The Animals of Pennsylvania Have Lost a Champion

The animals of Pennsylvania – and the people who love them – have lost a champion.IMG_0136.jpg (2)

Tom Hickey Sr., who served for eight years as a member of the Governor’s Dog Law Advisory Board, died of a stroke on Sunday.

His death came after Tom had waged a long and courageous battle to recover from a massive stroke he suffered in the fall of 2014 that robbed him of his voice, a voice that spoke powerfully for those without one.

But Tom was not just a singular voice for animals in Pennsylvania, he was the choir and the orchestra too.

I can say that with authority because I covered the intersection of animal welfare issues and politics during my 15-year career as a statehouse reporter with the Philadelphia Inquirer and Tom was a major force in that arena for most of it.

He burst on the scene in 2006, one of a slate of appointees Gov. Rendell made to replace the then moribund dog law advisory board. In his quest to end Pennsylvania’s reputation as the puppy mill capital of the East, Rendell swept out what he thought was an ineffective body, which included an infamous puppy mill operator who kept as many as 800 dogs in his barns at one time.

Tom was instrumental in drafting of the “puppy mill bill,” which would become one of Rendell’s signature pieces of legislation, vastly changing the way all dogs – breeding dogs who spend their lives in cages and their offspring – were cared for in commercial kennels.

The legislation (HB 2525) would overhaul the state dog law for the first time in 25 years, raising the standards for dogs in large commercial kennels that supplied fluffy puppies to pet stores throughout the region but whose lives were misery on the farm. Gone were the cages stacked to barn rafters. Wire-floored cages were limited only to mothers with nursing puppies. Dogs who never had seen a veterinarian were now required to see one twice a year and all dogs had to have free access to an outdoor run. Lighting and ventilation standards were set, ending the era of pitch black barns stinking of ammonia.

But a grueling statehouse fight was waged to get there – one that still today holds the state record for the most calls, letters and comments on any single piece of legislation – and Tom was the citizen general. He had the ear of the governor and he spoke for legions of average animal lovers who wanted to see an end to the cruel conditions that made Pennsylvania synonymous with puppy mills.

In meetings, hearings and town hall gatherings, Tom faced off against crowds of breeders, industry lobbyists and some lawmakers who thought the bill was unnecessary, too costly and burdensome for the hundreds of farmers who bred puppies as a “cash crop.” He traveled the state speaking eloquently before packed community meetings, drumming up support for the bill and putting heat on waffling legislators.

In the end, Tom was by Gov. Rendell’s side when the governor ceremonially signed the bill at a Bucks County veterinary clinic on Oct. 27, 2008. (Rendell had formally signed the bill in his office on Oct. 9, one day after its passage to ensure it would take effect as quickly as possible.)

Rendell and top legislative leaders count the dog law battle as one of the biggest issues of the 2007-2008 legislative session and its passage among their major victories. The new law was praised by animal welfare advocates across the country and would stand as a model for many other states.

Tom was the animals’ consummate lobbyist: he spoke truth to power. He rattled chains. He worked the media. He knew how to cajole public officials and cultivated allies in both political parties. He was a street fighter who knocked heads but did so with such charm and wit that people were unaware of what just happened to them. He was fearless and used his position as a state board member as an agent for change in all quadrants of the commonwealth.

If there was a caped crusader for animals in the commonwealth he was it.

One image stands out. Several years ago, Tom came to the rescue of animal activists in the Harrisburg region who were distraught about an order to officers by Harrisburg city police officials to shoot stray animals after the area humane society pulled animal control services over the city’s non-payment of bills.

Tom travelled the two hours from Philadelphia after work one night to meet the group at a deli outside the capital. He came flying into the room wearing a blue seersucker suit and sat down to begin strategizing with them to work City Hall until they got answers and a solution. Soon the police backed down on their threat and bills were paid and animals were again taken to the shelter.

In another case, Tom demanded the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement explain why they failed to get humane police officers to the scene of a bad rescue in western Pennsylvania where a badly ill dog would die before the Pennsylvania SPCA was able to reach the scene and remove the scores of other dogs suffering there. The governor was furious and Tom’s outrage changed bureau practices to ensure dog wardens sought immediate help from law enforcement and veterinarians to respond to kennels where animals were sick or injured.

In 2009, infuriated the Philadelphia Eagles had signed convicted dog fight ring leader Michael Vick, Tom planted himself at the negotiating table, making the case to Eagles management that they had done wrong by Philadelphia animal lovers and they should now do something big on behalf of animals. They would soon set up a fund to distribute $500,000 to needy animal causes.

In August 2008 he called to alert me that a state-licensed breeder in Berks County with his young son had used shotguns to mow down 80 small breed dogs in their kennels. They slaughtered the tiny lap dogs after being ordered by dog wardens to provide flea treatment for the animals in their care. With that information I was able to break a story that galvanized public support and helped propel the dog law bill over the finish line less than two months later. Rendell immediately moved to bar commercial breeders from carrying out a similar massacre. Language was added to the bill to mandate that all commercial breeders would have to use a licensed veterinarian to euthanize any dog.

Tom did not sit quietly after the dog law’s passage. In 2012, a year after Gov. Tom Corbett took office, Tom, along with Marsha Perelman and Deb Lefco on the advisory board, produced a voluminous report demonstrating that the Department of Agriculture was not enforcing the new dog law which required kennel owners to significantly upgrade their kennels and was supposed to take effect in 2009.

In scrupulous detail the report laid out evidence that commercial breeders who were to be inspected at least twice a year went for more than a year without being inspected at all. That report would lead to the removal of the dog law bureau’s director and served as the foundation for Auditor General Eugene DePasquale’s highly critical audit of the Department of Agriculture and its dog law operations. Soon kennels were being inspected two or more times a year again, the state veterinarian was rehired to her fulltime post and humane police officers were being contacted where potential cruelty cases were found.

Tom was hard-wired to recognize animals in distress, whether scrambling to rescue an injured cat on the highway or leap over a fence to catch a runaway shelter dog. All of his family pets were rescued from somewhere. His son Tom Jr.’s pit bull Merlin – once on death row at Philadelphia’s Animal Care and Control – would become the mascot of my Philly Dawg blog. Tom bestowed his love of animals to his children. Daughter Kim Cary is an animal activist in her own right who has harnessed the power of social media to help find homes for many shelter animals in the Philadelphia area.

Tom helped change Harrisburg for the good for animals. In 2006 there were very few lawmakers willing to sponsor animal legislation of any kind, many were more likely to mock such proposals. Today lawmakers seek out the “animal advocate vote” and fall all over themselves to introduce pro-animal bills. This session the bills reached record numbers. Too few though have made it to the governor’s desk.

The hard work to improve the lives of animals in Pennsylvania remains.

Keep Tom’s memory alive in social media. Share this post. Tweet what’s on your mind. But if you really want to honor all that he worked for to improve the lives of animals get involved, find your own voice. Vote. Let elected officials at all levels know you care about the animal issues that you will hold them accountable. Run for office.

I felt it fitting to conclude with Tom’s own words – an excerpt from his testimony before the Dog Law Advisory Board on the proposed new dog law in January 2008.

To put it very simply we are trying to be the voice to protect dogs that desperately need our help. It is simply not acceptable to allow dogs that are used solely as “breeding machines” to live in the horrific conditions that they are forced to live in today. …in too many cases, these breeding dogs are forced to live in filth, and killed when they no longer serve a profitable purpose.   We are better than that.

Services for Tom will be held Thursday July 21 at 11 a.m. at D’Anjolell Memorial Home, on 2811 West Chester Pike in Broomall. Visitation is at 9 a.m.

amy (2)Amy Worden is a former politics and government reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. In that capacity she explored a range of animal protection issues from dog kennel law improvements and banning horse slaughter to the comeback of peregrine falcons and pigeon hunts. From hamsters to horses, animals have always been part of her life. You can follow her at @inkyamy and or on the Philly Dawg Facebook page.


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