The sun was barely up in Mahoning Township, but a few dedicated volunteers and veterinarians were already at work. One by one they carried crates of timid dogs and puppies into the Mahoning Valley Animal Hospital to prep them for surgery.
Yesterday was an important day for these dogs. They were at the animal hospital to be spayed and neutered, the first step towards being fostered or adopted.
"It's such a sad situation," said Mary Lombardo, the veterinarian at Mahoning Valley Animal Hospital, as she watched the first dogs being brought in. "I want to give these dogs a second chance."
Many of these dogs are abandoned by breeders from Pennsylvania puppy mills, who likely spent their lives confined to crates and had little interaction with people. Some of these animals will require patient, understanding owners until they become more comfortable in a home environment.
"When people adopt or foster these dogs, they have to take this into consideration," she added. "We're hoping that they can be rehabilitated and find good homes. Many of them will be good dogs, and they'll be grateful for any attention they can get."
Breeders across the state are choosing to close their kennels rather than comply with new state standards that require breeders to provide mandatory veterinarian care and better treatment. As these owners allow their licenses to expire, state law requires them to forfeit their animals to Pennsylvania dog law officers.
"One of the biggest changes that affect the commercial kennels is that they must have at least double the minimum space they had before," said Diane Buhl, a state dog law enforcement officer, noting that many puppy mill breeding dogs spend their lives in cramped cages with wire flooring. This wire flooring is now banned, and dogs must have a solid flooring to stand on.
"A lot of them are going out of business or downsizing," she said, adding that Act 119, the new dog law, became law in October 2008 and took effect in October of this year. "Some of the kennels just didn't do a thing in this past year, and now they're scrambling."
While animal rights activities have applauded the new, stricter state standards for dog breeding in Pennsylvania, questions remain: Where will these abandoned dogs go? Can foster homes and adoptive families be found quickly enough?
"There are lots and lots of dogs. We don't know exactly how many," said Buhl. "Since October, there have been 400 or 500 easily."
Rescues centers across the state are working franticly to ensure that these dogs receive treatment and are placed for adoption as soon as possible. Some kennels, fearing bad publicity when they close and release their breeding dogs, have chosen to euthanize all of their animals.
The dogs at Mahoning Valley Animal Hospital are among the lucky ones who were saved when local dog law officials approached kennels about to close. In exchange for remaining unidentified, the breeders agreed to turn their animals over to local rescue groups and foster families.
"We're hoping that many can be adopted or fostered," said Lombardo. She noted that the hospital is working with about 20 dogs this week, all of which will be headed to no-kill shelters and animal rescue groups before being adopted and fostered.
Working with Lombardo to spay and neuter the animals were Dr. Mimi McBride and Dr. Christopher Carpenter. All volunteered their time and talents to ensure that these dogs would have a new chance at life.
Volunteer Diane Sharpless, who helped to transport the dogs to and from the animal hospital, was optimistic about finding homes for the animals. She urged local residents to open their hearts and homes to these dogs, noting that they will need patient and understanding owners as they adapt to home life.
"It's like house-breaking and socializing a puppy," added Sharpless. "They're going to need a lot of love and attention, just like a puppy. Some of them are timid and shy, but they are in pretty good shape."
Lombardo noted that these dogs may be most comfortable in homes with other animals. They've been housed with dogs all their lives, and may not understand how to interact with people at first.
"They're not people-socialized, but they are animal-socialized," she said. "They should go to homes with other dogs."
For Mahoning Valley Animal Hospital, this week of spaying and neutering is just the beginning. Lombardo believes that many more dogs will be abandoned and put up for adoption locally.
"This is just the first wave of what's to come," said Lombardo.
As the first dogs recover from surgery, they will be housed at the Ruth Steiner Memorial SPCA in Minersville and the Misfit Toy Rescue in Pottsville. To adopt a rescued dog or for more information, contact the SPCA at (570) 345-3540; the Misfit Toy Rescue at (570) 544-2947; or volunteer Diane Sharpless at (570) 778-6886.