There was a big win for dogs last week when a Pennsylvania court struck down regulations that weakened the state’s Dog Law. The lawsuit was the culmination of years of hard work by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a national group dedicated to protecting animals using the legal system.
The 2008 Pennsylvania Dog Law increased care requirements in commercial kennels (the category under which puppy mills fall). The new law immediately empowered Pennsylvania authorities to shut down multiple puppy mills. Within a year of the law’s enactment, one notable bust freed 218 dogs who had been living in deplorable conditions. The owner was charged with multiple counts of animal cruelty.
Unfortunately, on the heels of this victory, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture added exemptions (through regulations) that eviscerated the law. Regulations are the details needed to carry out a law. After a state legislature passes a law, it’s up to one of the many administrative agencies within the state government to work out the technicalities. So when the Dog Law was passed by the Pennsylvania legislature, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture was entrusted with the law’s execution. To think of it another way, imagine a high school English department creating a curriculum that all English teachers must follow. The curriculum might require teachers to include one book from the 19th century, to ensure students can write a five paragraph essay, and learn the elements of a novel. However, it’s up to the teachers to pick the specific books and lesson plans needed to accomplish this.
But the Department of Agriculture went too far. After bowing to pressure from industry groups representing puppy mill owners, important protections for dogs were removed. Despite the law’s clear intent to prohibit the use of metal strand flooring, the PA Department of Agriculture imposed regulations that allowed nursing mother dogs to be subjected to metal flooring. The law also requires that adult dogs have “unfettered” access to an exercise area. But a “policy statement” released by the department stated they would not enforce the regulation on nursing mother dogs as long as they had access to an exercise area at least once a day.
It’s a no-brainer that dogs should be able to exercise. But the flooring may sound like a minor technical issue. It’s not. Extended contact to metal strand flooring is excruciating for dogs and often results in serious injures like cysts, abrasions, and splayed feet.
The court sided with common sense and agreed with the Animal Legal Defense Fund that the department could not create regulations that “run contrary to this express mandate.” In other words, the department can’t make regulations and policies that violate the original intent of the law.
Anti-puppy mill advocates in Pennsylvania are certainly celebrating the outcome of the case. But it’s not easy for the average citizen to file lawsuits on their own. Luckily, anyone can help fight puppy mills. You don’t need to be a lawyer or an expert. The animal protection movement needs everyone. If you can pick up a phone or write an email, you can lobby your local legislative officials to pass a retail pet sale ban.
Retail pet sale bans are laws (usually at the city or county level) that disallow pet stores from selling dogs and cats. Instead, pet stores can offer animals for adoption—partnering with local rescue groups or animal shelters—or simply continue their business selling food and supplies. The vast majority of puppies sold in pet stores come from puppy mills. As more retail pet sale bans are passed, the demand for puppy mill puppies will decrease. And fewer dogs will suffer.
Every week more bans are being passed thanks to citizen activists. Last month, Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey passed the law, after neighboring New Jersey communities, including East Rutherford and Saddle Brook, enacted similar laws. You can do it, too. Attorney at Paw is here to help people who care about animals to become advocates.
Check out our resources on retail pet sale bans. Attorney at Paw also offers individualized assistance to legislators and local groups working on the issue. We want to help you help more animals.
 Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, No. 394 M.D. 2014 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2016).
Elizabeth ‘Liz’ Holtz is For All Animals’ director of legislative affairs. She is an animal rights attorney and lifelong animal advocate. Liz manages For All Animals’ coalition efforts to pass state laws that protect animals—like strengthening anti-cruelty laws—and defeating laws that harm animals—like ag-gag laws. She also oversees For All Animals’ Attorney at Paw program, which provides assistance to advocates interested in passing laws and ordinances that protect animals on a local level.