The animal welfare group hopes the sign raises awareness of a persistent problem in rural Lancaster County: the mass production of puppies in inhumane and sometimes illegal kennels.
"A lot of people may have heard the word puppy mill, but they don't know that much about it," said Bill Smith, founder of Wayne-based Main Line Rescue, who has been finding homes for unwanted animals since 1998. "The billboard gives them a little bit of information right away, so they know that there's a problem out there."
The sign, which features a 1960s-era postcard of a family waving from a convertible, encourages visitors to "learn more about PA's notorious puppy mills" by visiting two Web sites, www.mainlinerescue.com and www.stoppuppymills.org.
Paid for by a board member who wants to remain anonymous, the $500-a-month sign went up last month for a yearlong stay, Smith said. But already it has gotten action.
After getting flooded with e-mails about the sign, Lancaster County formed a committee to look into the issue, James Cowhey, director for Community Planning, said this month. The panel wants to determine what is going on and, if there's a problem, "see what they can do to help find a solution," he said.
That's just what Main Line Rescue was hoping for. The animal welfare group, which places about 500 animals a year, is waging the billboard and Web site battle with breeders who it says treat dogs cruelly and take advantage of uninformed consumers, who often get stuck with sick animals.
Since the sign went up, the group's Web site has gotten thousands of hits, and other animal rights groups are clamoring for information on how to put up their own billboards, Smith said. With money that has been donated - $500 so far - the group is planning another billboard in Lancaster, on the other side of the turnpike, and is looking to set up one in Missouri, which has the most dog breeders of any state in the nation, according to the Humane Society of the United States in Washington.
Main Line Rescue also plans to mail postcards with the same image that is on the billboard to senior groups, which often visit Lancaster's Amish country.
Based on Humane Society estimates, Smith said, Lancaster County has the highest concentration of puppy mills of any county in the country and as many as 500 unlicensed dog sellers.
Mary Bender, director of the state Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement, said there are about 250 licensed kennels, including boarding kennels, shelters and breeders.
She said she could not comment on puppy mills but assumed some breeders operated without a license. "If they are operating illegally, we take action," she said. Violations of the dog law can result in fines of $25 to $300.
Even licensed breeders sometimes keep animals in deplorable conditions, Smith said. Dogs are packed into cages and bred continually for years. After breeding females are no longer fertile, they are often killed or neglected, he said.
Lori Wright, a board member of the Lancaster Kennel Club and a clumber spaniel breeder, said puppy mills are "flourishing" in Lancaster.
"They are everywhere," she said. "You can see them. Everybody knows somebody who's gotten a dog from a puppy mill."
Because dog laws are the state's responsibility, counties and municipalities do not have the power to regulate breeders. "There's not a whole lot anybody can do about it. All we can do is educate people," she said.
Stephanie Shain, a Humane Society spokeswoman, also thinks the billboard is a good idea. People often get stuck with sick dogs raised in puppy mills, she said. Many are sold in pet stores, over the Internet, or from newspaper ads.
"People come to us and say they wish they had known about puppy mills and that more information was available because they wouldn't have supported a place like that," she said. The Humane Society operates the stoppuppymills.org Web site.
A 1997 puppy-lemon law in Pennsylvania helps consumers whose puppies get sick, but it needs more teeth in it, according to Frank Donaghue, director of the state Bureau of Consumer Protection. The law allows customers with sick dogs to get a refund, a new dog, or medical reimbursement up to the cost of the dog.
Donaghue wants the law to require sellers to pay for the full medical costs. Dog sellers are required to post a copy of the law, but he said not everyone complies.
Contact staff writer Kathy Boccella at or 610-313-8123 or email@example.com.
The Humane Society of the United States' Web site, www.stoppuppymills.org, offers downloads of two flyers, "How to Find a Good Dog Breeder" and "How Not to Buy a Puppy."
ONLINE: For previous Inquirer stories on puppy mills, go to go.philly.com/puppymills.