Pa. Puppy Mill Watchdog Replaced

Jessie Smith was hired by former Gov. Rendell

Pennsylvania's top dog-law enforcer was replaced in a shakeup that some animal-welfare advocates viewed with alarm.

Jessie Smith oversaw dramatic changes in the way commercial breeding kennels are regulated and helped put scores of substandard operations out of business.

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, who will serve as director of the newly created Dog Law Enforcement Office, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

Department spokeswoman Nicole Bucher characterized the move as a normal part of the transition between gubernatorial administrations. Smith declined comment when reached by The Associated Press.

The 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 Gov. 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.”

Bucher said Corbett is “committed to Pennsylvania dogs,” noting that he prosecuted cases of animal fraud and abuse in his previous job as state attorney general.

Diehl 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.

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. Diehl will report to an executive deputy secretary at the Agriculture Department, ensuring that dog law enforcement is "handled at the highest level," Bucher said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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