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It strikes me that there are usually two mindsets when it comes to doing something and they spring from the level of resources available.  When an organization is rich and doesn’t remember being otherwise, it can do pretty much any damn thing it wants, any damn way it wants.  When it is poor and doesn’t remember otherwise, it does what it can and jettisons everything else in an attempt to stay afloat.

But there is a third approach I think comes when an organization either clearly remembers being poorer than it is now or richer than it is now and that memory is combined with both hope and need.  There is an interchangeability in the question that gets asked depending on which side of the resource trend one is, but it is framed as: “How can we do more/as much as we have done/did do in the past with what we have now?”  Note the lack of despair in the assumption progress is not possible of the chronic poor and the lack of assumption that falling backward is impossible of the perpetual rich.  The question is aspirational and focused on the future with an eye to the past.

We’ll Take Door Number Two, Monty!

Disasters are one way in which even a rich organization can face this altered reality.  What is rich and effective on a good day is not the same thing as rich and effective after a massive tornado, earthquake, or hurricane.  The need suddenly dwarfs the resources and simply throwing bodies and money and “bigness” at the problem won’t work.  The last few years of economic turmoil and string of natural disasters has been demonstrating this on large and small alike.

In the case of Humane Society of Berks County, we had some bad financial years and had a couple lucky years which we used to grow ourselves in a seemingly sustainable way, only to see the bottom drop out for everyone and see our advances stopped in their tracks and even reversed.  We had a choice.  One option was to contract, cut, limit, and wait.  But we had been through a tough time before and come out of it.  We did not want to give up on what we were doing and where we were going just because the trend lines had changed.  So we chose Door Number 2: Cut where and what we had to but try to figure out new ways, ways which had not been required in better days and therefore were not even imagined, to do as much or more than we ever had.  And, yes, wait.

For us it meant that during the course of the Great Recession we changed our approaches.  Instead of trying to be everything to everybody on our terms and theirs, an unsustainable approach in the best of times, we focus on what our real goals were and how we might achieve them differently.  We had to release dogma and the grip of the past.   If our goal was to get more animals out of our shelter, maybe we should find ways to have fewer animals coming in to our shelters?  Programs like PetNet, Ani-Meals on Wheels, Berks County Animal Response Team (CART), specialized adoption programs, our free dog park, and most importantly our public veterinary services all took on increasing importance.  These programs helped keep animals out of our shelters and that meant they helped keep animals from being euthanized.

Guess what? They also cost less money while being more effective.  Simply being the place anyone could dump an animal because we had the resources to accept it didn’t help animals, people, or HSBC.  Being a place where animals could go if there was a true need for a place to go but offered alternative solutions when the need was actually something else- medical care, short term fostering, behavior support- helped animals and people and HSBC’s financial stability.  This approach led us to other approaches intended to get more bang for the buck, more help for the time, more animals saved for the resources.

Berks CART, which is the only County Animal Response Team in Pennsylvania coordinated by an animal welfare organization, is not as large in active volunteers as some and certainly doesn’t have the dedicated resources that some have.  But our approach of using available people, resources, and ideas as multipliers of one another has been extremely effective.  Co-sheltering, where disaster victims could be sheltered along with their pets, is now increasingly common and was very much pioneered by the PA State Animal Response Team (another organization which should be recognized for outperforming its size and apparent resources).  But Berks CART, by necessity and with the confidence that people can be trusted to care for their own animals, even in an emergency shelter, pushed to have non-staffed co-shelters.

We provided all the crates, food, litter and guidance needed by co-sheltered pet owners to care for their pet and we arranged to transfer any pets which couldn’t be housed at the shelter to a central facility.  But we did not put a CART volunteer in every shelter 24 hours a day.  That meant we could set up one two, three, five shelters with just one or two people, rather than two, five, ten, people.  We did it originally because we had to.  We do it now because it works better and lets us do more with the same resources.  So much more that in recent disasters we have been asked to set up shelters in other counties which did not have functioning CART’s.  We did it while also serving Berks County because we had created a smart, effective model for service delivery.  And it was scalable- not in a “double the impact requires double the resources” way.  We could, in a pinch, double the impact with no new resources.

This mindset permeates all our work now, even as we have, through hard work, smart decisions, and a return of a little luck, not only returned to the path of stability and resource growth but are now stronger than ever before.  We now aspire to do more with what we have constantly, ask how we can achieve more than the sum of our resources should allow in everything we do.

It’s why we did and could say yes when the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), a big and rich organization, called this week and asked our team to assist them in piloting an experimental Pet Retention Response Team in the Sandy recovery zone.  A team which will try to keep animals from having to enter emergency shelters, maybe to be separated from their human family forever, by helping caretakers to obtain the resources, guidance and assistance they need, even while the caretakers are being sheltered, too.  Sound familiar?

I am very pleased to see that HSUS, no relation to us, is the perhaps rarer breed.  They are a rich organization which recognizes that they are dwarfed by the need and aren’t simply pigeon holing the need to what they have done in the past.  Instead they are asking the same question, “How can we do more with what we have by doing things differently than we have done?”  Just think of what an impact that will have when it’s being asked by an organization as big as HSUS.  And when they are getting a helping hand from an organization as big in ideas and effectiveness as little old Humane Society of Berks County.

Of course, as the Executive Director for an organization that has to pay the bills, I do spend a lot of time wondering how I can turn all these good ideas and free helping hands given to other counties and bigger organizations into a few more resources and a little more money for us (and, Wayne, when that appointment with me pops up on your schedule in December, take this as fair warning that I’ve got a couple ideas to share with you on how to do just that).

It’s not that I want more to do what we do now.  It’s that I can’t help but wonder about all the BIG things we can do in the future with just a little more now.

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On Wednesday I found myself wanting to hum The Circle of Life from The Lion King.  I was watching the attorney (Lawyer 1) representing a Humane Society Police Officer (not our organization) attempting to get an emergency injunction to stop an upcoming pigeon shoot at Wing Pointe arguing with the attorney (Lawyer 2) for the “sportsmen’s” club in front of a Judge.  The circular argument was worthy of a Disney cartoon.

Lawyer 1: “We seek an injunction to stop illegal pigeon shoots.”

Lawyer 2: “Then why aren’t you charging us instead of asking for an injunction?”

Lawyer 1: “Because the DA refuses to let anyone file charges.”

Lawyer 2: “That’s because shoots are legal.”

Lawyer 1: “No, they aren’t and we could prove it in court.”

Lawyer 2: “Sorry, the DA won’t let you file charges.”

Lawyer 1: “That’s why we are seeking an injunction.”

Lawyer 2: “Then why aren’t you charging us with cruelty?….”

And so the circle of life in the court over pigeon shoots go ever on and on.  Meanwhile, District Attorney John Adams, who has forced the withdrawal of strong cases which have a very good chance of demonstrating why pigeons shoots are a violation of Cruelty Law and/or Game code per se and that prior decisions were in error, is somewhere singing Hakuna Matata to himself, without a worry in the world.  You can decide if he plays the part of Simba, the Lion King, or Pumbaa, the wart hog.

One major deviation in the perfect circle was that for the second time in a couple months, the case was before a judge who didn’t spout off NRA talking points about the great tradition of pigeon shoots and how America would decline as a great nation should even one shooter ever be charged with cruelty for shooting- let alone stomping, kicking, or ripping the wings off- a pigeon.  Both the Judge in the case Wednesday and the Justices in the recent ruling that found a DA could ignore a crime if he chose, expressed disgust for shoots as being poor sportsmanship if nothing else.

But they were all bound by the pesky law.  Judges can’t find guilt before the fact, they need to have a charge to weigh before them.  They can’t compel a DA to file charges.  The DA can choose not to file any charge if he wants.  Since only a judge can interpret law, this keeps the charge from being judged on its merit.  And another circle goes on.

I don’t blame the lawyers or even the pigeon shooters for making their case in court.  That’s what they are supposed to do.  I can’t blame a judge for not finding guilt when no case has been made or not filing an injunction when it is not legally appropriate.  I can’t even fault, on legal ground, since it’s entirely legal, a DA refusing to allow charges to be filed.  I can certainly fault that DA on ethical grounds.

Here’s the deal.  Humane Society of Berks County believes there is solid legal reasoning to prosecute pigeon shoots as per se cruelty.  We tried to do so once and were ordered to withdraw the charges by the DA, which we did.  We still believe we can demonstrate in court why shoots are a violation of law since the laws the violation spans are really, really explicit.  When recent video evidence was released showing that shooters were violating not only the law as HSBC believes it to apply but the law as the DA publicly stated he believes it to apply, we offered to prosecute the case on his behalf, under his direction.  We’re still waiting for a response.

But there is a DA who is exercising the law which allows him to ignore the law.  He ignores the law, he ignores offers by HSBC and others to enforce the law, and he’s ignoring courts which might like a chance to do their jobs and actually judge the merits of the case.  When he said it was because his interpretation was that the shoots are legal, it was a difference of opinion.  When he ignores the video evidence which shows shooters doing the exact things he himself said would be a violation, one can only wonder if now there is bad faith.

But, hey, he won his election and can do what he wants for the next couple of years.  Everyone, now, sing! “It means no worries for the rest of his days (or at least until the next election); it’s his problem-free philosophy- Hakuna Matata!”

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Recently a video was released reportedly showing a pigeon shoot hosted at Wing Pointe.  It showed participants not merely engaging in a shoot, about which there is heated disagreement as to legality, but violating the restrictions set forth in the Lash opinion.  Berks County District Attorney John Adams has expressed his opinion that pigeon shoots are permitted under Pennsylvania law, citing the Lash judgement.  He has also been quoted affirming the restrictions on behavior at shoots laid out in the Lash opinion.  Since this footage appears to show a clear violation of the law as DA Adams has defined it and recognizing that DA Adams has many other priorities on his plate, the Humane Society of Berks County extended an offer to prosecute the violation of Pennsylvania law, under any guidelines he thought appropriate.  Although forwarded to his office via email on October 12, 2012, HSBC has not received a reply to our offer of assistance in this clear violation of law and the restrictions reportedly affirmed by DA Adams.  We are publishing the offer in the form of an open letter in order to make it clear that our organization attempted to enforce the law as written and as put forward in the Lash opinion and affirmed by DA Adams.

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October 12, 2012

Dear District Attorney Adams,

The Humane Society of Berks County was forwarded a video purported to be footage of a pigeon shoot held at Wing Pointe on September 30, 2012 (link below).  The video shows participants stomping, swinging birds into their feet and the ground, and kicking wounded birds on the ground.

Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=o994K5oJ_EA

Although I am aware of your belief that pigeon shoots are permitted in Pennsylvania, I have also recently seen that you have been quoted in the press  saying that you believe that legality is grounded in the Lash decision and that the prohibitions on behavior laid out in the 2002 decision (no stomping, swinging, and kicking, etc.) provide “certain requirements that the shoots must comply with to stay within the confines of the law.”  The participants shown on this video clearly violate the Lash requirements.

Since I understand that your office may have more pressing cases to attend to, I am offering the resources of the Humane Society of Berks County and its sworn Humane Society Police Officers (HSPO) to you and your Office.  If you choose to prosecute this clear new evidence of cruelty to animals as defined by the Lash decision which you feel applies to pigeon shoots and the actions taken during their conduct, we will pursue the charges on your Office’s behalf, under your direction, and within the guidelines you choose to set for our officers.  This deferred responsibility was the intent of the HSPO law. In light of the brazen and jovial manner in which the filmed shooters opted to violate and mock the clear limits you have cited publicly while upholding your belief that these shoots are legal under the Lash decision, I feel it is only appropriate to offer our support and resources.

Please let me know if you would like to speak further about this offer to assist you.

Sincerely,

Karel I. Minor

Executive Director

Humane Society of Berks County

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Despite a last minute poison pill added to HB 2630, the Gas Chamber Ban, which seemed intended to either kill the bill or punish good animal shelters, the bill was passed in the Senate, concurred in the House, and is on its way to Governor Corbett, who has indicated he will sign it.  We are all still reading the 23 ¾ hour language changes but one thing appears certain:  Gas chambers for pets are soon to be a thing of the dark past in Pennsylvania.  Well, mostly.  There were exemptions for vet schools and a few other places.

There were reportedly only four remaining in the state anyway, but these must be disabled under the new, soon to be law.  The animal welfare community is very happy about that, as are we happy with the new direct licensing provision which will allow shelters to obtain a license directly from the state to purchase the humane drugs required for proper euthanasia by injection techniques.

Not so happy are shelters which now face a new unfunded mandate for training.  Although all but four shelters in the state followed the old rules, which required that a veterinarian provide a license for the facility and supervise the euthanasia program, the new law will require that every shelter train every euthanasia tech under undetermined regulations to be promulgated by the State Vet Board- which was inserted at the last minute in place of the State Pharmacy Board- at the shelter’s own cost.  A whopping 14 hours training.

That’s right, every shelter, not just the ones seeking a special license.  So shelters like Humane Society of Berks County, which employ multiple staff vets who supervise the euthanasia program directly, and which provide a training program that takes six weeks, will now have to pay to get staff trained for a mere 14 hours, in addition.  And we don’t even know what rules the State Vet Board- no conflict of interest there, do you imagine- will put on shelters like ours.

Anyone who thinks there is no conflict should just look to recent events in Alabama, where the State Vet Board, in a clear attempt to crush competition from non-profit vet practices, such as the one at HSBC and an increasing number of other shelters in PA, tried to ban any vet from working for a non-profit.  It would seem drugs would be controlled by the pharmacists, yet somehow at the last minute the very vets who have complained about competition from shelters are put directly in charge of a major regulation impacting shelters at the very time that shelters are opening public practices.  A mere coincidence, I am sure.

Do you know who else is probably very worried right now about this bill?  The State Office of Dog Law Enforcement.  If euthanasia training becomes expensive and harder to provide, euthanasia is going to be scrutinized much more closely by organizations which will need to ensure that they comply with the law, lest they be shut down by the Department of Agriculture or the State Vet Board.  The simplest way to decrease euthanasia at shelters is to start dropping animal control contracts with municipalities and the State since strays account for the vast majority of euthanasia at increasingly crowded animal control shelters.  What will the wardens do then?  Better sign up for that State Vet Board training program fast, because shelters have been doing the State’s dirty work, already at a loss, for years.  I have a sneaking suspicion that the number of shelters opting out of dog catching and killing contracts is about to sky rocket.  I predict Pennsylvania is on its way to a wave of No Kill shelters.  But you know those animals are going to get killed somewhere and it’s soon going to be Dog Law’s new Director’s job to figure out where.  Maybe the vets of the PVMA will volunteer.

Finally, there is lots of praise going around Harrisburg for those who got this bill passed.  I am certainly glad it passed.  But it should have passed long ago and it certainly should have passed without the Vet Board and Department of Ag shenanigans.  Congratulating the House, Senate and Governor for passing this law is like thanking someone for not kicking you each time they walk past you anymore.  And with the unfunded mandates- and isn’t Governor Corbett and his party leadership supposed to hate unfunded government mandates?- they’ve stopped kicking us but poured their cold coffee on our leg when they walked by this time.  That’s not bravery or leadership, it’s doing the very least they should do.

A victory to end the suffering of animals in gas chambers, to be sure.  But another blow to Pennsylvania’s shelters, which pay millions in payroll taxes and employ thousands across the state and were hit like everyone else during the recession.  I guess we needed another reminder of who holds the reins of power when it comes to lobbying in Harrisburg.  It damn sure ain’t us.

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Writers and directors employ cliché genres in their art for a reason.  They provide an instant framework for the expression of some other conflict.  For example, science fiction often frames some conflict within a “David vs. Goliath” structure.  Romantic comedies frame them around the “boy meets girl, boy loses girls, boy wins girl back” structure.  These basic thematic structures allow a gifted artist to embellish on a simple theme the way a great jazz musician can transform a cliché standard into a new work of art.  Think John Coltrane’s version of My Favorite Things.

When I saw the extended footage of the September 30, 2012 pigeon shoot at Wing Pointe which was posted for the press without the usual over the top- if generally accurate- railings by the group which took the video, the two and a half minutes of quiet video nagged at me.  Not just because of the clear, wanton cruelty shown on the video.  There was something else, something familiar, about what I was watching.

What Will the Sheriff Do?

Then it hit me.  I’ve seen this footage before.  I’ve seen it scores of times on TV and in movies.  I was watching a cliché genre playing out right in front of my eyes.  Chances are you’ve seen it, too.  It’s a particular version of the Western genre cliché.

There is a standard form of it in which the town is run by a rich rancher with a son and his buddies who are a little bit wild.  They tend to break the law in little ways.  They get drunk and beat up the locals.  They harass the local blacks or Native Americans.  They use foul language in front of upstanding women-folk.  And there is a town sheriff who, in the interests of keeping the peace, lets it slide and just tries to keep things from getting out of hand.  When he does send the rich boy home to poppa with his friends, the boy usually turns and tell the sheriff that his daddy put that badge on him and his daddy can take that badge away.  The sheriff inevitably says something like, “One day you boys will go too far and do something I can’t ignore,” and the boys ride away, laughing at him.

You know the boys will go one step too far.  They’ll kill an innocent man or rape a good woman.  This is the moment that a great story is made.  The shorthand cliché that got us to this point is now blown wide open to storytelling.  What will the sheriff do?

Will he put down that bottle of rye whiskey he’s been hiding his shame in or will he return to it?  Will he make the quiet maiden’s heart swell with pride as he marches into the street to deal with the trouble maker and his father or will she hang it in shame as he hides in his jailhouse?  Will he gather together the cowering townfolk into an outnumbered and outgunned posse? Will the mysterious stranger come in to town and help him rediscover his courage?  Will he prevail or die trying?  The story can go anywhere.  Maybe even to Cowboys and Aliens.

When I watched the laughing, taunting shoot boys stomping pigeons to death, swinging them headfirst into their shoes, kicking them in a shower of feathers while they lay wounded on the ground, I think I had a feeling like what the piano player in a saloon fight has when the rich boy challenges the sheriff to a gun fight.  Will he stand up to them or will he turn around to be taunted as he walks away through the swinging saloon doors?  What will he do?  I can’t stand the suspense!

The shoot boys did exactly that on September 30.  The local sheriff who protected their right to a little clean fun to blow off some steam by blowing away thousands of pigeons, also made a stand.  He said, for all the townfolk to hear, “Boys, you can have your fun, but don’t go too far.  Don’t go beyond the confines of what Judge Lash,” – yes, this story even has a hanging judge- “said you could do.  No stomping, no kicking, no swinging.”  He made his line in the sand.  The local press even reported it.  Extra!  Extra! Sheriff Puts Rancher’s Son on Notice!

Then the rancher’s son and his pals, in clear view of the cameras they knew were there filming them, video they knew would be shared with the world and the sheriff, stomped, kicked and swung those pigeons while laughing and taunting.  Laughing at the cameras.  Taunting the sheriff and his line in the sand.

In this case of life imitating art, I can’t stand the suspense.  It’s high noon.  What will the sheriff do?

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I have wondered what more do they need to do at Pennsylvania pigeons shoots to be prosecuted.  Light them on fire?  Have sex with them? Catch the pigeons trying to vote without State issued photo ID?

The latest video to surface from a recent pigeon shoot shows just how far these “proud, traditional, sporting” events, as their supporters calls them, have degenerated.  The birds are shot at point blank range.  They are tossed by hand in front of shooters only a few feet away.  They are bashed from the air by hand.  They are shaken and stomped to death.  All by laughing, jovial “sportsmen” in the full view of the cameras filming them.  These proud, traditional sportsmen have lost all the concern and shame they once demonstrated by trying to hide these shoots from public view.  Why?  Because they have learned that they can do anything at these shoots with complete impunity.

The judges, DA’s, and police once pretended that there was an exemption in the law from these shoots.  When charges were filed they side stepped the core issue of legality by focusing on whether “reasonable efforts” were made to put the pigeons out of their misery, decisions usually wrapped in NRA talking points.  More recently, as multiple organizations, including HSBC, have dismantled and eviscerated the laughable claims that pigeon shots are permitted under the law by nailing every single false claim to the wall in excruciating detail, DA’s have turned to new tactics.  They ham string Humane Officers by not allowing them to bring attorneys to court to represent them.  They only allow the weakest of charges to be filed.  Or in Berks County’s case, the DA simply demands that the charges be withdrawn, as he did to HSBC, or withdraws them himself, as he did to another organization’s charges.

The fact that charges were withdrawn doesn’t mean the shoots are legal.  In fact, on appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the narrow decision to uphold the DA’s right to crush the charges didn’t stem from whether a crime had actually occurred at the shoots.  Instead the justices determined that PA law permits a DA to ignore any crime he wants to.  A proud day for law enforcement and jurisprudence in our great Commonwealth.  We can all only hope that the next time you or I are the victim of a crime the perpetrator is not a campaign contributor to our county District Attorney.

The Berks County District Attorney is quoted saying, “”I should mention that there is certain requirements that the shoots must comply with to stay within the confines of the law.”  Again I ask, what more do these shoots need to do to be in violation of the “confines of the law”?  How can anyone- NRA member, hunter, person on the street- watch this video and say that this behavior is sportsmanlike, is hunting, is a protected activity?  What more do they need to do to lose the protection of the law enforcement officials who are shielding them?

This is not about animal rights or out of state activists.  It’s not about tradition or national political agendas.  It’s about the letter of the Pennsylvania law.  To watch this video and say it is not a violation of the law is willful blindness.  This video shows a violation of the law that makes me change my question.  It’s no longer what more can these pigeons shooters do before they are prosecuted.  It’s can these people do anything that will get them prosecuted?  Anything at all?

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“Freedom of speech, that’s some @#$%^& *&^%$#’ $%^&&*&^%!”

Before Ice T was an ironic regular as a police detective on Law and Order and a cuddly reality TV star, he had a few run ins with freedom of speech.  Even before he faced security boycotts by police at his concerts for his song, Cop Killer, in the early 90’s, his analysis of the state of freedom of speech in late 1980’s is essentially unprintable.  The alternate, less profanity ridden verse sums up the right as freedom of speech- just watch what you say.

If pressed, I would offer the First Amendment of the US Constitution the greatest 45 words written by humans.  Ever. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  This sentence separates us from every other nation on earth, as no other nation provides such a bold and unequivocal affirmation of both our right to our beliefs and to share those beliefs without government intervention or censorship.

There is plenty of permissible censorship, including self-censorship, as I demonstrated above.  The government may not be able to tell me I can’t say it, but common sense does.  But common sense seems not to be an impediment for legislatures across the United States, including right here in Pennsylvania.  Yesterday I received an email from Senator Mike Brubaker which seemed a virtual celebration of a void of common sense.

He announced, “I recently introduced legislation that would protect Pennsylvania agricultural operations by prohibiting photos and video recordings without the owner’s consent.”  His goal seems to be to “protect” farmers- why just farmers, by the way? – from people taking pictures of their operations without permission.  He says he introduced the bill to protect farmers from “the damage that unauthorized taping and photos can cause.”  Fair enough.

But I will admit I get a little uncomfortable when someone in the government starts protecting me from the damage that information can cause.  So I went to the Senate website to find the bill, to no avail.  It isn’t listed (as of 9:30 AM, 9/28/12). So I will follow Senator Brubaker’s lead, since he announced how awesome it is that he introduced legislation we can’t yet read that protects farmers by explicitly violating the First Amendment of the US Constitution, by telling you why this is a terrible idea for consumers, animals, and even farmers.

First, there is no need for this law.  We have freedom of speech, but we also have laws allowing for prosecution of trespass and for libel or slander.  Brubaker mentioned a case, “not the first such incident in our area”, where unauthorized video of a farm was taken.  He claims that the video showed no illegal activity yet it took a “heavy toll” on the business.  Aside from the lack of facts to back up his claim, if nothing was shown which was not “at or above industry-best practices”, what exactly was the problem?

Why don’t we have the right to see the quality of operations at places which are at the acceptable standards?  And if these “industry-best” standards are stomach churning, why shouldn’t we be able to make a decision on what we will purchase or if we will seek a higher or different level of standards and purchase, let’s say, free range eggs rather than battery raised eggs?

Yes, that might have a negative impact on the “industry-best” battery egg producer.  But why should any business be protected from the will of the consumer and our right to buy what we are comfortable buying?  If these farms are so wonderfully high standard, what are they ashamed of and why do they need Senator Brubaker to trample on our Bill of Rights to offer that protection?  Are we to live as they do throughout the Middle East, protected from knowledge in order to preserve the status quo?

Second, although I can’t read the Senators bill, many similar bills did not provide exemptions for even police officers investigating crimes or the Press.  A quick skim of the Constitution left me unable to find the part which allows a business to obtain protection against factual reporting of news or criminal investigation.  Yet it sounds like this bill would.  Bills like this would make reporting on actual conditions within a farm a crime and make award winning investigative journalists like Brian Ross a criminal.  They would make investigations of reported crimes on these farms- and please remember that Puppy Mills are “farms” in Pennsylvania- a crime.

We all know that eating animals comes with some unpleasant aspects.  I eat meat, dairy and eggs.  But I try to ensure that I at least choose food from producers and production techniques which keep those unpleasant aspects to a minimum.  I and my family have a right to know what the conditions are at the places providing us- selling us- our food.

Any business which is so terrified of have its operations photographed for fear that the consumer seeing them would make the consumer choose another business doesn’t need civil rights violating protections, it needs to ask itself why it can’t stand by what it does in the public spot light.  There are many, many farms and farmers who operate proudly and openly- heck, some put their own pictures up for all to see!-, and don’t need to hide behind weasel words like “meeting industry-best practices” and “legitimate operations”.  They just run great farms.  We should buy from great farmers and they shouldn’t be at a disadvantage because the good enough farmers are permitted to hide their operations from the consumers.  All farms are not created equal.

These bills are actually about protecting giant corporations and factory farms.  They are about limiting our access to information and prohibiting us from exercising our First Amendment right to free speech.  Pictures and video are speech.  Sharing those pictures is speech.  Sharing our opinion about those pictures or exercising our right not to patronize a business as a result of those pictures is speech.  And the government may not abridge our right to speech, Senator Brubaker.  Doing so makes our rights a joke and makes us a lot more like Syria or Iran, which “protect” their people from information, too.

Ice ended his song a little less profanely.  I think it’s a fair observation for the Pennsylvania legislature: “Freedom of Speech, let ‘em take it from me, next they’ll take it from you, then what you gonna do?…We only got one right left in the world today, let me have it or throw The Constitution away.”

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Ill-treat (transitive verb): to treat unkindly, or unfairly; to harm; abuse; maltreat. (Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary, 1904)

Whether you loved or hated Bill Clinton, it’s unlikely you didn’t cringe when he tried to deny he had made a false statement when he said he had not “had sex in any way, shape or form” with Monica Lewinski by arguing that it depended on “what the definition of ‘is’ is.”  Even those how love the subtlety of the English language know that when you have to walk down that path, your trying pretty hard to lie without actually lying.

It is somehow appropriate then that Buck’s County DA David Heckler opted for the tortured definition approach when he dismissed cruelty charges filed by a lawfully sworn Humane Society Police Officer against the Philadelphia Gun Club.  He even one upped Clinton. Heckler, to paraphrase, chose to say, “It all depends on what the definition of ill-treatment was in 1891.”  One would think that he might simply do what you or I might do and simply look the word up to see that ill-treatment means to treat cruelly or improperly or to abuse.

Because that is the clear meaning of Pennsylvania’s cruelty law under which the Philadelphia Gun Club was charged.  It’s a simple word, a simple law, and a simple concept.  It is a crime to ill-treat an animal without cause.  The law even recognizes that there are many circumstances in which society has decided that ill-treatment is not a crime.  In normal agriculture and food production.  In pest control.  In self-defense. In lawful hunting practice.  Our culture recognizes that some actions are ill-treatment and we have chosen to exempt them from the law.

Bucks County DA, David Heckler

Heckler did not choose to exempt the Gun Club from prosecution based on any of these lawful exemptions.  In fact, he couldn’t since none apply.  The most likely allowable exemption would be a Game Code exemption and the Pennsylvania Game Commission has recently gone very much on record with members of the public to say that there is no Game Law protection for pigeon shoots since they are neither fair chase hunting, nor regulated hunting grounds game release activities, and the Game Code explicitly says no animals but those listed for hunting may be hunted.  Pigeons are not listed.

No, he had no choice but to try to argue that stuffing one pigeon (or hundreds, one at a time) in a box with a mechanical device which, when a string is pulled, flings the bird (or hundreds, one at a time) into the air in the line of sight of a shotgun welding shooter so it can be shot is not “ill-treatment”.  If it’s lucky, it is killed outright.  Most are not and either fall to the ground to, if they are lucky, have their necks rung (sometimes by children, charmingly referred to as “wringers”), and if they are not, dumped in a pile or barrel to suffocate.  Others fly away to slowly die of their wounds or drown in the nearby Delaware River.

So the simple question is similar to the one fielded by Clinton: How is this action not in some, or every, way, shape and form, ill-treatment?  The described activity is very obviously cruel treatment, improper treatment, and abuse.  It is by definition a violation of the letter of the law and certainly warrants allowing a judge to hear the State sworn Humane Society Police Officer’s case.  If Heckler can’t point to one of the clear and specific exemptions to the cruelty law, how can he dismiss the charges?  He can do it by arguing the definition of what “is” is and going out and finding a different, tortured definition of what “ill-treat” means.  And he had to really crank back the dial on his Way Back Machine because the “legal” definition he found was from a case in 1891.

In this case a man was first found guilty by a jury of his peers of cruelty for a pigeon shoot in Bucks County.  On appeal, the appeals court found that he was not guilty of cruelty and ill-treatment, he was merely guilty of being a poor shot, and that was no crime.  I couldn’t make this up.  There is also the slight matter of the appeal court referring to the then existing Game Law which is no longer in effect, making the verdict built on a foundation which no longer exists, castrating DA Heckler’s attempt at comparison.

Those old timey folks were really quite clever back then and they were deft at finding all kinds of ways to explain away the obvious and to deny the clear meaning of a word.  Heckler is following in a long line of such tortured definitions and bizarre justifications for violence and cruelty.  One wonders, though, why he chooses to hang his hat on this approach since the courts very notoriously employed this reaching back in time and mangling of meaning to defend many actions which would seem to be pretty straight forward crimes.

I’ll offer one parallel for Mr. Heckler.  Rape.  We all know what rape is.  A quick check of the current Meriam-Webster definition confirms that it forced sexual intercourse.  The 1904 Webster’s definition is slightly daintier, avoids the word intercourse and specifies that it is the rape of a woman or girl.  That is about as clear cut as can be.  If you force intercourse on a person against his or her (I guess in 1904 just her) will, you are guilty of rape.  Did you know that until very recently it was considered impossible to rape your wife?  Seriously, it was not until 1975 that South Dakota became the first U.S. state to make raping your wife specifically illegal and it wasn’t until 1993 that North Carolina became the final state to do so (way to bring up the rear, N.C.).

You might wonder why there would need to be an explicit law to outlaw raping your wife.  If any man forces his wife to have sex against her will, isn’t that the very definition of rape?  The only way to find otherwise would be to find an alternative definition.  Not one found in any dictionary or in our common lexicon, but one based on a legal opinion.  And a pretty tortured one at that.  Sound familiar?  It should, because until 1933- and still regularly thereafter- U.S. prosecutors and judges used a contorted legal opinions stemming from a 1736 legal treatise by English Judge Sir Matthew Hale, to justify either not prosecuting or acquitting husbands of the charge of raping their wives.  The treatise cited said that there couldn’t be rape in marriage because wives had already “submitted” to their husbands.  You know, they weren’t guilty of ill-treatment, just of being a bad shot.

It was not until 1933 that the first husband was found guilty of rape in the United States and it was not until 1993 that the last State finally stated the obvious and made it explicit law that rape is rape.  Period.  Or sort of.  It’s still a lesser crime to rape your wife in some states than to rape a stranger.  There too lies a parallel because in Pennsylvania it is a lesser crime to torture a pigeon as opposed to a pet dog.  But it is still a crime.  And it should be remembered when people ask why we need an explicitly stated law to ban pigeon shoots if they are already illegal that we needed similar seemingly obvious laws to say that a man can’t rape his wife and that a black man had the same right to vote as a white man.  Or that women have the right to vote at all.  Sometimes the obvious just needs to be stated for the benefit of the definitionally challenged, like DA Heckler.

DA Heckler walked the same path of presidents and prosecutors before him to torture a definition to obtain the outcome he desired.  It’s the same method which has allowed us to legally define “person” or “citizen” to exclude blacks or “voter” to exclude women or “torture” to exclude waterboarding, even when no dictionary cold be found to do so.  It is a well-worn path.   He had to do it because the clear meaning of the words in the law being prosecuted wouldn’t support his position.  So he had to fall back on some long ago judge’s twisting into an unnatural form (one definition of tortured) of the word “ill-treatment”.

There are a couple more interesting similarities between this week’s aborted prosecution and the one from 1891.  Both involved pigeons, both were in Bucks County, and both involved the Philadelphia Gun Club.  In 1891 the defendant, A. Nelson Lewis, was represented by Hugh B. Eastburn.  Hugh B. Eastburn is the great grandfather of D. Rodman Eastburn of , wait for it, Eastburn and Gray, the law firm representing the 2012 defendant, the Philadelphia Gun Club.  It’s also interesting to note that this law firm is reported to have associates who have been involved with the pigeon shoots held there now.  One of those associates is reported to have pled guilty to physically assaulting a shoot protestor.  That law firm’s associates are also reported to have donated half of the campaign contributions received during one campaign cycle by DA Heckler when he ran for judge in 2007.  In other words, DA Heckler appears to have dismissed charges against the client of major political donors, a firm with associates who reportedly participate in the shoots themselves.

Maybe in our search to determine why DA Heckler needed to go back 121 years to an obscure and bizarre legal decision to find a definition of ill-treatment he could have used the Google to obtain, we should instead look up another definition and try it on for size.

Corrupt (adjective): dishonest

Synonyms: bent, bribable, crooked, double-dealing, on the take, tainted, unethical.

I believe another lawyer once said, “If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit”.  Some definitions just fit better than others.  And some fit like a glove.

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Friends,

Tomorrow – June 9th – is my thirty-second birthday. This is only important to a small number of people, and rightly so. It is also the seventh anniversary of my association with the Humane Society (that’s right, I went to a job interview on my birthday.)

When my wife Laura and I talked about having a party on Saturday, I was adamant that guests not bring gifts. I’ve already got everything I could want: I have a great home, a wonderful family, and an ever-widening circle of friends, along with all the piles of things you accumulate in thirty two years.

I also have a great job doing what I love for people and animals – and it’s that part that really got me thinking. I’ve got a great life, so great that I can’t think of a single material thing I really need. But that places me in a small minority, and I learned that firsthand working here at the Humane Society.

When I started here as an animal control officer in 2005, I had never worked in animal welfare before, never experienced the cruel realities of poverty here in our own community. Add in the peculiarities of my personality and the effects of six years of military service, and I was completely out of touch with the problems people were facing every day here in Reading and Berks. And because I lacked understanding, I also lacked compassion. Luckily, I learned
that compassion here at the Humane Society.

I’ll never forget the homeless woman I met on Spring Garden whose scruffy Chihuahua rode in a dilapidated baby stroller while she collected cans to recycle. She and the dog slept in an abandoned house at night because she couldn’t take him into a homeless shelter.

I’ll always remember the gratitude and dignity of a retired Navy man in Jacksonwald to whom we regularly delivered dog food as part of our Ani-Meals on Wheels program. Prior to that, he’d shared his food with his old German Shepherd – and I bet the dog still got some choice bits afterward.

And maybe most of all of these, I can still see the faces of families reunited with pets we offered temporary housing after disasters. They had weeks or months of cleanup ahead and plenty of headaches to come, but they were together.

We couldn’t solve all of their problems, but I have watched the Humane Society help these people and thousands like them over the past seven years. And it may be selfish to consider this just as important, but they helped me too. I am not the person I was seven years ago, and while much of that is due to the superhuman patience and love of my wife Laura, I owe an incalculable debt to the Humane Society and to the people and animals we help everyday.

While I said at the beginning that I didn’t want gifts, I’ll ask you for one now if any of what I said made sense to you. Please make a donation to the Humane Society, whether it’s a monetary gift or a bag of dog food, or reserve a pass for the upcoming Pints for Pups. You’ll help us to continue the vital work that makes life just a little bit better for the people and animals we serve – and for me, too.

Thank you!

Dylan

 

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Did you get a chill? That might have been from the YouTube video posted with my cooperation and approval by Steve Hindi and SHARK explaining my view of why Pennsylvania’s pigeon shoots are, in fact, already illegal.

Arcane animal welfare policy fetishists may have followed the occasional tete-a-tete between the two of us over messaging in the past. Not on the message, but on the messaging. I’m not sure if older age has made me fierier or Steve cuddlier (in his emails he actually started asking people to be polite when they make calls now) but, either way, we are starting to find ourselves on the same side of the messaging and the message.

And that should terrify pigeon shooters, their political and law enforcement protectors, and the apologists of archaic displays of cruelty. When Mr. Moderate (me) and Mr. Not-So-Moderate (Steve) shake hands on something, watch out.

What we shook hands on this time was to make a concerted joint effort, with anyone who will work with us, to press the case of the illegality of pigeon shoots under current Pennsylvania law. The time for claiming that they are legal based on a lack of prosecution is over. They are being prosecuted, to the extent local DA’s will allow it and local Magisterial Justices will apply the letter of the law. Not bringing charges has never been evidence of the legality of an action. Especially when those with the power to allow it prevent or hamstring the attempts.

Such as local DA’s. One county DA forced animal cruelty charges to be withdrawn, not once but twice! This DA also happened to accept campaign donations from the pigeon shooters association. Fiery Steve would call this corrupt. Moderate me would only call this seriously suspect and grounds for recusal in the decision to prosecute. Another county DA has allowed charges to go forward but refused to allow the Humane Society Police Officer to retain an attorney, permitted under the law and common practice in cruelty cases, for the trial.

And where a local DA allows a case to go forward unimpeded, we have justices who make decisions based not on the law but on politics. A recent not guilty decision included- I do not lie- talking points that were word for word from the NRA’s talking points to supporters about pigeon shoots. Not a reference to the actual law, but NRA talking points. This hardly makes a case for legality. It makes a case for, at best, ignorance and, at worst, collusion and, yes, Steve, “corruption” might be a word that is in play.

Since my organization, Humane Society of Berks County, was one of the organizations which brought cruelty charges against a local pigeon shoot- recently abandoned as a fundraiser by the local sportsmen’s club and good on them- only to have them forcibly withdrawn by the local DA, I never had a chance to make our case for the illegality of pigeon shoots in open court. So, I’ll make it here, again. At length, again. Because despite NRA bulleted short lists, some things are complicated and take time and thought.

The Charge: Violation of PA 5511(C)(1): A person commits an offense if he wantonly or cruelly ill-treats, overloads, beats, otherwise abuses any animal, or neglects any animal as to which he has a duty of care, whether belonging to himself or otherwise, or abandons any animal, or deprives any animal of necessary sustenance, drink, shelter or veterinary care, or access to clean and sanitary shelter which will protect the animal against inclement weather and preserve the animal’s body heat and keep it dry.

Some officers have gone for the second section above and made a case for the shelter and sustenance. We were going to make a case flatly on the bolded first portion. Launching hundreds of birds (or just one) from a trap and shooting them/it to flop around full of bird shot in agony to die slowly is the definition of wonton and cruel ill treatment. The action is wanton and cruel. J ’accuse!

The first immediate defense would be to ask the judge to find that this action is not wanton and cruel. That would be a stretch because one only needs to substitute another animal, let’s say a dog or a deer, for the pigeon. It would clearly be wanton and cruel in those cases. In fact, this situational cruelty is why the Cruelty Law actually specifies the circumstances in which it does not apply to clearly cruel actions. One can’t always simply say, “What if it was a dog?” We don’t hunt dogs. We don’t slaughter dogs for food. But those things are not cruelty under the law when we do it with deer or cows.

Therefore, to make the case that this isn’t an action in which we can simply swap out the animal being shot to determine the wonton cruelty of the action, the shooter must take a different approach and say, “Yes, the action would be cruel if a dog or a deer, but the law still allows me to do this cruel thing.” And the first point goes to me: Launching and shooting an animal is cruelty. Unless the judge wants to say it isn’t. Did I mention that Magisterial Justices in Pennsylvania are elected locally, don’t have to have a law degree (or any legal background), and are free to simply ignore the law and reality? So, I still might have lost right here, but I don’t think so.

Moving on. Having established that launching and shooting an animal is wanton cruelty; the defendant must present an affirmative defense or face conviction. In other words, why is this cruelty permitted under the law? And many cruelties are permitted under the law. I’ll run through them quickly, as we would have in court.

There are several defenses under PA 5511. It shall not apply to “the killing of any animal taken or found in the act of actually destroying any domestic animal or domestic fowl.” Unless these are killer pigeons, that one doesn’t work. “Reasonable activity as may be undertaken in connection with vermin control or pest control,” is another defense. I’ve never seen rats rounded up, transported across state lines, and used in trap shots by Orkin. I think that one is a loser, too. Self-defense is another clear legal defense. Except I’m unaware of the need to defend oneself against anything but pigeon poop. Loser. How about “activity undertaken in normal agricultural operation.” This is an old favorite of puppy millers but it hardly applies to pigeon shoots. None to these exclusions apply and none are a valid defense against the charge of wanton cruelty.

There is one more defense laid out in the law and this is the one which receives a glancing argument by pigeon shooters. It’s the one which apologists fall back on. But it does not hold up any better than the others if you actually read the law. PA 5511 does not apply to “the killing of any animal or fowl pursuant to the act of June 3, 1937 (P.L. 1225, No. 316), [FN2] known as The Game Law…” In other words, if it’s legal hunting under the law, it’s legal. Even if it’s cruelty.

This is the argument which worked on me when I first came to Berks County. Someone told me pigeon shoots were protected under game code and I took that at face value. I had never looked up to see first-hand that deer hunting was legal, so why would I bother with pigeon shoots? Except I don’t get cruelty calls about deer hunting the way I do pigeon shoots and finally, after a friend in the business told me that they weren’t covered by game code or regulation, I read the game code. It’s long. I read the game regulations, rules, seasons, and bag limits. My friend was right, it wasn’t covered. But my friend wasn’t a cruelty officer and I was. And that made me realize that this wasn’t a matter of ambiguity. These shoots, if not protected by game code, were completely illegal.

The Game Code says “The commission shall promulgate such regulations as it deems necessary and appropriate concerning game or wildlife and hunting or furtaking in this Commonwealth.” So, even the words “it’s OK to have pigeon shoots” isn’t in the law- and it isn’t- the Game Commission has the authority to make it legal through regulation. That means we only need to go to the PA Game Commission’s Hunting Seasons and Bag Limits to see what the rules are for what animals may be hunted, how many, when, and in what way. It’s a comprehensive list including deer, muskrats, crow, groundhogs, bear, you name it. Pigeons are not on the list but a very important sentence is included: “No open season on other wild birds or mammals.” That means that if it’s not on the list, it can’t be hunted. Period.

Pigeon shoots are not hunting under Pennsylvania’s Game Code or promulgated regulations. But wait! I hear you lurking shooters reading this getting indignant and thinking, “We never said this was hunting, it’s a trap shoot at private clubs! We don’t need no stinkin’ regulations or permits!” Au contraire, mon frere, you very much do. The Game Code, 34 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 2928(a), allows that releases and shoots at “Regulated hunting grounds require a minimum of 100 acres of land, or land and water combined, on which the permittee must release one of the following species of domestically produced game birds: namely, ringneck pheasants, bobwhite quail or mallard ducks. Any of the listed species and chukar partridges may be released only if they are listed on the permit application and propagated by the permittee or received from a legal source.” Not pigeons. There is no game code protection.

The case is simple: Shooters are charged with the wanton cruelty of shooting pigeons and piling them up to die a slow death. The defense must show that this cruelty is exempt from prosecution because it is protected under a provision or PA law. Self-defense, normal agricultural practice, pest control, animal control, protecting other wildlife, and game code and game regulations do not provide any defense against the charge. In an absence of a defense and in light of both the specific letter and totality of the law addressing the dispatch of animals in Pennsylvania, a judge has no choice but to convict. That’s assuming the judge actually follows the law when this case in made before the court. Guilty, guilty, guilty!

There are a couple extremely easy ways for shooters to make these shoots legal. Get the Game Commission to change the regulations to allow for hunting pigeons without a season or bag limit. My guess is that the change would have to be overturned by legislation. HSBC would cease our yammering about pigeons because the activity, while loathsome, would be legal. Or they could go the route of direct legislation and make shoots expressly legal, as the anti-shoot folks are similarly seeking a legislative remedy by making them expressly illegal. I’ve already suggested two bills which would go head to head. One allows, one bans. Let’s see who votes for what and which would win.

But until then, HSBC will stick with our legal position that pigeon shoots are already illegal under the law and that there is no legal defense under the law. The only defense is from the shooters’ cronies who block the rightful application of Pennsylvania law in our courts.

On that, Steve and I agree 100%.

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