The agency that investigates dog attacks on livestock desperately needs a fee increase to support its work, Pennsylvania officials say.
The Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement also monitors dangerous dogs, inspects kennels and busts puppy mills.
But the agency, part of the Department of Agriculture, is largely funded by dog license fees, which are set by statute and haven’t increased in 25 years.
That’s left the bureau stretched thin as it tries to protect farmers, pups and communities.
Last year for the first time, the Ag Department shifted $1.2 million from other programs to cover the shortfall in the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement.
The agency is asking lawmakers to raise the dog license fee to $10 a year. It’s currently $5 for neutered or spayed dogs, $7 for intact animals.
Absent that increase, the agency expects to use $1.5 million in tax money next year to plug the hole that license fees were designed to fill.
Policing Livestock Attacks
Attacks on livestock were a major reason that Pennsylvania created the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement in 1917, when roving packs of dogs menaced sheep, cattle and sometimes pedestrians.
Livestock maulings are a small part of the bureau’s workload today. But the Dog Law fund still pays $30,000 to $50,000 for livestock losses a year, and has covered 1,550 claims in the past 10 years, said Russell Redding, the state ag secretary.
Dog attacks are horrific for both herds and their owners.
Deborah Capuzzi lost five ewes and five lambs when a group of dogs entered her Northumberland County farm one night. Another three ewes were badly injured.
“Just all kinds of terrible bite marks around the neck, the legs, the ears. One poor thing had its ear ripped almost all the way off,” Capuzzi said.
Adding to the pain, one of the dead ewes had been hand-raised by Capuzzi’s daughter when it was a lamb.
A state dog warden investigated and found the dogs believed to be responsible, which had been seen running loose on nearby properties. The warden is now pursuing dangerous dog charges and restitution for Capuzzi.
“To have somebody to call to figure out what went on and to actually find the people who were responsible for this, that meant a lot to us,” Capuzzi said in a March 25 Ag Department press conference.
Hannah Smith-Brubaker lost a herd of goats to a pack of dogs at her farm in Juniata County.
The attackers entered the pasture through a creek — left unfenced because goats despise getting wet — then chased the goats out via the stream and cut them down one by one.
The gruesome attack cost money and disrupted the farm’s management system. The losses included a young animal that Smith-Brubaker’s daughter had just started raising for fiber.
“It was something that you definitely would not want a child to have to experience,” Smith-Brubaker said.
The livestock attacks were bad enough, but both farmers were disquieted by the thought that the dogs might not have stopped there.
The dogs believed to be at fault in Capuzzi’s case were picked up when they roved to a nearby elementary school, and the other attack was near a fishing spot on Smith-Brubaker’s farm that is popular with children.
“Then you’re talking about a completely different level of harm,” Smith-Brubaker said.
After an attack on livestock, dog wardens determine which type of animal is responsible — coyotes and bears can make trouble in addition to domestic dogs — and then look for the marauding hounds themselves.
“Our No. 1 priority is to, if it’s a dog, find those owners and hold them accountable,” said Kristen Donmoyer, director of the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement.
When the owner is found, that person is on the hook for the full cost of damages to the livestock.
If the owner can’t be found, the state will pay up to 90% of fair market value for the livestock — except for captive deer, which follow a different formula because of their high value, Donmoyer said.
The state also takes steps to make sure the owners keep their dogs under control in the future.
Attacks that are unprovoked and occurred when the owner was not in control of the animal may result in a citation. A magisterial district judge would then determine whether the animal belongs on the dangerous dog registry, said Shannon Powers, the Ag Department press secretary.
The owner of a listed dog must pay a registration fee of $500 per year, buy liability insurance, microchip the dog, and keep it in an enclosure with warning signs.
The state does not order dangerous dogs to be euthanized, but many owners go this route rather than bear the costs of the program, Powers said.
In certain cases, dangerous dogs can be confiscated, and the owners can face misdemeanor charges.
In addition to investigating attacks on animals and people, dog wardens inspect licensed kennels and follow up on complaints about illegal breeders — the so-called puppy mills.
Wardens also return lost dogs to their families, which is a big reason for owners to get their dogs licensed in the first place.
The license fees provide 80 to 90% of the funding for Dog Law enforcement but haven’t gone up since Tom Ridge was governor. As a result, fee revenue is no longer enough to cover the agency’s broad responsibilities.
The shortfall has left both dog warden positions vacant in Lancaster County, which has the most kennels and the most complaints about poor conditions.
The Ag Department pulls wardens from other areas to cover there and in Montgomery County, which is also without a warden, Powers said.
The state has also slashed, from $40 to $5, its reimbursement to animal shelters for housing the strays that dog wardens pick up, she said.
The Ag Department has held a string of press conferences over the past month pushing for a modest increase in the dog license fee, and the top Democrats on the House and Senate ag committees have introduced legislation based on the agency’s requests.
In raising the standard yearly fee to $10, the bills would remove the discount for owners of sterilized dogs but keep reduced rates for senior citizens and people with disabilities.
The Senate passed legislation in February that would create a license fee exemption for dogs used by fire departments, sheriff’s office, rescue operations and medical emergency services.
The Ag Department is also asking the Legislature to close the gap between when dog ownership can be transferred, at 2 months old, and when a license is required, currently 3 months.
“That will help tremendously, both in the culture of getting folks to license but also address an issue that has been long standing,” Redding said.
Rep. Dan Moul, the Republican chairman of the House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, said he’s not keen on increasing the dog license fee, especially at a time when many people are facing financial hardship.
Moul and his top aide have been meeting with Ag Department officials to find a different solution for the agency.
“I understand where they’re coming from. The fee hasn’t been raised in a long, long time, and we need dog wardens out there,” Moul said. “However, I’m not going to ask my members to put up a bad vote. We’ll figure something out.”
Sen. Elder Vogel, chairman of the Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, said the fee increase legislation is going through the standard vetting process and is worthy of thorough consideration.
He expects the pros and cons of the proposal will be discussed during the Senate’s April 8 hearing on the Ag Department budget.