- Associated Press - Saturday, December 19, 2015

GORDONVILLE, Pa. (AP) - Humane Officer Jen Nields knocks on a door of the suspected puppy mill in Gordonville and steps back.

She fidgets with a notebook and peers through a covered glass panel looking for signs of life. Then she waits.

The setting around her is breath-taking- lush Dutch Country farmland at sunset, a sea of gold and green. It is also ground-zero for a culture and information war still raging in the mid-state after years of soul-searching and debate.

“A lot of people don’t understand when I say, ‘We (Lancaster County) are the puppy mill capital of the U.S.,’ how heart-rending it is to say that,” Nields explains.

In recent years, legislative efforts to clamp-down on puppy mills have driven scores of large-scale commercial breeders out of business or the area, state officials say. In some cases, those that stayed have slid into unregulated and under-the-radar breeding networks exploiting licensing loopholes and legislative blind spots.

“I think the activity has been pretty steady since I started (in 2013),” Nields adds. “If anything, I think they’ve gotten better at hiding it.”

Even amid what has been described as the slow death of licensed commercial dog breeding in Pennsylvania, Lancaster County remains a potent force.

Of the licensed and commercial kennels remaining, the county continues to lead the state in licensing fees, with roughly $50,000 collected here in 2015. The next highest total is just half of that, with $25,000 collected in Allegheny County. Fee collections totaled roughly $400,000 this year, statewide.

At the Lancaster County SPCA, Nields says breeding remains locally prevalent and, to an extent, the status-quo still intact.

Complaints about suspected animal abuse, meanwhile, are far more common now as awareness of puppy mills has grown.

Nields says she’s called to suspected mills almost daily, with the activity comprising more than 75 percent of all cruelty calls.

Susan Martin, executive director of the Lancaster County SPCA, says the majority of callers are people who “go to buy a puppy and have concerns.”

“They hear a bunch of dogs barking and they say, ‘I don’t know, but this might be a puppy mill.’ Others say they (the breeder) would show me the puppy but not the mom and dad.”

It was an anonymous complaint from a similarly concerned customer that led Nields to the Gordonville home, also a state licensed kennel, on a recent Thursday evening.

When her knocking was finally answered, the door opened to reveal a stout Amish woman who, with a male family member, denied Nields entry to the home where she sought to conduct an animal welfare check.

“They said we’re not going to let you in, you need a warrant, we’re not just gonna walk you through our property,” Nields recounts, adding “They could just have an expectation of their privacy, or they could be hiding something.”

While licensed by the state, the kennel operators are only required to submit to twice-yearly inspections, not random welfare checks by humane agencies or even those originating with complaints.

An SPCA investigation of the home is currently pending.

Showdowns of sensibility between the Amish that dominate the trade and the “English” that regulate it have long been common in mid-state dog law enforcement.

Humane officers in speaking with Pennlive said Amish typically view the dogs as livestock and don’t share contemporary American views of the animals as pets, even while many, if not all, are sold for that express purpose.

Nields is clear that this cultural divide does not mean all dogs on Amish farms are treated poorly.

“I’ve been to Amish farms where they (dogs) were very well taken care of,” she said, adding “Everyone is an individual with their own agenda.”

Officials add that while kennel complaints don’t always lead to the discovery of violations or substantiated cruelty, those that do often reveal shocking truths.

The findings can range from dogs infested with parasites to those covered in waste. Conditions that are cramped and mothers that are riddled with cesarean scars, some with incisions crudely closed with twine.

In other cases, many are unable to walk after a lifetime living in cages and on wire floors that draw waste away from their bodies, but which leave their paws disfigured and hips splayed.

Karel Minor, executive director with the Humane Society of Berks County, said “Major commercial kennels can range from mere licensing violations … to being true hellscapes with dozens or hundreds of animals living in their own waste, air which is unbreathable, animals so uncared for they are nearly unrecognizable masses of hair and filth, and clear violations of PA cruelty law. Smaller unlicensed kennels can follow the same pattern, but on a smaller scale.”

Minor cautioned that “not every kennel is in violation based on the letter of the law, which can differ from what most animal lovers feel is appropriate, even if the conditions are technically legal.”

In fact, advocates continue to argue that Pennsylvania’s anti-cruelty laws and punishments are too weak and too rarely enforced; that the state’s enforcement structure leaves private, often non-profit groups shouldering the burden and footing the bill; and that state dog laws wrongly view the animals as livestock and their breeding as an agricultural process.

In the days after the Gordonville visit, Nields said she fielded three new calls for suspected puppy mills. The activity, or at least reports of activity, show no signs of slowing down.

“This is a huge ongoing issue in our county and surrounding counties and other states that people are just very naive to … and we hope one day the community will stand together and make the change necessary for these animals,” she said. “It is our job as a community to do our research and determine whether a dog is from a reputable breeder, or whether the opposite is true.”

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1Y86bCE

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Information from: Pennlive.com, http://www.pennlive.com

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