Speranza

Libre, a 5-year-old Boston terrier, poses for a photo Monday, June 7, 2021. Libre was found nearly dead in southern Lancaster County in 2016. Since he was brought to Speranza Animal Rescue in Mechanicsburg, he's healed and has inspired legislation, Libre's Law, which imposes harsher penalties on people who abuse animals. He still lives at the animal rescue, just now in the private residence that overlooks the farm.

THE ISSUE

As LNP | LancasterOnline’s Erik Yabor wrote in the Sunday edition, Libre’s Law — enacted in 2017 — gave humane law enforcement officers more power in conducting surprise visits like the one that led to animal cruelty charges against a Ronks family June 4. That was the assessment of Nicole Wilson, director of humane law enforcement for the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. She told Yabor that one of the most important aspects of Libre’s Law is that it allows officials to remove animals from those who are prohibited from having them, even when no new abuse or cruelty is reported. Daniel Esh, of Ronks, and two family members were charged earlier this month with 25 counts of animal cruelty after the PSPCA removed 13 dogs from his property on June 4 following an unannounced inspection. Labeled a “serial animal abuser” by that animal welfare organization, Esh is prohibited from owning animals after being found guilty of previous animal cruelty charges.

Pennsylvania’s most famous Boston terrier, Libre, shouldn’t have had to suffer in order for the commonwealth to crack down on animal abusers.

Five years ago, on July 4, 2016, Libre was found emaciated, dehydrated and near death on a Quarryville farm. The beautiful puppy — afflicted with skin infections and sores — became the embodiment of the need to keep other animals from enduring what he had.

Libre’s Law was the legislative outcome. And, as Yabor found, its impact has been significant.

It has led to more awareness of animal cruelty among Pennsylvania citizens — and so, more eyes and ears alert to signs of animal suffering.

Moreover, “Lancaster County courts have seen animal cruelty cases skyrocket since the implementation of Libre’s Law in August 2017,” Yabor reported. “The number of animal cruelty offenses rose from just 16 cases in 2017 to 130 cases in 2018, 127 in 2019 and 121 in 2020, according to data compiled by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. A total of 290 animal cruelty charges have been filed so far in 2021 through May 31.”

Wilson of the PSPCA told Yabor that for severe crimes, “the impact is not only on the case at hand but the length of time future animals are protected.”

Overall, 324 animal cruelty cases have resulted in convictions in Lancaster County since August 2017, when Libre’s Law took effect, Yabor noted. “In that same amount of time, a total of 684 cases were filed.”

As Yabor explained, Libre's Law defines animal abuse by grades of severity, from neglect up to aggravated cruelty. “It also increased the penalties for animal cruelty, ranging from 90 days in jail and a $300 fine to seven years in jail and a $15,000 fine,” he noted. “The law allows felony penalties to be filed for first-time cruelty offenses outside of animal fighting or killing an endangered species.”

Before Libre’s Law, offenders were charged under the state's animal cruelty code — and a misdemeanor was the highest possible charge.

By stark contrast, the penalties imposed under Libre’s Law are based on the seriousness of the crime — that is, the grade of cruelty — and the defendant’s number of prior offenses.

Pennsylvania’s protections for abused and neglected animals are not perfect, of course. There remain, tragically, the puppy mills for which our commonwealth — and horribly, Lancaster County — are known.

As Yabor reported, the Humane Society of the United States defines a puppy mill as “an inhumane high-volume dog breeding facility that churns out puppies for profit, ignoring the needs of the pups and their mothers.”

Eight facilities in Pennsylvania are on the Humane Society’s annual “Horrible Hundred” list of problematic puppy breeding and/or puppy brokering facilities; three are in Lancaster County.

We find it incredibly disturbing that this county remains a place where dogs are bred — and overbred — for profit.

That cliche about dogs being man’s best friend? Unfortunately, in some instances, the dog-human relationship proves to be a lousy, one-sided deal.

Some of us have come to expect that dogs not only be our faithful companions, but to be bred to our specifications — with adorably squashed snouts that make them utterly Instagrammable, but also make breathing hard for the dogs; or with bodies so tiny they can fit into purses and pockets (again, so adorably photogenic!) but with health issues that may include heart defects, seizures, respiratory problems, digestive problems and blindness, according to the website PetMD.

We understand when some families choose particular dogs because of household health issues. When a child or parent is allergic to an animal’s dander or fur, carefully choosing a hypoallergenic dog from a reputable breeder may be the only option.

The key word is reputable. The Humane Society advises people to seek referrals from veterinarians or trusted friends, or to contact local breed clubs. Responsible breeders only sell dogs to people they meet in person and interview, that organization states in a helpful guide. 

Breeders should have high standards of care and should require you to commit in writing to the same. Bringing a dog into your family shouldn’t be as easy as ordering a pair of shoes online.

And to spend $3,500 for a designer dog that’s bred for cuteness or beauty or trendiness or its teacup size but not for long-term health? This strikes us as immoral.

The harsh reality is that the more we shop for dogs — rather than adopting them from nonprofit shelter and rescue organizations — the more we create a market for those who see puppies not as living, lovable creatures that deserve conscientiously excellent care, but as a mere means of making money. And if some get injured or neglected or abused in the process? That, to unscrupulous breeders, is just the cost of doing business.

Libre’s Law has helped to curb animal cruelty in Pennsylvania. But those of us who want dogs in our lives have a role to play, too.

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