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Lucas County dog death toll rises as controversy swirls

There were candlelight vigils, calls for resignations, and reports that fewer dogs should be killed by Lucas County Dog Warden Tom Skeldon, but the warden says he's doing a fine job and that "criminal elements" are part of the opposition against him.

Animal-rights groups say Mr. Skeldon refuses to work with them and is focused on killing dogs.

Almost lost in the controversy are the thousands of dogs killed each year by Mr. Skeldon's office - 2,483 last year and 1,848 so far this year, based on a Blade review of records in the dog warden's office.

From the 145 Labrador retrievers to the single Welsh Corgi, a favorite breed of Queen Elizabeth II, dozens of unwanted dogs are chemically injected each week, frozen in room-sized freezers at the pound, and buried in area landfills.

Dog Warden Tom Skeldon talks about his office's policies

The Blade review found that so far this year, about 70 breeds were represented in the kill records - from the 131 German shepherds, 88 Chows, 38 Beagles, 31 Cocker Spaniels, and 16 Shar-peis, to the 16 Chihuahuas, 12 miniature pinschers, 11 Jack Russell terriers, 7 pugs, and 5 Lhasa Apsos.

The continued killing is at the center of recent calls for the warden to shape up or step down.

In the eyes of animal-rescue activists and members of a county dog warden oversight committee, the numbers show Mr. Skeldon is putting down too many dogs and not adopting out enough to new homes.

The county killed either 77 percent or 66 percent of all dogs that entered the pound last year, depending on how one counts the number of animals reclaimed by owners. Mr. Skeldon prefers the counting method leading to the lower number.

But something not in dispute is that Lucas County's dog adoption rate was 13 percent, much lower than in neighboring counties.

As Mr. Skeldon sees it, his adoption and kill rates are "statistically glowing," and those calling for his resignation are misguided.

He said his critics must consider how his primary duties as dog warden are law enforcement and protecting people from dogs, not dogs from people. He also noted that the pound's kill rate has gradually declined through the decades after topping 10,000 a year in the 1970s, when the pound was run by the Toledo Humane Society.

The 'pit bull' issue
Mr. Skeldon insisted that his staff euthanizes only the lamest, oldest, meanest, and most incorrigible of the dogs in their care. Except for the so-called "pit bulls."

Every "pit bull" without a legal owner is killed, the warden said, no matter if it is vicious or not, no matter if it is the smallest puppy and has never bitten anyone.

They all end up the same: killed, frozen, and buried, except for perhaps eight times a year, especially when the weather is treacherous or area police agencies need to incinerate confiscated illegal drugs. Dead dogs then will be disposed of in the pound's on-site incinerator.

It seems, according to pound officials, that it takes several dog bodies thrown onto the fire to make it hot enough to properly burn the marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and paraphernalia that police need to dispose of several times a year.

"Now there are some dogs here that are not 'pit bulls,' that haven't been hit by a car, aren't sick, and haven't been surrendered by their owners... that do get euthanized," Mr. Skeldon explained. "But they're dogs who are snapping and snarling at you and won't let you take them out of the cage. They're the dogs that would be a danger for us to put out there."

Staying the course
The dog warden discussed his observations, procedures, and job record last week in an exclusive Blade interview. He addressed the claims of those who say that he is too quick to kill dogs and those who argue he is resistant to suggestions that would improve pound operations and the overall welfare of Lucas County's dogs.

Mr. Skeldon, who has been warden since 1987 and is the son of former Toledo Zoo Director Phil Skeldon, also said that he will not step down from his job and vowed to stay the course until his planned retirement, "sometime in 2011."

"They can come at me hot and heavy, but I'm not going to stop doing my job," he said. A first cousin, Tina Skeldon-Wozniak, sits on the Lucas County Board of Commissioners.

The Blade review of his agency's records found that so far this year, 78 puppies under three months of age were among the 1,848 dogs put down.

The most common breed on this year's kill list - as it is year after year - is the "pit bull," a type of dog considered inherently vicious under Ohio law and that Mr. Skeldon refuses to adopt out to individuals or rescue groups.

Breed- specific battles
The dog warden's office has killed at least 932 "pit bulls" or "pit bull" mixes this year, including 46 "pit bull" pups.

"He is so focused on this outright vendetta against 'pit bulls,'." said Jean Keating, co-founder of the Ohio Coalition of Dog Advocates, which believes breed-specific legislation or enforcement action is ineffective and punishes responsible dog owners.

The coalition held a candlelight vigil last month outside the county pound near downtown Toledo to pay respect to all the dogs that have died there. Members of the group have called for the warden's resignation, as has Lucas County Commissioner Ben Konop.

"Tom is doing a lot of things it seems by the seat of his pants in determining what dogs are going to live and what dogs are going to die," Mr. Konop said. "I've given him a couple years to reform things there, and I have just not seen the progress the community deserves."

However, Barb Knapp, president of the Ohio County Dog Wardens' Association, said she fears Mr. Skeldon is being targeted for simply carrying out the duties of an all-too-often thankless job.

"We're employed to protect the public," said Ms. Knapp, who is dog warden of Erie County.

On some fronts, Mr. Skeldon believes he has been scapegoated by "pit bull" advocates who are taking out on him their frustrations with state and city of Toledo laws regarding vicious dogs.

The term "pit bull" comes from 19th-century Britain and describes several breeds of dogs, including the American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier, and many mongrels.

Toledo residents are prohibited from owning more than one "pit bull" and must keep their animals leashed and muzzled when outside the owner's premises. Animal-welfare groups say Ohio is the only state where every "pit bull" is by law deemed inherently vicious, regardless of behavior.

"I think I have made the 'pit bull' lobby, locally, nationally, and internationally, unhappy because of court decisions we have won and the numbers we show through vigorous enforcement of the law," said Mr. Skeldon, who suggested a "criminal element" is present in groups such as the Ohio coalition of dog advocates that vigorously defend pit bull ownership.

"There is a criminal element that's part of it," the warden said. "No one who has been obeying the law as 'pit bulls' are concerned is bothered by me."

The Rottweiler issue
Mr. Skeldon said he considers the Rottweiler breed to be potentially vicious, which is why he refuses to place Rottweilers in the pound's adoption area for the general public.

"We'll adopt out a good Rottweiler," he explained. "But if we put a Rottweiler in the adoption area, I'll get gang bangers [gang members] coming through here kicking the cage, seeing if he's mean enough for them to want to adopt."

Paul Hubbard, a past president of the Greater Toledo Urban League, said Mr. Skeldon's use of the term "gang bangers" is an unfortunate choice of words that could be construed as a racial remark.

"I think it kind of stereotypes black youth because oftentimes when that word is used, the image in people's minds is kids with their pants hanging too low," he said. "It probably would have been better to say people involved in dogfights or using dogs in the wrong way."

Mr. Skeldon's refusal to allow placement of Rottweilers in the public adoption part of the county dog pound may be the reason their kill numbers are so high. The breed is sixth-highest on the pound's kill list so far this year, with 60 put down through October.

Mona Guinaugh of South Toledo, who owns two Rottweilers and boards Rottweilers for the animal rescue group Planned Pethood, said Rottweilers that come from an abusive environment can be rehabilitated.

She said her Rottweilers came from surrounding county dog pounds because Mr. Skeldon will not adopt out the dogs to her group.

"Whenever we can pull these from those pounds, we do," she said. "Just like with any dog, Rottweilers are very intelligent and they are very loyal and they just need the right type of owner."

Ms. Keating objected to Mr. Skeldon's characterization of her coalition group as including a "criminal element" and said that its members are considerably more focused on issues such as decreasing the pound's euthanasia rate.

"The 'pit bulls' is just one issue, and he always wants to focus on the 'pit bulls' - a lot of people in our group don't even own 'pit bulls,'." she said.

The pound
The dog warden's office is mostly supported by proceeds from the roughly 62,500 dog licenses issued in Lucas County. The annual licenses carry a $25 fee, the highest in Ohio, according to Mr. Skeldon, who has an annual salary of $69,097.

The office does not receive money from the county's general fund.

Dogs find their way into the warden's kennels in several ways, including impoundment and owner surrender.

Those owning unlicensed dogs have at least three full days to come in and claim their pets. Dogs with licenses are kept for at least 14 business days.

Once those periods elapse, dog pound officials determine whether a dog is a candidate for adoption.

They check the dog's health and behavior, observe the animal while it's fed, walked, and played with.

Visitors are often surprised to learn about one of the county's most definitive temperament tests: a squeeze of the genitals.

"A dog that will allow you to do that is a dog that isn't going to bite some kid who happens to step on his toe," Mr. Skeldon explained.

The 'blue mile'
The decision on which dogs are fit for adoption lies mostly with Pound Manager Bonnie Mitchell, who started the job in 2008, after stints as Mr. Skeldon's executive assistant and office dispatcher.

She provided The Blade a tour of the county dog pound last week, including a walk down the "blue mile," the blue-floored kennel run reserved for dogs about to be euthanized.

Tuesdays and Fridays are "kill days" at the pound. Last week, several dogs were awaiting their fate, including a comely older chocolate-colored cocker spaniel named Buddy, who had been left at the pound by its owners to be put down.

Ms. Mitchell said Buddy had a heart condition and had serious trouble with vision.

Although Ms. Mitchell is not a vet technician, Mr. Skeldon said she has years of experience in veterinarian offices and years of dealing daily with dogs and is doing an excellent job.

To properly certify her for her post, she took two courses - tranquilizing animals and euthanizing them.

The humane option
The adoptable dogs that aren't adopted after about two weeks are transferred to the Toledo Area Humane Society, where they're put up for adoption again.

This arrangement came about in a contract between the two organizations struck in the early 2000s. The humane society receives the dogs free of charge and in exchange provides spay and neutering services for the pound for a fee - $65 a dog in 2010.

John Dinon, the humane society's executive director, said his organization has received 281 dogs from the warden so far this year, up from the 258 it received last year. As long as those dogs remain healthy and friendly, they will find homes, he said.

"We have a 100 percent adoption rate on adoptable dogs here at the humane society," Mr. Dinon said.

Mr. Dinon, who is also a member of the volunteer dog warden advisory committee, said the society could take in more dogs than Mr. Skeldon is giving. In fact, the society is importing dogs from Hardin, Carroll, Franklin, and Montgomery counties because it can't get enough here. "Can they [the Lucas County pound] send us more dogs? From a capacity point of view, absolutely. We accept every dog that the Lucas County dog warden offers us," he said.

Mr. Dinon continued: "It seems to me that the main way they could increase adoptions or transfers from there is if they determine that more dogs are adoptable. I'm not sure how many dogs they handle that they do not deem adoptable that we would, but my suspicion is that there are some dogs that we would deem adoptable that they do not."

Mr. Skeldon disputed the humane society's insistence that it has accepted every dog offered by his office. He also dismissed Mr. Konop's allegation of needlessly killing adoptable dogs.

"Neither of those people know what they're talking about - Ben Konop or John Dinon - when it comes to what we do down here," the warden said.

More adoptions?
It is tricky to make comparisons between the kill rates of dog warden agencies throughout the state because of caveats in each organization's procedures. However, a survey conducted by the Ohio State University college of veterinary medicine estimated that 46 percent of all dogs handled by state animal care and control agencies were euthanized in 2004, down from 61 percent in 1996.

To reduce euthanasia rates and increase adoptions in Lucas County, Commissioner Pete Gerken recently proposed that the humane society review all nonvicious dogs at the county pound after the three-day and 14-day waiting periods.

All dogs deemed adoptable would be transferred to the society's kennel and put up for adoption there. The humane society's board members are to discuss this proposal at their regular meeting this month, Mr. Dinon said.

For his part, Mr. Skeldon said he has no problem with Mr. Gerken's proposal. However, he expressed doubt that the humane society would get on board. "I would predict they'll moonwalk away from that [proposal]," Mr. Skeldon said, "because the guy who takes over that job will be targeted because then he'll be the bad guy who is making decisions on whether dogs live or die."

Possible changes
The dog warden oversight committee last month presented its first four recommendations aimed at improving operations at the pound. To increase adoptions, some committee members are considering whether to ask Mr. Skeldon to change his policy against transferring adoptable dogs to "all-breed" rescue groups aside from the humane society.

Many animal rescue groups probably would jump at the chance to accept the dogs, said Nikki Morey, executive director of Planned Pethood, which has tried for years to persuade Mr. Skeldon to reverse his policy against rescue groups.

But Mr. Skeldon said the policy is there for a reason.

"The trouble with the multibreed rescue groups is that in the past they wanted to come through and shop and cherry-pick," he said. "In other words, they all wanted the sweet little dog. They don't want the bigger, older dog. And so I would end up with vying groups all claiming one dog at the same time."

Moreover, Mr. Skeldon said he doubts that his critics would be able to reduce the euthanasia rate at the point any more than he has over his 23 years at the job. "When I came into this job we were picking up way, way, way more dogs than we do now, and we were having to euthanize a whole lot more dogs than we have to euthanize now," Mr. Skeldon said. "They assume that they would adopt out more dogs than we do. I would argue they wouldn't. I think they would make the same decisions if they were in my position as I make."