Courts - Pennsylvania 'Notorious' kennel owner faces animal cruelty trial Case is set against ongoing state crackdown on puppy mills

By Michael Rubinkam

Associated Press Writer

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) -- In Ashley Mutch's view, Almost Heaven was anything but.

As she inspected the huge kennel outside Allentown, the SPCA police officer was hit with an "immensely strong" odor of urine and feces. Mutch said she saw dogs living in their own waste, suffering from matted fur and skin ailments, and lacking access to food and water. Her inspection report described a filthy, neglected compound bursting with 779 animals, primarily dogs but also cats, guinea pigs, horses, ponies, fowl, monkeys and a pig.

The 2008 raid at Almost Heaven Kennel resulted in criminal charges against its owner, Derbe "Skip" Eckhart, who went on trial Monday on animal cruelty and other counts in a case that state dog-law officials are using to illustrate their get-tough approach to unscrupulous breeders.

The trial in Lehigh County Court is set against the backdrop of an ongoing state crackdown on puppy mills, the large commercial breeding facilities that critics say put profits over the health of animals. The Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement said Friday in a news release that it has used tough new provisions in state dog law to shut down five of Pennsylvania's "most notorious" breeding kennels, including Almost Heaven.

Eckhart, who had originally agreed to plead guilty to some charges but then withdrew the plea, says he was attempting to save dogs that might otherwise have been destroyed. His lawyer promises a vigorous defense.

The case emerged from citizen complaints and an undercover operation mounted by the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 2008. Humane officers and confidential informants purchased dogs from Almost Heaven that were covered in feces and urine and suffered from respiratory infections, kennel cough, and parasite infestation, according to court papers.

The SPCA, joined by the Bureau of Dog Law, raided Almost Heaven and two associated properties on Oct. 1, 2008. Agents seized dozens of animals found to be in need of veterinary care and removed nine dog carcasses from two freezers.

The Bureau of Dog Law subsequently revoked Eckhart's kennel license, denied his application for a 2009 license, then raided the compound last June after he failed to get rid of his animals. In the bureau's largest enforcement action to date, wardens plucked 218 dogs from Almost Heaven, including some that were being hidden in Eckhart's home illegally, according Jessie Smith, the state's top dog-law enforcer.

In a recent op-ed, Smith, special deputy secretary for dog law enforcement, used Almost Heaven as an example of how the new dog law is working to "save thousands of suffering dogs from substandard kennels, which has given them a chance at a better life." The June raid "was only made possible because of the new dog law," she wrote. "The rescued dogs were placed in shelters around the region and quickly adopted."

Gov. Ed Rendell signed tough new legislation in 2008 meant to drive chronic offenders out of business and end the state's reputation as the puppy mill capital of the East. Key provisions that went into effect in October required large-scale breeders to double cage sizes, eliminate wire flooring and provide unfettered access to exercise. The new law also banned cage stacking, instituted twice-a-year vet checks, and mandated new ventilation and cleanliness standards.

More than 40 percent of the state's large breeding kennels have shut their doors rather than upgrade their facilities. Breeders generally despise the new law, say it is too expensive to comply with and has eliminated many good breeders along with the few bad ones.

Eckhart, for his part, disputed the allegations of animal cruelty when they first arose, noting that an inspection by state wardens less than two months before the raid turned up no violations of kennel regulations.

His lawyer, Jeff Conrad, who represents many commercial breeders, accuses wardens of deploying "Gestapo-like tactics" in their enforcement of the new law.

He acknowledged Eckhart had more dogs than he could handle, but said the dogs on which the criminal charges are based had only come to Eckhart recently from other breeders who were going out of business.

"Skip Eckhart did not want to see the animals destroyed, and so he took the animals on," Conrad said. "He shouldn't have, because he was already booked. But he did because he loved the animals. As a result of that he's charged for those animals."

Even if Eckhart is cleared, it will be a hollow victory. He is unlikely to get his kennel back, Conrad said.

"Society has now blackballed him," Conrad said. "The injury he suffered at this point is too great for him to be able to overcome. It's a sad state because it's a man who loves animals."

Published: Tue, Mar 23, 2010