A Los Angeles-based animal welfare group is spotlighting canine cruelty in Pennsylvania – and Lebanon County is listed among its worst offenders.

Lady Freethinker, a nonprofit group founded in 2013 by journalist and activist Nina Jackel, issued a 59-page report (PDF) in November that takes aim at the state’s abundant puppy mills, and the sometimes horrific conditions in which dogs in Pennsylvania are kept and bred.

“Puppies in Pennsylvania are suffering in filthy barns, backyards and cramped enclosures at unlicensed kennels — defined by the state as anyone who keeps, sells, or transfers 26 or more dogs in one calendar year,” the report says.

“Breeders and facilities without state or federal licensing often fly under the regulatory radar unless caring people sense something suspicious — or duped consumers purchase sick or dying puppies — and lodge official complaints,” it continues. “That means dogs kept in illegal kennels on the fringes — often by people who won’t provide proper care because it would cut their profits — are most likely to suffer the worst conditions.”

The organization notes that the state has “made strides in curbing puppy sales from unscrupulous breeders but is still largely known as a ‘puppy mill’ pipeline of our nation.” For the report, the group “sorted through thousands of pages of inspection reports, photos and videos obtained via a public records request to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, which covered more than 170 investigations into possibly illegal kennels from January 2016 through May 2021 and resulted in at least 158 kennels cited for unlawful activity.

“This report is a snapshot of the massive neglect, abuse, and suffering for dogs and puppies exploited for profit that’s playing out in Pennsylvania’s unlicensed kennels.”

A puppy mill, according to the report’s introduction, is defined “as any dog breeding operation or facility that seeks to sell puppies for profit while simultaneously not providing for the dogs’ most basic needs, including clean food and water, adequate shelter, and medical care.”

Facilities with more than four breeding females that sell puppies to pet stores, dealers, or via online advertisements must be licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose inspectors are supposed to annually review facilities to ensure minimum welfare. Pennsylvania also requires a kennel license for any facility that keeps, harbors, boards, shelters, sells, gives away, or transfers 26 or more dogs in a single calendar year, and also conducts routine inspections.

The public records documents outlined numerous animal welfare issues, the report says, including dogs with worms, fleas, Coccidia, skin and ear infections, scabbing, eye issues, sores, parvo, Giardia, dental disease, untreated growths and tumors, brucella canis (an infectious bacteria that can jump to people), head tilts, twitches, lethargy, lesions, hyperplasia (or enlarged tissues) and ataxia (weak muscle control).

“Puppies and their parents were kept in awful conditions and treated as disposable,” the report says. “Many unlicensed dealers kept dogs stacked in wire crates or in filthy and inadequate enclosures — including unheated barns, feces-saturated basements, and kennels with dead rodents or algae-covered water. Neglected dogs suffered from severe matting, emaciation, untreated wounds and many diseases and disorders.”

The unlicensed kennels identified in public records “consistently engaged in duplicitous marketing to cover up conditions at their facilities, including choosing to sell their puppies online through puppy broker sites like Greenfield Puppies or Lancaster Puppies, where they had total control over what potential purchasers saw,” the report adds.

“Screenshots from Pennsylvania investigators show rows of clean, fluffy puppies, posed near pillows or in baskets, while other kennels touted purebred pedigrees and bloodlines, ACA papers with purchase, or AKC membership. Meanwhile, public records documents reveal dogs from the same kennels wallowing in dark, filthy enclosures, sometimes with open wounds or untreated medical ailments.”

Local investigations

The Lady Freethinker report mentions illegal kennels in 38 Pennsylvania counties, but notes that nearly half of them are in just five counties: Dauphin, Lancaster, Lebanon, Perry, and York. Lebanon County specifically had 13 illegal kennel investigations, the report says, including six kennels in Myerstown. That compares to 31 illegal kennel investigations in Lancaster County, 16 in Dauphin County, eight in Perry County and seven in York County.

“Meanwhile, during the period covered by our public records request, Pennsylvania’s fines for operating an illegal kennel ranged from $100 to $500 — or the sale of one to five puppies, by our calculations — meaning the fines wouldn’t have touched the profit raked in by these cruel and exploitative facilities,” the organization states.

A five-page section devoted to Lebanon County issues begins with a consumer complaint about a 7-week-old puppy bought from a local breeder for $1,100 that “wouldn’t eat, had diarrhea, and required emergency veterinary care.” Purchased on Sept. 16, 2020, the puppy started having seizures on Sept. 24 and was dead by Sept. 29. After the puppy’s death, the breeder ceased communications with the dog’s new family, the report says.

Although the report doesn’t identify the breeder by name, it notes the same person had previously been convicted of animal cruelty in New Jersey.

Another local breeder, also not identified in the report by name, was investigated by the Pennsylvania Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement after a person bought a puppy that tested positive for worms and giardiasis, a parasitic infection. Investigators determined the kennel, which was selling goldendoodle, mini goldendoodle and labradoodle puppies for around $1,900 each online, had kept or sold at least 110 puppies in one calendar year, which far exceeds the number allowed without a license. The kennel owner was cited for operating illegally, incomplete records, an inaccurate inventory, and selling puppies under the minimum 8 weeks old.

A third case involves a “repeat offender” who was advertising at least 29 young dogs on Lancaster Puppies, an online broker site, with prices per puppy ranging from $1,595 to $2,495. That kennel owner lied to inspectors about how many dogs he had on the property, claiming he had only two, but a warden exposed the lie after hearing barking from inside the man’s barn. According to his inspection report, the warden cited the kennel owner for illegal operation, rabies vaccination violations, and unsanitary conditions.

At a Myerstown facility, puppies between 6 and 8 weeks of age were found outside in 38-degree weather, the report says, and two dogs were found with untreated wounds from dog fighting. Inspectors cited the kennel for illegally operating, inadequate maintenance, incomplete records, and sanitation issues, and lodged a criminal complaint alleging issues with temperatures, inadequate food and water, accumulated debris and feces, disease hazards, no proof of veterinary care, signs of poor health among dogs, and dogs with aggressive and ferocious behavior not being kept separate from other dogs.

Another Lebanon County kennel listed in the report kept dogs in a sunroom with temperatures exceeding 90 degrees, while another crammed 12 dogs “were crammed into an enclosure that didn’t meet minimum space requirements.”

‘Appalling conditions’

According to the report, Lady Freethinker wants “to shine a light into these dark places to raise awareness about the appalling conditions that puppies and their parents endure at the hands of unlicensed kennels, away from the shiny facades of pet store windows or the ‘cutesy’ posings of puppies in online ads. We also wanted to reveal other repercussions from the profiteering puppy trade to illustrate why it’s so important to adopt — rather than shop — for companion animals.”

Lady Freethinker started a public records investigation into the state’s unlicensed kennels, “where we believed the worst cruelty likely was taking place outside of regulatory scrutiny,” in May 2021, just a few months after Victoria’s Law — a bill that would prohibit the sale of dogs, cats, and rabbits in pet stores — stalled in the state Senate.

“For both innocent companion animals and their people, Pennsylvania must crack down on these cruel, unlicensed kennels and the pet stores selling them,” the organization states. “We hope our report will provide caring consumers and legislators with real life examples of the victims and dangers of illegal kennels to help them make choices — and legislation — that will lead to a more compassionate world for all species.”

The organization also asks federal and state inspectors to crack down on unlicensed kennels and breeders with increased fines for first-time offenders and license revocations for severe and repeat offenders. Members of the public can help, the report says, by calling their legislators to support animal-welfare laws, reporting suspected incidents of cruelty to their local animal control and law enforcement, and undercutting demand by adopting companion animals rather than shopping for them online or from breeders like those in this report.

The report also notes that the COVID-19 pandemic “led to a dramatic increase in the number of people seeking out companion animals” … and, it adds, “also saw an uptick in unlicensed backyard breeders — including those who sold sick animals to unsuspecting consumers.”

California, Illinois, Maine, Maryland and Washington states have already passed measures banning the sale of dogs and cats in pet stores. In Pennsylvania, six municipalities — Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Wilkinsburg, Sharpsburg, Bellevue, and Allentown — prohibit pet store sales from breeding mills.

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Tom has been a professional journalist for nearly four decades. In his spare time, he plays fiddle with the Irish band Fire in the Glen, and he reviews music, books and movies for Rambles.NET. He lives with his wife, Michelle, and has four children: Vinnie, Molly, Annabelle and Wolf.


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