Across the nation, people's changing beliefs about what constitutes acceptable treatment of pets has led to new legal protections, local experts said.
But they also said that Pennsylvanians' views tend to lag behind those of residents in other states, and that its animal cruelty laws don't go far enough.
"We have more pet-owning households in America right now than we have child-rearing households," said Sarah Speed, Pennsylvania's state director for the Humane Society of the United States. "There's no doubt people in Pennsylvania and the nation love animals and think it's wrong to take advantage of, or treat badly, an animal under your control."
But in some ways, animal cruelty laws and penalties in Pennsylvania and nationwide must catch up to public opinion, according to Speed.
"We're seeing in the public a greater sense of protecting animals for their sake and for the sake of society, but it's not always being reflected in the courts," she said. "It's incredible that you can go to jail for theft and not go to jail for abusing an animal that's completely under your control."
Still, she said, Pennsylvania is moving in the right direction.
"The trend seems to be going toward cruelty being treated more seriously," she said.
Melissa Smith, executive director of the York County SPCA, also believes public opinion is changing.
"I have seen a moderate increase in the recognition of animal cruelty. To some degree, the mindset is changing," Smith said, although she believes Pennsylvanians are slower-moving than residents of other states.
Farming culture: That should come as no surprise, Speed said,
especially in a state where, traditionally, many residents' livelihoods depended on animals.
Statewide, some municipal police officers aren't particularly well-versed in cruelty laws, Speed said.
But among Pennsylvania's 67 counties, York County is one of the more progressive ones, according to Smith.
A big reason for that is consistent, full-time enforcement and follow-through, she said.
Although municipal officers and state police in Pennsylvania can -- and do -- enforce animal cruelty laws, they are mostly enforced by trained, certified humane police officers who work for and are paid by nonprofit animal shelters, Smith said.
In York County, Humane Police Officer Nicole Boyer works full time for the SPCA. The York City Police Department has its own animal enforcement officer to investigate cruelty, abandonment and neglect complaints.
"But there are some counties in Pennsylvania that do not have a local shelter and do not have a local humane officer," Smith said. "I can't imagine -- well, I can imagine -- what is happening in those counties because of the lack of recourse for animals in need."
'Doing a good job': York's neighboring counties also have full-time humane officers, she said.
"I think collectively, we're doing a good job," she said. "In York County, there is no lack of manpower or enforcement."
Speed said the humane police officer system makes Pennsylvania "fairly unique" among states in how enforcement of cruelty laws is handled.
Smith, who also retains her humane police officer certification, said that last year, the York County SPCA investigated more than 1,200 complaints of alleged animal cruelty, about 80 percent of which were founded. By founded, Smith said, she means the animal's care could be improved upon; "founded" doesn't necessarily mean the animal was seized or its owner was cited.
Most people found guilty of animal cruelty in York County receive only fines, according to Smith.
"Typically, jail time is very rare," she said. "Honestly, the maximum monetary fine (of $750) is very rare, let alone the maximum of 90 days in jail."
But it does happen, primarily in lack-of-sustenance cases and the occasional misdemeanor cases of torture or malicious beating (see related box).
It's far more likely those involved in the dog-fighting trade will receive prison time, as that is a felony, she said.
Judge was pioneer: York County Common Pleas Judge Sheryl Ann Dorney, now assigned to family court, is well known as an animal lover.
"I was one of the pioneers for giving prison sentences for domestic animal abuse," she said.
Like Smith, Dorney has seen a growing public awareness of animal cruelty, fueled in part by media coverage of specific cases and television programming such as the Animal Planet network show "Animal Cops," which follows on-duty humane officers.
"I think more people are becoming more aware of animal abuse and how bad it is," the judge said.
The case of NFL quarterback Michael Vick, convicted of running a dog-fighting ring, specifically "did a lot to bring the issue of abuse to light," Dorney said.
But in the short-term, Dorney doesn't see that translating into state lawmakers mandating harsher penalties for cruelty offenders.
"I think it'll continue to evolve, but I don't think we're going to see any change in the law ... in my lifetime," the judge said. "You need the Legislature to do that, and I don't think that's a priority for them. There is movement, but I don't think it will be as rapid as we all hope it will be, and that's so unfortunate for our four-legged friends."
'Huge step forward': Animal-cruelty experts agree that Pennsylvania's Act 119 -- enacted in 2008 and better known as the state's puppy-mill law -- gives people a reason to hope that lawmakers are willing to rewrite the rules.
The Humane Society of the United States was heavily involved in the effort.
"We completely changed how large-scale breeding facilities must maintain their dogs," Speed said. "Missouri is the puppy-mill capital of the country, and Lancaster County was the puppy-mill capital of the East."
Act 119 is changing that by requiring basic standards of care for dogs, she said. In part, the law requires dogs to have unfettered access to the outdoors, doubles cage sizes, outlaws wire floors and cage stacking, and requires dogs to be seen by a veterinarian at least twice a year, or for each pregnancy.
"That was a huge step forward," Speed said.
Kennels closing: According to the state Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement's annual report for 2009, the number of commercial kennels in Pennsylvania dropped from 303 at the beginning of 2009 to 114 now, according to Justin Fleming, press secretary for the state Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement.
At least 14,000 puppy-mill dogs have either been relinquished to animal shelters or transferred to other kennel owners, Fleming said. The York County SPCA has taken in more than 120 of them, according to Smith.
"We've been advocating against puppy mills for decades, but when the forces came together, it was April 2008," Speed said. "It was six months from start to finish. ... It was a heck of a fight. The old law was so weak and ambiguous, it was unenforceable."
Gov. Ed Rendell, himself a dog lover, was a driving force for Act 119, according to Speed -- but the public played a vital role as well.
"We had thousands of phone calls and e-mails in support of that legislation," she said. "If there hadn't been that groundswell of public support," the law might not have been passed.
Sign of the times: Smith said Act 119 could not have been passed in Pennsylvania even 10 years ago.
"Back then, no one thought about where their puppy came from or, worst of all, where the mother came from," she said. "As people became more aware -- once the word got out -- people became enraged by it. I'm so proud and happy it's happening now."
Smith said she's felt that groundswell of public outrage as well, not only for puppy mills but for animal cruelty in general.
"We are often inundated with people calling us, supporting what we are doing and wanting to vocalize how upsetting it is to them," she said. "So I think there are many in our community who 'get it.'"
At least some of Pennsylvania's legislators have recognized that the issue of animal cruelty is an important one for a growing number of their constituents, according to Speed.
"For the first time, I heard about a judge running in Philadelphia on a strong animal-cruelty platform," she said.
In 2008, the state Legislature passed 92 animal laws, mostly related to cruelty, animal fighting and factory farming, Speed said; in 2009, the number was 108.
Speed said fewer and fewer Pennsylvanians now react to reports of animal cruelty and neglect by saying, "It's just a dumb animal."
-- Reach Elizabeth Evans at email@example.com, 505-5429 or twitter.com/ydcrimetime.
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