The passage of Pennsylvania’s new Animal Protection Overhaul Statute is a victory for cats and dogs within the state’s borders. Gov. Tom Wolf (D) signed the bill into law in June of this year with the hope that it would help reduce animal cruelty statewide. In front of onlookers consisting of both humans and their furry companions, Wolf proclaimed, “We need to make sure that we are treating our animals with respect. We need to bring an end to the deplorable conduct that allows people to think that they can abuse animals in Pennsylvania, and I think this law really, really takes us a long way toward doing just that.” Accompanying the governor’s signature on the bill is the inked paw print of a Boston terrier named Libre, who is accredited as the inspiration for the law’s passage. The law, which is codified in Title 18, Chapter 55 of Pennsylvania’s criminal code, went into effect on Monday, August 28.
“Libre was found starving, covered in mange, and left for dead in his outdoor pen at a dog-breeding farm in Lancaster County last year.”
The statute’s namesake—the Boston terrier named Libre—has a compelling story that helped get the ball rolling for this legislative overhaul. As reported by Philadelphia newspaper The Inquirer, “Libre was found starving, covered in mange, and left for dead in his outdoor pen at a dog-breeding farm in Lancaster County last year.” The 7–week old brown and white puppy was eventually saved by a delivery–truck driver who had been observing his deteriorating condition over a two–month period and finally decided to take measures into his own hands. Libre was rushed to an emergency veterinary hospital where it was determined that he was only hours away from death. In spite of his long recovery, today Libre is healthy, happy, and Facebook–famous.
Libre’s law originated as House Bill 1238 and was introduced by Rep. Todd Stephens (R-Montgomery) along with 30 other cosponsors. Comprehensive in nature, the bill sought to update and restructure Pennsylvania’s animal cruelty code, which was originally drafted in 1983, in order for it to reflect the rest of the state’s criminal law, thereby making it less difficult to interpret, and easier for law enforcement officials to apply. After obtaining the House’s approval, the bill was unanimously passed by the Senate just two months later.
The statute implicates several aspects of pet ownership. Considering Libre’s story, it is no surprise that the most drastic change the law brings concerns tethering pets, otherwise known as the act of keeping an animal—most commonly a dog—chained or confined in some way outside. According to the law, owners can no longer tether their pets outside for more than nine hours out of a 24-hour period. In addition, when the temperature is above 90 degrees or below 32 degrees, dogs cannot be tethered outside for more than 30 minutes. At all times during which a dog is tethered outside, the pet must have access to shade and water. While the provision is stricter on pet owners, it does establish several exceptions for certain activities, such as hunting or camping, and does permit tethering for a reasonable period of time when doing so is necessary for the owner to complete a temporary task.
“[Th]e legislation breaks down the penalties for different grades of cruelty and different penalties based on the egregiousness of the conduct and how many prior offenses there have been.”
Moreover, the law establishes a rebuttable presumption of neglect when certain conditions are present. A dog is presumed neglected when there is excessive waste in the area where the dog is tethered, there are open sores or wounds on the dog’s body, and a tow or log chain, or a choke, pinch, prong, or chain collar is used to tether the dog.
In other provisions of the law, those accused of animal cruelty will be faced with harsher punishments. Rather than a single section lumping together every form of cruelty, the legislation breaks down the penalties for different grades of cruelty and different penalties based on the egregiousness of the conduct and how many prior offenses there have been. Pursuant to the law, animal cruelty can be categorized into one of three broad offenses: (1) neglect; (2) cruelty; and (3) aggravated cruelty.
Under the first offense, a person is guilty of neglect if he or she fails to provide an animal, to which the person has a duty of care, necessary food and potable water, clean and sanitary shelter, or necessary veterinary care. While committing the offense of neglect is ordinarily a summary offense, it can elevate to a misdemeanor of the third degree when the violation causes bodily injury or the risk of serious bodily injury to the animal.
The next offense, cruelty, is graded as a misdemeanor of the second degree and is defined as intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly ill-treating, overloading, beating, abandoning, or abusing an animal. Like the offense of neglect, those convicted for cruelty are subject to pay a fine up to $750 or serve an imprisonment sentence of no more than 90 days, or both.
[E]ven though the breeder pleaded guilty to abandoning Libre in his pen to die, the most severe punishment that could be imposed was a fine of about $905. Now, it is a felony offense…
Prior to the current legislation, Pennsylvania’s law made animal abuse a felony only in certain situations like animal fighting and killing an endangered species. This meant that even though the breeder who abandoned Libre to die in his pen pleaded guilty to his animal cruelty charge, the most severe punishment that could be imposed was a fine of about $905. Now, it is a felony offense for anyone convicted under the third category of aggravated cruelty, which is defined as “intentionally or knowingly torturing an animal or violating [the lesser offense of neglect or cruelty] and causing serious bodily injury or death to the animal.”
In cases of felony convictions, the law prescribes up to seven years in jail or a $15,000 fine, or both. Moreover, the abused or neglected animal shall be forfeited to a shelter. As stated by Rep. Stephens before the bill was signed into law: “In Pennsylvania, torturing or seriously abusing an animal in most instances was punishable only by the equivalent of a traffic ticket. That was just wrong, so we set out to change that.”
Another feature of the law gives Humane Society police officers and veterinarians civil immunity when they report incidents of abuse, even if they are wrong. The legislation provides a shield from lawsuits for these professionals when they report animal cruelty in good faith. In North Carolina, veterinarians enjoy not only civil immunity for their good faith reporting of animal abuse, but also immunity from criminal liability and liability from professional disciplinary action pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-360.1. By granting immunity, such laws incentivize these professionals to be more proactive in reporting animal abuse, thus increasing the likelihood that more pets can be removed from situations like that of Libre’s.
Libre’s namesake legislation represents a giant leap forward for animal rights and is truly “history in the making,” as Kristen Tullo, director of the Humane Society in Pennsylvania, described it. For pets residing in Pennsylvania, the law is one that will hopefully deter abusive behavior and decrease instances of neglect and cruelty. Jennifer Nields, a cruelty officer working for the Lancaster County Animal Coalition, located in the same county where Libre was rescued from, recognizes the importance of animal cruelty laws. “This won’t stop cruelty but it will put an emphasis on the importance of justice for their suffering,” Nields said. “The laws are recognition of their pain and what they deserve.” With every animal cruelty law that gets passed, the future for our beloved pets gets a little brighter.