Corbett: Bite, or just bark?

Stiffer state rules, in full force by Friday, will be the focus of an office led by Lynn Diehl, a bank official.
Stiffer state rules, in full force by Friday, will be the focus of an office led by Lynn Diehl, a bank official. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)

After the Rendell era, activists are watching his kennel-law moves.

Posted: June 26, 2011

HARRISBURG - Tom Corbett's arrival in the governor's mansion signals a new era in Pennsylvania dog-law enforcement.

He replaced the top "dog cop" with a career banker who has no experience in animal welfare and tasked her with a top-down review.

The Office of Dog Law Enforcement (formerly the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement) oversees the welfare of tens of thousands of dogs housed in 2,191 licensed kennels.

The swift changes alarm some animal-welfare advocates who fear a return to the era, circa 2002, before Oprah Winfrey targeted the state's infamous "puppy mills."

It was then that a small band of women set out to find out why so many diseased dogs were suffering in filthy Pennsylvania kennels.

The independent advocates tracked the sale of sick puppies from Lancaster County to pet stores in New Jersey.

They peppered Harrisburg with requests for documents. When they saw that inspectors had found repeated violations at kennels but that little had been done to hold breeders accountable, they asked why.

Ed Rendell, famously fond of his golden retrievers, vowed to "immediately redress the problem" if elected governor that year.

Anyone wanting to see kennel inspection reports had to trek to Harrisburg and pay for copies. (Today they are free online, thanks to the investigative efforts of the Morning Call of Allentown.)

Those were the days when Nathan Myer, one of the state's largest commercial breeders, occupied a seat on the Dog Law Advisory Board.

Rendell eventually changed the status quo for commercial kennel dogs in the state.

In 2006, he fired the Dog Law Advisory Board en masse and assembled a new panel to help write a new law. He hired Jessie Smith, a 20-year veteran of the state Attorney General's Office and a Harrisburg Humane Society board member, as deputy secretary of the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement - chief "dog cop." Also hired was a prosecutor to handle dog-law cases, and later a veterinarian to assess kennel conditions.

With strict standards for commercial kennels that sell more than 60 dogs in a year - such as veterinarian care, exercise, and larger cages - the law became a national model. (Twenty states have passed puppy-mill legislation since Pennsylvania's law passed in 2008.)

Citations for violations shot up. The number of large kennels dwindled. For the first time, licenses of chronic dog-law offenders were revoked.

Several breeders, among them Myer, sued to overturn the law. When the suit failed, Myer and others gave up their licenses rather than comply.

Corbett, then the state attorney general, prosecuted some of the worst kennel operators, albeit after prolonged efforts by activists and reporters to call attention to conditions.

Fast-forward to 2011. This month, now-Gov. Corbett tapped Lynn Diehl of Harrisburg to fill a new post, executive director of the 70-member Office of Dog Law Enforcement, which officials say is an effort to elevate kennel enforcement in the state Agriculture Department.

Diehl, a longtime bank official specializing in loans and regulatory compliance, faces a steep learning curve, as the final phase of new regulations will take effect Friday.

When a reporter asked about Diehl's qualifications, a department official replied: "She has a dog."

Diehl said she did not view her role as that of an animal-care or sheltering expert.

"It's not about knowledge of animals. If I was an expert, I would have preconceived notions about what is proper. I think it's an asset that I have no preconceived notions."

Her boss, Executive Deputy Agriculture Secretary Michael Pechart, said Corbett wanted someone with "no agenda."

Fair enough. But neither does Diehl have knowledge of the intricate enforcement mechanisms that draw on the hefty kennel law, the animal-cruelty law, even zoning laws.

And the shake-up leaves a gap in institutional knowledge.

Pechart said other changes were in the works, such as evaluating if there was still a need for the Dog Law Advisory Board and the all-vet Canine Health Board. The latter drafted temperature, ventilation, lighting, and other health standards for kennels.

Corbett says he is committed to enforcing kennel laws. Still, the moves left animal-welfare advocates concerned that the new focus might come to resemble the old philosophy, one that substituted education for enforcement and overlooked kennel violations in the interest of supporting kennel commerce.

"My concern is that we may be headed back to where we started in the days when activists as well as dogs were kept in the dark," said Libby Williams, founder of New Jersey Consumers Against Pet Shop Abuse, and one of the activists who pressured the agency to improve its oversight.

No way, said Pechart.

"If we say, 'Correct something,' and we go back in two weeks and it's not corrected, we're going to have a problem," he said. "We're not stepping back."


Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.

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