know this will seem like petty inside baseball to most but sometimes it’s nice to take one nagging, annoying, unfair accusation off your personal ledger.  Please forgive me for wiping the slate clean in words:  Nanny, nanny, boo, boo….I was right, they were wrong, ha, ha!  There, I feel so much better.

Unfortunately, I still have soooooo many other idiotic things that were entirely on me out there on the Google.  Sigh.  Stupid Google.

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Steve Hindi of SHARK and I do not see eye to eye on tactics.  I think he goes over the line, he thinks I avoid the line.  From our own vantage points we are probably both right.  But on one thing we agree.  The pigeon shoots which take place in Pennsylvania are animal cruelty.  Period.  SHARK puts out lots of videos about lots of issues, most of which are not issues taken up by the HSBC and, as far as I’ve seen, usually chock full of the kind of rhetoric our organization steers clear of (the kind we think goes over the line and the kind he would say is a line we shouldn’t avoid).

But today SHARK has posted a video you need to see if you have any question about whether pigeon shoots are cruelty or whether, even if they are, they are protected activities under some PA law or statute.  It contains no big voice-over track, it passes no judgement on anyone, the only text expresses a direct opinion without hyperbole.  It shows exactly what the aftermath of pigeon shoots looks like and makes the strongest argument yet against the biggest claim made by shooters: that pigeon shoots are protected sporting or hunting activity.

After watching this video I challange anyone to make that claim with a straight face.

Under Pennsylvania law and according to one of the State’s own special cruelty prosecutors at a recent training for Humane Society Police Officers, there are four defenses against a charge of cruelty.  They are “normal agricultural activity”, pest control, self-defense, and activity protected by the game code.  There is clearly no connection to agriculture at a pigeon shoot and I’ve never heard anyone make that claim.  Since these birds are almost exclusively trapped in other states and and trucked in to Pennsylvania to be shot, pest control is also a rare and weak legal claim- unless we’re claiming to be helping with New York City’s pigeon problem.  Self defense? Come on. 

The only claim that stands up to the barest scrutiny and the one that law enforcement gives a vague nod to when choosing not to prosecute shooters is the game code protection claim.  So, let’s look at that.  This video shows a pile of dead birds, left to rot following a shoot.  Obviously no fair chase took place since they were part of a pigeon shoot and were, therefore, launched from a a cage to be shot at.  The evidence of live animals in that pile means no reasonable care was taken to even ensure they were properly killed- the appropriate mantra for any true hunter or fisherman.  No one ate them.  Even many cock-fighters eat their birds after a losing fight, yet we still rightly made cockfighting a felony.

And it appears that dozens of the birds were banded.  That means a person raised and cared for them and that they are, by definition, not wild but are domesticated animals.  They are, by definition, not game animals and the game code offers no defense against a charge of cruelty in this case.  A couple hundred domestic animals were shot for a fee and left to die slowly in a maggot infested pile.  Would that be legal if it was chickens? Cats? Cows? Dogs?  No.  And it is not legal for pigeons.

SHARK says that County DA’s have refused to allow charges to be filed and SHARK is correct.  However, in Pennsylvania, County DA’s have final say on any charge unless the Attorney General intervenes.  No police officer or Humane Society Police Officer is permitted by law to prosecute a case that has been withdrawn by a County DA.  Not cruelty, drug dealing or murder.  And the DA’s have that control for a reason.  They are supposed to be the protection between us and the abuses of the State, and DA’s are elected so they are accountable to community standards and the vote.  But that doesn’t always mean they are right.  And in this case, they are not.  As a Humane Society Police Officer, I am respectful of their opinion and of their decision, but I respectfully disagree with it.

We now have a Governor-Elect who is a sitting Attorney General.  He is a Republican and backed by the NRA.  He knows the law and I’m sure he knows that the lack of prosecution for something does not mean that something is legal.  It means it may simply have been a crime which went unprosecuted.  People say that only Nixon could go to China.  Perhaps only Tom Corbett can end pigeon shoots in Pennsylvania, as they have been ended across the United States.

It’s not a gun issue.  It’s not a protected activity.  Ending them will no more lead to a revocation of sporting or gun rights than they have anywhere else in the US.  Pigeon shoots are an illegal activity that takes place in only a handful of locales by a small minority, many of whom come from outside Pennsylvania, and should be prosecuted as such.  The Constitution will stand.  These shoots are Pennsylvania’s shame and they are Berks County’s, my organization’s home county’s, shame.

Steve Hindi and SHARK are right.  Governor Rendell and Governor-Elect Corbitt should move to file cruelty charges against those putting on pigeon shoots under existing cruelty law and should take the lead on making shoots explicitly illegal under PA law, just to make it crystal clear for our law enforcement officials.

And then Steve and I can find something else to argue about.

Click here to view the SHARK video.  Please be advised the footage is fairly graphic and there are a couple moments of strong language…

Please contact the Governor and the Governor Elect and ask them to take action.

Governor Edward G. Rendell’s Office

Phone: (717) 787-2500

Fax: (717) 772-8284

EMAIL Governor Rendell

Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett

Phone:717-787-3391

Fax:717-787-8242

EMAIL Governor-Elect Corbett

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Or at least that’s what I may be considered thanks to the passage by the house yesterday of SB 906, the “bio-security” bill.  That’s because the vague language included in the bill is more likely to be applied to me as a State trained and sworn Humane Society Police Officer (HSPO) than it will to Osama bin Laden.  And this designation is pretty serious stuff.  Somewhere right now a government computer is reading the words in my opening paragraph and flagging them.  All because I’m discussing a bill that will be used primarily to protect puppy millers and bad farmers from appropriate prosecution or from damning video exposes.

While I’m sure the unanimous vote indicates a genuine wish on the part of legislators to protect us from bio/eco-terrorism, commercial dog breeders see this law as the next tool in their arsenal to avoid prosecution for animal cruelty or to retaliate against HSPO’s who do their job.

SB 906 allows any “farmer”, and let’s not forget that dog breeding is considered agriculture in Pennsylvania, to take a couple simple steps to designate their “farm” (or puppy mill) as a bio-security zone.  Slap up a couple signs and let the fun begin!  Although the revised wording is somewhat more explicit in that it does not apply to a person “privileged to [enter a farm]”, which one would assume means a law enforcement officer legally investigating a reported crime such as animal cruelty, there is plenty still in it to cause trouble.

For example, entering a property to “threaten” the owner or occupant is considered ecoterrorism.  I’m guessing that citing a puppy miller for animal cruelty would be construed by the puppy miller to be a threat.  Will that result in the arrest of my officer on eco-terrorism charges?  There are also other intended targets of this law besides police officers.  What about the person who lawfully works on a farm, sees evidence of a crime and reports it or documents it?  Will the filmers of all those hidden videos of tortured dogs and dying livestock which result in massive cruelty cases be charged or sued as ecoterrorists?  You bet they will.

In fact, lawsuits and false criminal claims are the new weapon of choice by breeders since Humane Society Police Officers do not have the same protection from frivolous lawsuits as municipal or state police officers.  We enforce the same laws under the jurisdiction of our County DA’s, yet the officers and our organizations are open to lawsuits by the very breeders who have been prosecuted and stripped of their kennel licenses.  Even when the cases are thrown out of court, as was recently the case in a Federal suit against Mainline Animal Rescue, the bills to defend are staggering.

And I would know.  The Humane Society of Berks County is currently defending itself against such a federal suit filed by a breeder featured on the notorious Oprah puppy mill show who had his licensed revoked by the State.  Despite the fact that our County DA office handled the entire court case and a judge signed off on all action and warrants, the former breeder could still find an attorney (who previously represented the criminal breeder Skip Eckhart) who would be willing to bring a Federal case against the HSBC.  We have no doubt we will prevail over the frivolous suit but it will likely cost us tens of thousands of dollars to win (feel free to make a donation in support of our legal fund).

Since the Pennsylvania House and Senate declined to take up Rep. Siptroth’s HB 593 this year, which would provide our officers and the HSBC with the same immunity municipal police have, we are already weighing whether we should continue humane law enforcement.  I know the first time we are served with “ecoterrorism” charges for doing the job of enforcing PA cruelty laws, it will be the end of our law enforcement work.  I’m not sure that was the intended outcome for the legislature but it sure was for the breeders who wanted this bill so badly.

I want to keep cholera out of my daughters’ corn flakes as much as the next person.  But let’s be honest: Is the threat of a misdemeanor charge going to keep a radical jihadist or even some Earth Liberation Front type nut from doing whatever they are going to do on a farm?  Of course not.  All it will do to make those in animal welfare think twice before they pursue appropriate legal remedies to protect animals and people. 

The very least the House and Senate can do now is protect humane societies like ours from frivolous lawsuits.  It will give some small, cold comfort when I get added to a no fly list.

 Somewhere a puppy miller is rolling with laughter in his barn and a terrorist is rolling with laughter in his cave.

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Over the past few months and years, issues surrounding the problems of animal control and stray animals been a recurring theme in the local press.  Throughout Pennsylvania the old model of animal control service delivery has been breaking down, resulting in turmoil and confusion.  Citizens, taxpayers, state and municipal governments have long relied nearly exclusively on charitable animal welfare organizations to provide animal control and euthanasia services for stray animals.  This near complete reliance on charities is somewhat unique to Pennsylvania.

Municipalities have balked for years at providing a reasonable payment for animal control services.  Counties have largely avoided any responsibility at all by leaving it entirely in the hands of municipalities.  The State, through the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement, has generally relied on private animal shelters to either take dogs from them or do their job for them, while offering paltry “grants” in exchange.  The result is that the charitable donors of private animal shelters have long subsidized animal control and the other animals helped by these shelters have had resources diverted from them in order to provide this subsidy.

Increasingly, animal welfare organizations, after years of being underfunded (if funded at all) for these services and who have grown weary of subsidizing these municipal responsibilities and of having the burden of being the final destination for tens of thousands of strays each year, have begun divesting themselves of their animal control contracts. 

Municipalities, despite years of pleading and begging by shelters for greater resources and warning of the potential for a cut off in services, often claim to have been blindsided when services are dropped.  Municipalities and the State now face the very real problem of not having any place to take stray animals as private shelters focus other mission imperatives.  The shelters who still offer animal control services or stray intake and euthanasia services are increasingly overwhelmed and often attacked by a public who blame the shelters for the reality of euthanasia thrust upon them.  Sometimes the attacks are undeserved.  Other times shelters use the animal control reality to deflect legitimate concern about bad organizational management and policies.

The result is bad care and increased likelihood of euthanasia for the animals, little or no accountability on the part of animal shelters or government, no incentive for improving the root causes of pet overpopulation and strays through policy and legislation, and the unfair charitable subsidy of a government responsibility.  This problem impacts our entire community.  The responsibility is borne by our entire community.  Yet the burden is placed on an increasingly small group of charitable organizations. 

The solutions offered, if any are offered at all, tend to be versions of the current system but with a higher price tag.  The Humane Society of Berks County believes the past and current model of animal control service delivery is broken and new proposals must be made to break the cycle of rampant stray euthanasia, poor public policy, shifting responsibility and escalating costs.

We are putting forward a proposal for a plan that will provide comprehensive animal control services for Berks County which will share costs and responsibility and will lead to better care and outcomes for stray animals, less expensive service fees, increased accountability for taxpayers, and a new, replicable and scalable model for animal control in Pennsylvania.

This plan is intended to be a serious proposal to address a serious problem.  There are certainly other models and ideas which could be developed.  Unfortunately, they are simply not being proposed.  We hope this proposal begins a conversation that leads us all to a new era of animal control service in Pennsylvania.

Read on for the Humane Society of Berks County’s Plan for Comprehensive Animal Control Service Reform….

Humane Society of Berks County’s Plan for Comprehensive Animal Control Service Reform

The Problem:  Each year in Berks County thousands of stray animals (perhaps as many as 8,000) enter private animal shelters.  These animals face great likelihood of euthanasia and cost enormous sums of money to catch, care for, and adopt or euthanize.  The vast majority of those funds come from charitable donors via private animal shelters.  The average cost per capita to fund animal shelters in Berks and the US is about $8.  However, the amount provided via State, municipal and County funding sources for animal control services is approximately .50 per capita in Berks.  The remaining $7.50 in per capita expense comes from charitable donors.

Municipalities often claim they should not pay more money because charitable animal shelters spend their money on other things that have nothing to do with animal control such as veterinary care, behavioral training, adoptions, education, etc.  And while this is true, it does not take into consideration the actual per capita costs of strictly providing animal control services exclusively for stray animals.  These average per capita costs run from $8 to $13 or more nationwide.  That means that in Berks County, with a population of about 400,000, the average annual expenditure on animal control alone each year should be between $3.2 million and $5.2 million if national averages determined the investment.  Yet the actual government investment in providing animal control services is about $200,000.

Until animal control services can be evaluated on a true cost basis, it seems unlikely that government will pay more for a service which is viewed as a “donation” to animal shelters.  Until the payment for these services goes up, the quality of animal control services will remain low and government will face the ever looming specter of further animal shelter refusals to provide the service.  Until the cost of these services are equitably shared, the expense will be prohibitive for any one organization, donor, or governmental body to provide.

The Solution:  The cost of animal control services must be shared throughout the community and the delivery of animal control services must be delivered independently of charitable organizations.  If this is done the per person and per government cost for animal control services can be greatly diminished, the exact cost can be directly determined, accountability for the success or failure of service delivery can be exactly assigned, and all parties involved with this community wide crisis can play the part they are best suited to.

The Humane Society of Berks County’s Plan for Comprehensive Animal Control Service Reform provides a solution to each of these problems by assigning the means for specific responsibility, funding and accountability in a transparent manner.

Key Points of the Reform Plan

Severing of Responsibility from Charitable Organizations:  Animal shelters will always be forced to balance their strictly charitable mission with their contractual animal control mission as long as they do both.  Decisions about staffing decisions, product choices, service options and law enforcement will always become entwined as animal control management decisions bump against charitable mission imperatives.  The two imperatives must be severed.

Unfortunately, the only entities with the expertise in handling and housing large numbers of domestic animals in a shelter environment are private sector animal welfare organizations.  Even if government were capable of developing the expertise required, the operating costs would be vastly higher.  That is the reason the average per capita costs are so high for municipal animal control operations compared to private shelters.  Privatized service is key to maintaining lower costs.  But how do you accomplish both privatization and segregation from the charitable missions of animal welfare organizations?

This can be accomplished through the creation of an independent Management Services Organization incorporated under the control of a highly functioning animal welfare organization but directly contractually serving the government for the exclusive purpose of providing animal control services.  The scope of the services and expectations of the contract relationship would be clearly delineated.  Payment would be provided for specific service, with no touchy-feely bells and whistles which are vital to a charitable mission but not required of, or wanted by, a government seeking only animal control services.

The contracting government would then have a stand-alone service to evaluate, selected to provide a specific service for a specific price.  Like with any vendor, if the service is not provided satisfactorily, a new vendor can be selected to provide the service.  However, a direct negotiation for price and service can take place within the framework of the service required.

Services Provided:  When talking about animal control services there are several key functions expected.  They include intake of strays from the public, pick up of confined strays, care for strays, stray return-to-owner services, legally mandated medical care for animals, euthanasia of animals which are injured, aggressive, not claimed by owners or not accepted for adoption transfer by charitable animal welfare organizations, and animal law enforcement (non-cruelty animal law).  Active partnerships could be formed, as is the case in most other major US cities, with animal welfare organizations to transfer unclaimed strays to private organizations for adoption.  In this way the long term expense is transferred to these charities, voluntarily and without coercion.

Distribution of Responsibility:  This reform plan would allow all actors to play the role appropriate and the role they choose.  Government would provide oversight and funding.  The contracted MSO would provide direct service.  Local animal welfare organizations would be able to partner to the extent of their interest and means to assist in saving the lives of animals through adoption transfer services.  Members of the public who wish to support specific animal control efforts would be able to target their support directly at the stray animal population (via direct stray adoption, promotion of stray issues, donations to government in support of animal control efforts).  The responsibilities of each party would be clearly defined.

Distribution of Cost:  Currently in Berks County approximately half the funding for animal control services are provided by the State and half by County municipalities (about $100,000 from the State for dog control services, about $90,000 from the City of Reading for animal control services and the remaining few thousand from various other municipalities).  This is not sufficient to provide comprehensive animal control services, even when subsidized through charitable donations provided to shelters delivering animal control services or accepting and housing strays.

Because stray animals and animal control issues tend to fairly closely trend with population statistics- i.e. the number of stray animals from an area is tied to the number of people in an area- a per capita charge would be a reasonable mechanism for funding animal control services.  The fee would be directly related to the number of people being serviced.  Since our taxes flow in three directions, our municipality, our county and the State, it would be fair to share the cost between these three taxing entities.  Our proposal would call for splitting the cost of service between the State (20%), the County of Berks (40%) and individual municipalities (40%).  In Berks County, the State already provides a payment for services derived from the sale of dog licenses.  This would continue, requiring little or no change in investment by the State.  The Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement is only tasked with dog control so their contribution would be smaller (one half the contribution of each of the other two funding parties).

Determination of Cost:  Doing some extremely basic calculations of the cost of staffing and operating a strictly animal control facility, some broad costs can be determined.  Assuming animal control pick up services seven day a week (2.8 full time staff), general kennel and animal care positions seven days a week (7 full time staff), and clerical support seven days a week (1.4 full time staff), the total number of full time staff equivalents would be 11.2.  Assuming a wage of about $12-$15 an hour and benefits, let’s say a staff cost of $400,000 annually.

For operations let’s say about $100,000 since operations will be strictly intake, short term care and housing, transfer to charitable entities for adoption, owner claim or euthanasia.  We’ll add 10% to the total for good measure and get a total operating fee of $550,000 and add a 13% management fee (about what a United Way might charge) and we end up with a total proposed contract fee by the MSO of $621,500.

Payment for Service:  Based on the proposed contribution breakdown, the State’s portion of the cost would be $124,200 annually, very close to their current payment for dog control services in Berks County.  Additional fees could be assessed to the State in the event that it would wish to transfer additional dogs to the Berks facility from regions without comprehensive animal control services.  The County of Berks and the combined Berks Municipalities would pay $248,400 each.  That would be a per capita cost of $1.22 per person in Berks County (based on 2009 Census population estimate of 407,125 residents), or .61 per person from the County and .61 per person from each municipality.  As an example, Amity Township with 8,876 residents would be required to contribute $5,408 annually, Muhlenberg Township with about 16,305 residents would pay $9,460, Reading City with 81,207 residents would pay $49,536, etc.  A flat sixty-one cents per person, per year for comprehensive animal control services, 365 days a year.  Pocket change.

Facility:  Our proposal would suggest that a dedicated animal control facility be owned by the County and operated by the contracted organization.  The cost of the new facility would vary with design, size, whether it was built on county owned land, etc.  Assuming a cost of one million dollars at a 30 year mortgage rate (an appropriate facility could be retrofitted for far less), the cost of the facility could be covered by adding an additional fifteen cents per person annually.  By owning the facility, the county would not be at risk for a contracted MSO dropping a contract and cutting off access to a proprietary facility.  The County could also decide in the future to take on animal control by itself and have its own facility.

What Municipalities and Taxpayers Would Get:  Under this model all residents of the county and municipalities would have access to animal control assistance- stray pick up, animal control law enforcement, police assistance, etc.  The cost would be borne equitably.  Stray animal would have a dedicated service provider and place to go.  The contractor could be held accountable for poor performance and a new contractor chosen if needed.  Animal welfare charities would be free to pursue their missions without being cajoled, bullied and pressed into providing animal control and euthanasia services which might violate their missions and divert charitable donations.

Animals would still be getting euthanized.  But the residents of Berks County would know precisely how many and why and would hold the government accountable.  They could ask why there is no vision in place for improving and implementing public policy which would save lives in the long term and reach the vaunted goal of a low kill/no kill community.  That will be good for animals and the community.  Charities couldn’t hide behind the animal control problem any longer and blame management mistakes or failures on being overwhelmed with strays.  We’d have to defend what we do on the merits of what we do.  That would be good for the non-profit community. 

And ultimately this will simply bring us up to speed with what other communities are doing around the nation.  Although this proposal offers some funding specifics unique to our State and region, the core notion of a community wide partnership and acceptance of responsibility for the problem is being modeled in communities around the nation.  We just need to open our little Berks County eyes and look around.  Not only can we do it, it is being done elsewhere.

Summary: The proposed plan is a plan, not the plan.  It would provide for the needs of animals, government, residents, taxpayers, and charitable organizations equitably, with transparency, and at a fraction of the actual cost of the current charitable donor subsidized system or of the municipal based system practiced elsewhere.  It is not intended to be exact in its calculation or a bid for a contract.  It is intended to be a starting point for a discussion by all parties on a way out of the unsustainable mess we face now in Berks County and Pennsylvania.

Undoubtedly, anyone can and probably will find something “wrong” with this proposal and they may very well be correct.  What we at the Humane Society of Berks County want to know is are we going to keep complaining about the problem or are we going to find a solution we can implement?  Here is an idea we have.  Do you have a better idea?

Update 12-3-10: Another domino may fall: http://thetimes-tribune.com/news/griffin-pond-animal-shelter-may-stop-accepting-animals-from-municipal-officials-1.1072049

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If you follow our work and communications at the Humane Society of Berks County, you know we tend to go with a pretty light touch.  We think that people don’t just want us to do a good job on their behalf; they want to feel good when they connect and communicate with us.  That’s why we try to instill a smiling voice if what we do, why we use humor, why we make sure our events are actually a lot of fun.

That doesn’t mean we don’t take our work very, very seriously.  We do.  We simply try to do “serious” effectively and with measure.  When a hand shake and smile will work- which is most of the time- we use them.  When the handshake needs to turn into an arm twist, we’re not shy about it.  But we try to keep that to an as needed basis.  Even here in our slightly more angst and gravity ridden blog pages, serious issues are discussed in a slightly satirical and humorous vein.  At least that’s the intent.

But this lightness of approach can sometimes lull people into a false sense of security and when we break out of that mold as is sometimes required, it can be a real shock.  Last summer we did something that is quite common for other animal shelters to do but extremely rare for us.  We publicized, very bluntly and directly and with zero humor, that if we did not get a wave of adoptions over the course of a weekend, we would be force to euthanize cats simply for space- perfectly happy, healthy cats dying for no other reason than more were coming in than going out- for the first time in three and a half years.

We promote adoption heavily at all times because the reality is we euthanize animals on a nearly daily basis for a variety of reasons.  Illness, injury, age, aggression.  But we have been trying, by bits and pieces, to decrease euthanasia by targeting populations for adoption.  Animals with minor injuries are now routinely saved because we have staff vets.  Bone fractures are now commonly fixed and the pets adopted.  More behavioral issues are being addressed, saving more lives.  But the key population, the first that we decided we were targeting for saving four years ago when we decided we were going to stop accepting the “there’s nothing we can do about it” model most shelters accept, the primary target group, was healthy, happy animals.

For three and a half years, we were able to get everyone one of those healthy and happy cats, dogs, hamster, turtles, and others adopted.  To the point where we often can take in happy, healthy animals from other animal shelters which are unable to reach that goal.  To the point where some of our donors and supporters started to take it for granted.  But when we had done every adoption promotion we had up our sleeves, when we had shifted around as many cats between our facilities as we could, when we had finally run out of options, we had to say, “But seriously, folks…..” and lay it out.

It worked.  We had tons of adoptions and got the breathing space we needed.  Now that the year is winding down we won’t face that again, probably, until next summer.  And I still run into people who ask me about that announcement and say, “Good God, Karel, you killed me with that one!”  And I tell them what I’m telling you now.  We do great, wonderful, happy work.  We like being positive and strong.  We won’t be a place that sends out countdown to euthanasia lists, which fundraises on our instability and wears our weakness as a red badge of courage.  We won’t play the suffering victim.  But when we say something seriously, with no joking, no cleverness, take us seriously.  It means the need is acute.

So let me take a moment to be deadly serious.  While we have been fortunate not to contract and cut services in this economy, it has been a very delicate balancing act.  It is a tightrope that we could fall off if we do not continue to receive strong support from the donors who fund our work.  Fewer adoptions, fewer medical interventions, fewer cruelty investigations, no new dog parks and equine and adoption centers.  This is not crying wolf, this is reality.  Do not let our recent accomplishments lull you into a sense that we do not need you now more than ever.  Next summer, we will face a crisis of euthanasia for space again, probably earlier and more acutely than this year.  We will need your help to avoid it.

But we want to be the happy-go-lucky organization you know and love.  So we will make you a deal.  Help us keep that smile on.  When our Holiday Appeal hits your mailbox, make a big enough donation that gives you a little discomfort.  When your thank you letter comes, pass the enclosed brochure along to a friend.  Attend one or all of our events.  Forward our emails, hang our posters, talk about how great we are.  I promise you, you will not be keeping us from collapse, you will be keeping us strong.  That is a very different thing entirely.

We can remain the happy successful place you want us to be and we want to be.  Or we can diminish.  You will decide which it is.  Seriously.  And sorry about that cat email.

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It wouldn’t be the first time and don’t worry, I’ll get to how this relates to the animals eventually.

But I thought the suggestion sounded reasonable in the wake of an election won by slivers but proclaimed as landslide, a march on Washington attended by 200,000+ people but deemed irrelevant, and of our “representatives” in Harrisburg deciding to call it a year and go home with five voting days left and a pile of important bills awaiting consideration.

I happened to be wondering, again, many times again, how so many people seem to be so completely missing the point and, worse, getting on TV to tell me, completely inaccurately, what my point was in the first place, when Dale Bozzio came on the iPod.  “My lips are moving and the sound is coming out.  The words are audible but I have my doubts that you realize what has been said.”  Believe me, sister, I know how you feel.  Maybe dying my hair blue might get someone’s attention.

I’m not generally an ardent populist but I can’t help but feel like we are represented and reported on by a bunch of narcissistic people viewing the lives and demands of “we the people” via the reflection of a carnival mirror.  We just had an election that was decided in the nation as a whole by a few percentage points total.  The losing party crawls around like they were the last picked for dodge ball.  The winning party puffs up and crows about their new “mandate” bestowed by “the people”.  Well, to quote Gil Scott-Heron, “Mandate, my ass.”

I am not making a political case; there is plenty to go ire to go around.  I am making a case for the utter lack of reality being perceived by either political party.  In 2010 election, the total number of votes cast for all Democratic candidates for US House was 35.4 million compared to 41.1 for Republicans, or a 5.7 vote margin for the Republicans.  A win? Certainly.  A shellacking?  Maybe.  A mandate?  Hardly.  If 41.1 million votes count as a mandate- not even 41% of Americans but 41.1 million votes- then certainly the Democrats had also had one in 2008, when they received 65.2 million votes with a 13 million vote margin- 50% more votes than the Republicans received this time.  And certainly many Democrats claimed their mandate then, too.  The Dem Mandate- now with 50% more mandatey deliciousness!

So winning between 5 and 13 million more votes- about 10% of the total votes cast and only 2% to 4% of the total US population gives a political party a mandate?  It gives a party the right to claim they are doing the will of the American people?  Who do they think they are? I’m 20% of my nuclear family and I can’t speak for my three daughters without catching hell.  And John Boehner or Nancy Pelosi is going to speak for me?  How presumptuous. 

After all, nearly half the voters voted against each of the two of them (I know I did).  That would be like a football team winning by one point on a two point conversion and claiming ownership of every fan in the opponent’s city.  And as much as I wonder where these people get off telling us something that they must know is patently, baldly a lie, I wonder more why no one calls them on it.

Poor John Stewart (and it’s hard to say “poor” about anyone making $7 million a year) wondered the same thing.  He got over 200,000 people to join him in wondering why the media treats every event as an equal crisis and every claim as equally valid.  Without making a political point, he made a serious point that the fuel that is driving our damaged politics is in part a media and journalists who should be calling “Bull****!” when they see it and that failing to do so results in a state of white noise in which everything is a crisis and we fail to respond to anything any longer or even recognize when we are being lied to.  Or are lying to ourselves.

Well, of course the media didn’t like their former darling to call them out for being part of the problem.  Dance, little monkey boy, entertain us!  Throw your poo at Fox News, what a lark!  Hey, where are you aiming that…don’t throw it at me…hey, you’re not funny anymore…bad monkey boy, go back to being a comedian.  John Stewart had a point all right, they just didn’t like this one.

And finally, we get to Harrisburg.  In the PA House, with five voting days left, the Democratic leadership packed up and went home (see end note).  Apparently there wasn’t enough important work to do.  Except 68 Democrats and Republicans did stay.  They said the Pledge of Allegiance, identified themselves, and then had to leave since no work could be done.  That 68 knew that there was work to do, much of it uncontroversial work that simply required votes.  Some of it controversial but important work that simply required true leadership.

After a year of hearing that there were other more important things to do than vote on bills I and many others in animal welfare wanted, the leadership decides they are too busy to even show up.  After being told there is not the political spine to vote on some issues, why not take a shot of lame duck courage and at least take a final principled vote?  I guess they were as short on principal and courage as they were time.

I had things they could have voted on.  What about the Gas Chamber ban?  That would have been a good one.  What about the pigeon shoot ban?  Now there’s one they’ve been avoiding for a while.  Oh, I know!  Why not help the HSBC and other cruelty law enforcement agencies who are now the victims of frivolous lawsuits which are the new tactic of disgraced or convicted breeders.  There was a bill that would extend us the same immunity given normal police agencies.  Maybe they had to run home to write us a donation check to cover the legal bills.

Think about it.  Would you accept it from me if I stopped working in November and told you I had helped all the important animals, the rest didn’t really matter?  Could you get away with that at work?

I know a lot of people out there (present company excluded, of course) don’t think animal welfare issues rise to the level of importance of other vital interests right now, and I understand that.  But many of these issues have the overwhelming support of “the people”.  Yet our politicians are so busy claiming to speak for the people and wielding their razor thin winning margins that our actual pleas fall on deaf ears.  Our press, which is supposed to be our surrogates in naming wrong doing and doers, leads with bleeding and doesn’t stop long enough to ask themselves simple questions like, “Wow, these guys string a lot of words together, but exactly how will that make jobs/keep us safe/take your pick?” 

And our elected representatives in Harrisburg, who had plenty of time to pass “Lights On After School! Day”, couldn’t stick around for five more days to do the work they were sent there to do.  Guess what?  While they are at home for the holidays, being paid with my taxes, I’ll still be at work trying to figure out how to help animal shelters who want to get rid of their gas chambers but don’t have the resources to do it; I’ll still be here fielding cruelty calls about pigeon shoots; I’ll still be getting sued for doing the State’s cruelty enforcement work for them; and I’ll still be helping take care of the animals abandoned without any government resources- just like lots of other “American People” who work in animal shelters.

I doubt I’ll be getting any volunteer time from any of those State Reps to help out this holiday season.  I doubt I’ll get much attention by from the press.  I doubt I’ll be first and foremost in mind when politicians tell me they are doing the things I sent them to Washington to do.  Don’t pay any mind to the American People.  But just in case they can’t tell, we’re not waving, we’re drowning. 

Somebody pass me the hair dye.

End Note:  While I was penning this, the House leadership was recalling all it’s troops back to Harrisburg on Monday (hope they enjoy the six day weekend).

End, End Note: And when they returned they passed the bio-security bill which give puppy millers a way to cut off access to their “farms” by making them “bio-security zones” and by turning Humane Society Police Officers into “eco-terrorists”.  Sweet.  Read more here.

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When it comes to voting for an animal welfare agenda, it’s pretty easy to be ambivalent.  Among the candidates, there are a few in both parties with exceptionally good- and bad- positions on the animal welfare issues of the day.  A very few.

Most seem to fall right in the middle.  They are the ones who reply to constituent inquiries with, “Thank you for contacting me, I am studying the matter.”  Or, “This is a very important issue and I will take your input into consideration.”  Or they simply don’t reply at all.  Who wants to vote for that?  If they can’t answer a simple question about whether pigeon shoots are hunting or whether puppies should be on wire flooring, what will they answer?

I think kittens are cute, do you think kittens are cute?  “Thank for contacting me, I will take your input on this very important kitten matter into consideration.”

It is made even worse when you have a district with an incumbent who has generally dodged even speaking about an issue that impacts his very district fighting a rival with potential ties to the issue itself.  Such is the case in PA House 125, which sees incumbent Democrat Tim Seip facing Republican challenger Mike Tobash, with a No Party challenge by Dennis Baylor (whose No Party affiliation might be better termed No Chance of Winning Party, and will likely only serve as spoiler between Tobash and Seip).  According to Pennsylvania Independent, this race is a toss-up.  But a toss-up between what?

The 125th might ring a bell as the long time home of the Hegins Pigeon Shoot, now gone but not forgotten.  If you care about the fact that Pennsylvania is the last legal refuge of pigeon shoots and that shoots are once again spreading across our State like mold, you might wonder where these two candidates stand on the issue.  Good luck finding out.  Neither seems to want to make a comment on it. 

Seip has been deft at avoiding any public comment about the shoots, in my personal experience not even returning phone calls or emails about the issue.  One wonders what that means.

On the other hand, Mike Tobash is a charter member of the Tri-Valley Lions Club, which raised money vending food at the Hegins Pigeon Shoot.  He has presumably spent his fair share of time at the shoots.  One wonders where he stands on them now (or if he’s the same guy quoted here).

Of course, not taking a public position of something doesn’t mean you endorse it.  Neither does being a member of an organization which has a peripheral involvement in something repugnant.  But what are we to think when neither will tell us where they stand on something as black and white as whether launching birds from catapults is “hunting” or cruelty?  So the 125th is the poster district for “inspiring” the ambivalent voter.

I’m sure they will tell us they think taxes are too damn high.  And that we should be tough on criminals.  That they love all ten amendments on the Bill of Rights.  Maybe even that they think kittens are cute.

How about something with some meat on the bone, something that will separate one from the other, like where they stand on passing the short and sweet pigeon shoot ban legislation that has languished in the House for the past year?  Give the voters of their district something to vote for.  Or against.  But give your ambivalent voters something.  It might just get one of you elected.

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