Pennsylvania does not lead the pack in its animal protection laws, according to two national animal-rights organizations that recently compared animal laws in all 50 states.
The Humane Society of the United States released online the results of its report ranking all 50 states on a range of animal protection laws. Announced in February, the study was the first of its kind that the organization has undertaken.
Pennsylvania tied for 10th place with Connecticut, Oregon and Virginia in the study.
In December, the Animal Legal Defense Fund released its fourth-annual report, with Pennsylvania ranking 35th among the 50 states, and 37th when U.S. territories are included, according to that study's author.
Melissa Smith, executive director of the York County SPCA, does not dispute the reports' findings.
"Some states are very progressive in their thinking of how we should view animals. There are some states that are very behind," she said. "And in Pennsylvania, we're in the middle."
No. 1: Both studies praised animal protection laws in California, which ranked No. 1 in the Humane Society study and No. 5 in the Animal Legal Defense Fund report.
California's laws, in part, have:
---Felony penalties for cruelty and animal neglect. Felony offenses carry more serious penalties than misdemeanors and are more likely to result in prison sentences,
---Mandatory reporting of cruelty by veterinarians,
---Mandatory cost-recovery measures for animals seized by animal welfare agencies,
---Mandatory forfeiture of animals upon conviction,
---Court-ordered counseling and anger-management classes for offenders.
Neglect issue: Pennsylvania has no felony provision for first-time neglect or cruelty, something the York County SPCA would like to see changed, according to Smith -- especially for starvation cases.
"In my mind, there is nothing worse that you can do to an animal than the prolonged suffering of starvation," she said. "But I don't think I'll ever see that in my lifetime."
Currently, someone who allows an animal to starve in Pennsylvania will likely face only a summary non-traffic citation, Smith said. It's possible to bump the charge to a misdemeanor, but that would require convincing a county judge or jury that the starvation constituted "malicious, torturous behavior," she said.
As a result, most people found guilty in York County of allowing their pets to starve to death receive only fines, and no jail time.
Pennsylvania does not require vets to report cruelty, doesn't mandate counseling for offenders -- although judges may order that -- and doesn't mandate that shelters be reimbursed for costs associated with feeding, housing and caring for seized animals that owners decline to relinquish.
Sarah Speed, Pennsylvania state director of the Humane Society of the United States, said she'd like to see Pennsylvania's laws expanded to let district judges (who handle all summary cases) order counseling and anger-management classes. She said state law should also require cruelty offenders to reimburse shelters for costs associated with keeping seized pets.
The worst: Both studies cited North Dakota, Idaho and Mississippi as having the worst animal protection laws in the country.
Mississippi and North Dakota have no humane police officers and no requirement that police enforce animal protection laws, according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund study, while Idaho has "inadequate" provisions for humane officers and no enforcement requirement for police.
Those three states also have no felony provisions for animal cruelty, neglect or abandonment, according to the organization.
The Humane Society based its study on 65 different animal protection issues in 10 categories, including fighting, cruelty, puppy mills, wildlife, animals in research and companion-animal laws.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund ranked jurisdictions based on cumulative scores to 38 questions covering 14 categories of animal protection laws, including penalties, general prohibitions, law-enforcement policies, animal fighting and cruelty reporting requirements.
"Every state has room for improvement -- even the top states," said Stephan K. Otto, an Oregon attorney and director of legislative affairs for the Animal Legal Defense Fund. Otto authored the study.
Pa. laws: One area in which Pennsylvania lags behind other states is in defining minimal standards of care for animals, he said, including requirements about food, water and veterinary care.
"Some states go into great detail on what the minimum care requirements are," Otto said. "Pennsylvania is one that doesn't ... in any way that would be useful. Having (well-defined) standards of care provides objective criteria for officers to determine when laws have been broken."
Smith agreed the law's wording needs to be expanded.
"The way the law is written at this time, it is legal for someone to keep their dog outside in a box, regardless of extreme weather conditions," she said, as long as the box is airtight and food and water are available.
"But in the winter, water is going to freeze outside. It's common sense for most of us that during a blizzard or an extreme heat wave, you should not allow your dog or cat to be outside without access to relief from the weather."
Otto said unlike a growing number of states, Pennsylvania has no felony penalties for extreme first-time cruelty or neglect, but it does have a felony provision for dog fighting.
"On the plus side," he said, "Pennsylvania does have more serious penalties for repeat offenses."
Protective orders: Pennsylvania doesn't include animals in protective orders, Otto noted. Eighteen states allow an abused spouse to include pets in a protection from abuse order.
While Pennsylvania law allows judges to ban people convicted of animal cruelty from owning animals, other states' laws go further -- and some even mandate such bans, Otto said. In Oregon, someone convicted of misdemeanor cruelty can't own animals for five years, and that jumps to 15 years for felony cruelty, he said.
People who violate those bans can be charged specifically for that, Otto said.
Speed said the Humane Society would also like to see more teeth put into possession bans.
"There's a high instance of spousal abuse and child abuse where animal cruelty is present," she said. "But when you come from a jurisdiction like Pennsylvania, which has its roots in a rural community that depends on animals for livelihood traditionally, it's hard to get people's heads around the idea of removing animals as punishment."
And because of the connection between mental illness and animal abuse, Pennsylvania should mandate psychological counseling as well, she said.
Upping penalties: Some states increase animal-cruelty grading and penalties when a case involves multiple animals, if a defendant has a history of domestic violence or if a crime was committed in the presence of a child, according to Otto; Pennsylvania has none of these provisions.
The Humane Society would also like to see a bonding provision in which Pennsylvanians accused of animal cruelty -- whose animals have been seized -- are required to put up a bond if they fight to keep the animal, Speed said; other states have such a requirement.
Shelters, already financially stretched, end up footing large veterinary and other bills, she said, while defendants can "just walk away" from a prolonged custody fight having no responsibility to help pay for those bills.
Trapped: But just as importantly, Speed said, a bonding requirement would be good for the animals, too. Because defendants have nothing to lose, many keep custody disputes going simply out of vindictiveness, she said.
"So animals get trapped in humane societies for years," she said, and can't even be placed in foster homes because they are considered "evidence" in their owners' criminal cases.
Speed said Pennsylvania's animal cruelty laws are moving in the right direction, but that concerned citizens should still demand more from their legislators.
"We should be No. 1 (in the country)," Speed said.
Otto said the Animal Legal Defense Fund report isn't an ultimatum.
"We're not trying to tell states what to do," he said. "Our goal is to raise awareness of the issue ... and foster debate on it."
-- Reach Elizabeth Evans at levans@yorkdis patch.com, 505-5429 or twitter.com/ydcrimetime.
To learn more
To learn more about cruelty and other animal-rights issues, or to help, contact these local, national and international organizations:
York County SPCA -- ycspca.org
The Humane Society of the United States -- www.humanesociety.org
American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals -- www.aspca.org
Pennsylvania Coalition Against Tethering -- www.unchainpadogs.com
Animal Legal Defense Fund -- www.aldf.org
In Defense of Animals -- www.idausa.org
Pennsylvania Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement -- http://www.agriculture.state.pa.us, then click on "Bureaus, Commissions and Councils," then choose "Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement"