MICHAEL RUBINKAM Associated Press
ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Pennsylvania’s top dog-law enforcer, who oversaw dramatic changes in the way commercial breeding kennels are regulated and helped put scores of substandard operations out of business, was replaced Wednesday in a management shake-up that some animal-welfare advocates viewed with alarm.
Jessie Smith was a 20-year veteran of the state attorney general’s office when she was tapped by former Gov. Ed Rendell in October 2006 to lead a revamp of Pennsylvania dog law and put an end to the state’s sordid reputation as the puppy mill capital of the East.
Smith, who had the title of special deputy secretary for dog law enforcement, was replaced by Lynn Diehl, a former banker who will serve as director of the newly created Dog Law Enforcement Office.
Mike Pechart, executive deputy secretary of the Department of Agriculture, to whom Diehl will report, lauded Smith’s job performance but said a leadership change was in order.
“Obviously, getting the kennels in compliance is a top priority, but there are a lot of other areas in dog law and in general with dogs in Pennsylvania that may have been put on a side burner and really need some attention too,” he said.
As an example, Pechart cited a depletion of the Dog Law Restricted Account, which is funded mainly by dog license fees and pays for enforcement. He said the account is on track to run out of money, primarily because too few dog owners comply with state licensing requirement.
Diehl’s “financial background will be critical for the bureau,” Pechart said.
The management shake-up comes at a busy time for state kennel regulators. Tougher requirements for ventilation, humidity, lighting and flooring in commercial kennels are set to take effect July 1.
Tom Hickey Sr., a member of the state Dog Law Advisory Board, said Wednesday that he’s worried the Corbett administration is siding with commercial breeders who have long detested the stricter kennel standards. Hickey complained that industry lobbyists now have “unfettered” access to the Agriculture Department. The advisory board has not met since Corbett took office in January.
“I’m not going to let five years of hard work, over something we feel passionate about, get thrown to the wayside,” Hickey said.
Hickey, a Rendell appointee, said Smith had led a “department that had been neglected for years and made some significant changes to a department that was pretty much allowed to run by itself for a while.”
Pechart said Corbett has made it clear to Agriculture Secretary George Greig that enforcing the law and holding breeders accountable is paramount, but that he also wants to cut some slack to commercial kennels that are trying to comply with the stricter standards.
“We’re in a tough economy now. A lot of these kennel regulations are not cheap. For those making that good-faith effort and want to be in compliance but are struggling to do so, we are going to help them be in compliance,” he said.
Smith was assigned to the governor’s office of general counsel, where she will work with the Agriculture Department, Pechart said.
Diehl, meanwhile, has scant experience in dog law or animal welfare. A biography released by the agriculture department said she was a financial and banking manager for 32 years, focusing on loans and regulatory compliance, and has been a volunteer with community groups dealing with housing and women’s issues in the Harrisburg area. She owns a miniature dachshund named Lilly.
Diehl was not available for comment, but Pechart said she was hired for her financial and managerial skills. He cast her lack of experience as a plus, saying she’ll approach dog law without a “preconceived agenda.”
Pennsylvania had long been known as a breeding ground for puppy mills when Rendell signed off on an overhaul of the dog law in 2008. The legislation was a response to appalling conditions in many large commercial breeding kennels, where dogs spent most of their working lives inside cramped wire cages, stacked one atop the other, and got little grooming, veterinary care or exercise.
Key provisions that went into effect in October 2009 required large-scale breeders to double cage sizes, eliminate wire flooring in most cases and provide unfettered access to the outdoors. The new law also banned cage stacking and instituted twice-a-year vet checks.
Many breeders closed voluntarily rather than comply. The number of commercial kennels in Pennsylvania has plummeted from 303 at the beginning of 2009 to between 60 and 70 today.
On Smith’s watch, the bureau shut down many of the state’s most notorious puppy mills.
Smith had plenty of detractors as well as supporters, from breeders who complained she was too tough to some animal-welfare advocates who said she wasn’t tough enough.
The new Dog Law Enforcement Office replaces the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement. Smith, as its leader, had reported directly to the governor.