If you’re a pet lover or even just fond of animals, this story will be a tough read. If we were a television network, we’d advise viewer discretion. It contains hideous cruelty and neglect set against a backdrop of theft, drugs and accusations of cronyism, incompetence and political infighting.
Only four states have weaker animal-protection laws than Ohio, allowing behavior deemed felonious in other states — such as cockfighting and puppy milling — to flourish here, according to Karen Minton, Ohio representative for the Humane Society of the United States. On a more local level, Summit County has one of the worst compliance rates for dog licensing in Ohio — a fact that deprives animal control services of much-needed money. And, despite some new alternatives, there’s still a dearth of low-cost spaying and neutering options, so when warm weather arrived again this spring, thousands of newborn animals were tossed into dumpsters or left to roam. Making matters worse, the City of Akron now has only two animal wardens instead of four because of budget cuts, so feral cats aren’t usually picked up unless someone complains, according to Akron Deputy Service Director Ron Williamson.
In addition, in early 2011, Missouri — which historically had the nation’s largest concentration of puppy mills — passed a law banning them. Because Ohio has no such ban, there’s concern that Missouri puppy millers will relocate to Ohio en masse. And our proximity to Amish country also makes us a convenient location for the sale of dogs bred and born under inhumane conditions. “Puppy mills are typically filthy, unhealthy kennels where pregnant females give birth over and over again — simply so pups can be sold for profit to unsuspecting owners,” says Stephanie Moore, head of the Medina County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
But thanks to efforts at all levels of the public and private sectors, area animal experts — including Moore — agree that the outlook for animal welfare in the Akron area and Ohio overall is finally improving:
• Both the County of Summit’s Division of Animal Control and the Humane Society of Greater Akron opened new, spacious facilities this year.
• A coalition of area animal welfare groups, both public and private, was formed a little more than a year ago with the mission to work together better.
• One of a Kind Pets, a private, non-profit rescue group and clinic, has begun offering low- and no-cost spaying and neutering services.
• In 2010, Summit County animal control adopted out nearly 2,000 animals, compared to 305 in 2003. All of the animals adopted were spayed and neutered before leaving the facility, in stark contrast to former practices. And in February, the county tripled the amount of time a veterinarian works at its new facility.
• A new awareness of animal welfare issues seems to be growing among the general public, making pet adoption — as well as spaying and neutering — causes with a cool factor.
“If you want to describe where we were a few years ago and where we are now, light years ahead would be a good way to put it,” says Craig Stanley, director of administrative services for Summit County, who oversees all county facilities, including animal control.
Just more than seven years ago, the situation for homeless and lost animals in the Summit County area was dismal. In early 2004, a study team from the National Animal Control Association (NACA) of Olate, Kansas, visited Akron to assess the Summit County Animal Control Facility — which, at the time, was housed in a decades-old, 9,000-square-foot building on North Street in the shadow of the Y-Bridge.
The NACA team was invited by then-Summit County Executive James B. McCarthy soon after he’d fired the facility’s chief warden, who faced numerous felony charges involving the theft of shelter drugs, among other crimes. The warden eventually pleaded guilty to a single felony charge of illegally processing drug documents.
Around that same time, McCarthy hired Craig Stanley as deputy director of administrative services to help get things under control. Stanley brought with him a stellar record as an investigator with Ohio’s Department of Commerce.
During its March 2004 visit to Akron, NACA found a somewhat milder version of the nightmarish scene that had been described for years by outspoken animal rights groups. The tone of the report was firm but cordial. (After all, NACA is a trade group trying to help one of its own.)
NACA found 132 problems in all, ranging from reliance on 20-year-old computer software to the euthanasia of animals on a concrete floor to cats being euthanized in cages they shared with living cats. When asked, the center told NACA it contracted with a veterinarian for services on occasion — but was unable to provide a copy of the agreement. This led to NACA concluding that pound keepers, with a mere 16 hours of euthanasia training, typically decided which animals lived and died — and did the killing. The county later reported that, in reality, a veterinarian visited the facility only a few times a year.
Some other problems on NACA’s list:
• Dogs were housed in double rows of cages that were too small. When the top rows of kennels were cleaned, the urine, dirt and feces flowed to the cages below, which had no gutter systems.
• Dogs had “exercise” time in a tiled pen, where unaltered animals were allowed to fight, share diseases and copulate under the noses of those charged with keeping the pet population under control.
• There was no isolation space for sick cats, which led to the spread of serious diseases.
By the time NACA returned for a follow-up in 2006, the majority of the problems that could be solved had been. But it took more than six years for the team’s most urgent suggestion — a new facility — to become a reality.
Why did it take so long? Infighting.
Johnnie Mays, president of NACA’s assessment team, said he “was deeply disturbed by the level of conflict” and bickering in the community, especially between McCarthy’s office and County Council.
The toxic, troublesome situation was so well known that when the center searched for a contract veterinarian in late 2006, only Wadsworth’s Dr. Cynthia Arends applied. “Nobody wanted to be in the middle of all the controversy,” says Stanley. “Our reputation was that we were too hot to deal with.”
The tension between County Council and the executive’s office finally eased in 2007, when Russ Pry took over as county executive, after McCarthy retired. The plan for the new shelter then began moving along without old grudges standing in its way. Finally, in August 2010, the County of Summit Animal Control opened its $2.62 million, LEED-certified center on Opportunity Parkway.
Meanwhile, the Humane Society of Greater Akron (HSGA) was having its own problems. In 2004, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which owns the land in Boston Township on which the society’s shelter sat, said it wanted the property back. The ramshackle shelter was woefully inadequate anyway; it was meant to hold 125 animals, but at times housed more than 400, according to Karen Hackenberry, HSGA director since July 2010.
By 2007, well before Hackenberry arrived, the shelter’s overcrowding, as well as increasing pressure from the park, exacerbated friction among its board of directors — some of whom believed the society needed to modify its traditional no-kill policy to include exceptions for space reasons as well as incurable suffering. Some board members resigned amid the upheaval.
By 2008, the shelter had a lead gift of $1 million out of the $5 million it needed to pay off a new shelter and the cost of the move. In the fall of 2009, the society purchased a 68,000-square-foot office and warehouse building at 7996 Darrow Road in Twinsburg from the Summit County Port Authority for $3.4 million. It renovated the warehouse and moved in March 2010. The society clearly operates under its traditional no-kill policy unless an animal is suffering and beyond hope, says Hackenberry. It’s also one of the only shelters in the state to accept pit bulls, one of only two dog breeds Akron regulates specifically (Presa Canarias is the other). The new facility can house hundreds more animals comfortably and has been designed to be more conducive to interaction between pets and potential owners. And HSGA will break ground soon for a new medical surgical suite in the shelter, eliminating the need to transport animals to vet offices.
What Hackenberry is most excited about, however, is the new sense of cooperation among area animal welfare groups. “We’re putting differences aside and putting the animals first,” says Hackenberry, part of the newly formed Summit County Animal Coalition, which holds adoption events and promotes pet adoption through Internet sites, broadcast and print media, events and Petsmart Charities. (Hackenberry says that when the Greater Akron Humane Society created a Facebook site, adoptions increased 10 percent.)
Karen Conklin, Hackenberry’s predecessor who now works for the Red Cross in Trumbull County, began the Animal Coalition, which includes representatives from Summit County animal control and the City of Akron, as well as several well-respected rescue groups such as One of a Kind Pets in West Akron — a non-profit that adopts out animals and runs a retail store and a low-cost/no-cost clinic (research shows that communities offering low-cost spaying, neutering and vaccinations reduce the number of euthanized animals by 76 percent within two years).
Minton of the Humane Society says such cooperation among regional groups is heartening, but state laws need to be strengthened to effect real change. Even the most heinous animal cruelty — including dog fighting — is a misdemeanor on a first offense in Ohio. And while the USDA and the Department of Agriculture oversee kennels, Ohio has only a handful of inspectors — and most kennels are unlicensed anyway. According to Minton, Ohio law basically gives an animal three things: shelter, food and water. And the shelter can be something as simple as a cardboard box with a plywood top.
Ohio laws are so unclear that Greater Akron Humane Society Humane Officer Tim Harland often has a tough time doing his job. He says he’s resigned himself to the fact that his main job is to educate bad pet owners, not punish them. And he isn’t nearly as confident as Minton when it comes to the prospective effects of stronger state laws. Even if the laws were tougher, he says, there’s little hope animal abusers will get what they deserve: big fines and jail time.
“We have too many people in our jails and prisons right now,” he says. “The government is looking for ways to ease the crowding, not increase it.”
Still, Harland goes out on call after call, every day, keeping his focus on rescuing injured and sick animals and educating owners. During a late February snowstorm, Harland received a call from an East Akron resident. She told Harland someone dumped an injured dog in the street by her house and that, in fact, a lot of people dump unwanted pets there because the area is isolated. Since the temperature was 20 degrees with near-blizzard conditions, she brought the dog into her home.
When Harland and I knocked on the caller’s door, the Rottweiler greeted us by sniffing our hands and wagging his tail slowly. He had no collar or tags, so Harland and I called him “Big Boy.” The dog’s hind end was tucked low as he limped. He had green pus oozing from his eyes. The only time the dog snapped is when Harland attempted to get him into the rescue truck. With the help of the caller’s son, Harland lifted the Rottweiler safely into a crate. He planned to take Big Boy back to the Twinsburg shelter, where he’d be assessed by a veterinarian.
Harland sighed as he shut the truck door.
“Tomorrow, there will be more like Big Boy, and more the day after that,” he says. “But at least this guy has some hope now.”
Just maybe, all the animals of Summit County do.
Mary Ethridge is a freelance writer in Akron. She spent 18 years at the Akron Beacon Journal, primarily covering business news. Her stories have appeared in news outlets across the country, including the Miami Herald, MSN.com and Newsweek. She’s currently an associate producer on a film about the All American Soap Box Derby with Corbin Bernsen that’s set to premiere in Akron in July.
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