July 2017 | Pennsylvania Legislature Passes Landmark Animal Welfare Law
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Pennsylvania Legislature Passes Landmark Animal Welfare Law

Suzanne Bush - July 2017

Senator Bartolotta meets Penn and PennySenator Bartolotta meets Penn and Penny, who were the horse protection mascots for Pennsylvania and who helped lobby HB 1238

In 1869 Pennsylvania’s legislature passed a wide-ranging law aimed at protecting animals from abuse, neglect and cruelty. Activities such as cock-fighting, dog-fighting—even bear and bull-fighting—were declared misdemeanors, along with the antecedents to these abuses—“overloading”, beating and the ill treatment of animals. In the mid-19th Century, Pennsylvania was a hotbed of efforts to change the way animals were viewed and cared for.  A Philadelphian named Caroline Earle White founded the nation’s first animal shelter in 1869, and stood up courageously to carriage drivers who beat their horses or worked them too hard in inclement weather.

In the nearly 150 years since the passage of that first animal welfare legislation, Pennsylvania has worked toward achieving statutory—if not actual—protection for dogs, cats, horses and farm animals. The results have been uneven. Penalties for animal abuse or neglect have been insufficient to discourage violators, since most animal cruelty cases have been considered misdemeanors. The responsibility for investigating cases of abuse has often been carried by Humane Police Officers paid by non-profit humane organizations. Humane Police Officers, veterinarians and veterinary technicians have not been protected from frivolous lawsuits when reporting instances of animal abuse. 

The Time Is Right

In 2015 a starving horse was removed from a junkyard in Bedford, PA. Despite heroic efforts to save the horse, named Cordelia, she died. Senator John Eichelberger (R., Blair, Franklin, Fulton, Cumberland, Huntingdon Counties) sponsored Cordelia’s Law, which would add protection for horses to the state’s animal welfare laws.

On July 4, 2016 an emaciated, nearly-dead puppy was rescued from a Lancaster County farm. The seven-week-old puppy had open sores from mange. He was dehydrated and hardly breathing and veterinarians held out little hope that he would survive. His rescuer, Janine Guido, named him Libre, and begged veterinarians to do whatever they needed to do to save him.

“Libre’s story of miraculous recovery from near death last year sparked a surge of public outcry to the Pennsylvania General Assembly for improvement of animal cruelty and neglect laws,” Kristen Tullo says.  “And now history is in the making with the passing of the most comprehensive animal protection package in state history!” Tullo is Pennsylvania state director for Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

Senator Richard Alloway II (R., York, Franklin, Adams, Cumberland Counties), touched by Libre’s plight and the gaps in the state’s animal welfare laws, drafted Libre’s Law, to increase penalties for animal cruelty.

Despite enthusiastic support for both these bills, neither one ultimately passed. But that did not mean the desire to change Pennsylvania’s animal welfare laws evaporated.

“I’ve done several bills addressing animal abuse and felt like we needed to do a more comprehensive overhaul of our animal protection statute,” explains Representative Todd Stephens (R., Montgomery County). “It began last July and then more examples kept cropping up in Pennsylvania calling out for these reforms.” Stephens managed to accomplish what seemed impossible. HB 1238, which is an overhaul of the state’s animal abuse statutes, was passed on June 20 and headed for the Governor’s desk.

Tullo says there was bipartisan support in both chambers for the bill. “It passed the full house on April 26. This is a big step toward improving animal abuse and neglect laws in our state!” 

Stephens emphasizes that he alone is not responsible for the success of this legislation. “I think it’s important to know this is a total team effort,” he says. He credits Alloway and Eichelberger for the work they had done previously, as well as the many co-sponsors of this bi-partisan effort. Both Cordelia’s Law and Libre’s Law are incorporated into the legislation.

On another front, Senator John C. Rafferty, Jr. (R., Berks, Chester, Montgomery Counties) has proposed Senate Resolution 35, which would create a statewide task force that would conduct annual analyses of the state’s animal abuse prevention laws. While this is separate from HB1238, and does not require House approval, it would keep legislative eyes on how well the new laws are working and identify any gaps.

Felony Level Penalties

The HSUS says that this legislation breaks new ground in Pennsylvania, by overhauling the cruelty statutes so they are consistent with the state’s criminal law. In addition, it will put meaningful force into the law. Previously, only animal fighting and the killing of animals on the endangered species list were considered felonies in Pennsylvania. Under this new law, felony-level penalties can be levied for first time cruelty offenses.  In their summary of the law’s impact, they point out that “rather than a single section (5511(C)) lumping together every form of cruelty, the legislation breaks down the penalties for different grades of cruelty and different penalties based on the egregiousness of the conduct and how many prior offenses there have been.”

The law defines several forms of cruelty and their penalties, ranging from neglect to aggravated cruelty. Penalties include the possibility of incarceration as well as fines. It also sets forth regulations to ensure that tethered animals are protected.

Frequently veterinarians and veterinary technicians are the first to recognize potential abuse. And Humane Police Officers are often first on the scene investigating and charging abusers. HB1238 provides civil immunity for these professionals when they conscientiously report abuse. Further, the bill provides protection for Humane Police Officers from lawsuits arising from their investigations of abuse. This is the same protection afforded all other Pennsylvania law enforcement professionals.

The Finish Line

Over the years, animal welfare advocates both within and outside the legislature have faced disappointment, opposition and frustration. It has been a marathon, during which supporters have proved to be resilient and inspired. Legislators have been meeting HSUS ambassadors like Penn and Penny, two horses rescued from slaughter and now living happily at Pennsylvania Equine Rescue and Retirement Foundation in Aliquippa, PA.  And Libre has been one of the most persuasive lobbyists, appearing regularly in Harrisburg and generating grassroots momentum to get HB1238 across the finish line.

Stephens says he grew up on a horse farm, and his household includes two rescue dogs, a rescue cat and fish. He has been among the legislators who enjoyed some face time with Libre.

“Justice For Libre, The Humane Society of the United States, Speranza Animal Rescue, and other animal protection organizations are planning to host a victory celebration at the state house after the bill is signed into law by Governor Wolf,” Tullo announced after the bill passed. 

“We applaud the Pennsylvania General Assembly for their wisdom and actions in humane leadership to move this legislation forward to Governor Wolf to sign into law,” Tullo says, thrilled that this time the animals won, and they won big. “Advocates made the difference. Heartfelt thanks to animal lovers and advocates for your support to help animals in our state.”