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Published: Saturday, 8/23/2008

Skeldon does his duty, tells it like it is

BY DALE EMcH

A LOCAL group has launched a petition drive seeking to remove Tom Skeldon from his post of Lucas County Dog Warden because of his stance on pit bulls.

What's next - a campaign to toss Toledo Police Chief Mike Navarre out of office for enforcing Ohio's drug laws?

How ridiculous.

Tom Skeldon is a law enforcement officer. It is his duty to enforce state and local laws. Even if the group succeeded in removing him from office, which is highly unlikely given the amount of respect and support he has from city and county elected officials, the next dog warden would be under the same obligation to enforce Toledo's pit bull laws.

Let's be clear: The vast majority of the pit bulls that wind up at the pound have either attacked someone, were running free, or weren't kept by their owners in compliance with Toledo law. If the owners follow the law, they should be OK.

I understand that Mr. Skeldon is a controversial figure. He always has been. He's an outspoken guy who is willing to take a stand, regardless of whether it's going to bring criticism.

That's why I wrote a lengthy story about him in 2005 when I was still a reporter at The Blade. I explored his positions, spoke with a number of pit bull advocates, and talked to his supporters. I've also had the opportunity to ride in the field with him a few times, which has been eye opening, to say the least. The number of pit bulls that are either running free or are improperly confined is truly scary.

I wrote a piece about Mr. Skeldon that was as much a personality profile as a look at the pit bull issue. But in the years since the story ran, I've become convinced of something - Tom is right.

Pit bulls are inherently dangerous dogs, made more dangerous when kept by the wrong people. That's why state law classifies them as vicious dogs. Does that mean all pit bulls are dangerous? Of course not. But when the switch flips in pits, the damage can be remarkable.

Unfortunately, I've come to see this side of the pit bull controversy as a personal injury attorney who represents dog-bite victims. Of the dog-bite cases our office is handling, a disproportionate share involve pit bulls.

In my cases, the bites were unprovoked.

In one case, a West Toledo couple was pushing their little girl in a stroller when a pit bull jumped the fence, ran up to the toddler, and bit her on the forehead.

She wasn't squealing. She wasn't crying or laughing. She was just sitting in the stroller. The dog opened a gash three or four inches long and had it been slightly lower, she easily could have lost an eye. As it is, she'll have to have at least one plastic surgery, and possibly more, but she'll likely be left with a permanent scar.

In another case, my client was talking to a co-worker on a job site when a pit bull attacked him, opening a deep wound in his arm that required a surgery and left him hospitalized for three days.

Anecdotal evidence? Sure. Other dogs can cause serious harm too.

But a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that pit bulls topped the list for breeds involved in fatal attacks from 1979 to 1998.

And insurance companies have certainly gotten the memo on pit bulls. They're starting to write homeowner policies that exclude coverage for pit bull bites. They wouldn't do that if they weren't having to pay out some major claims attributed to pits.

Mr. Skeldon deals with the fallout from pit bulls every day. He's seen the injuries caused by these dogs and also has seen how they've become the dog of choice for dope dealers and gang bangers. In 1993, his office seized 50 pit bulls. In 2007, that number climbed to 1,354.

Given all that, it would be shocking if he didn't take the pit bull problem seriously.

Maybe in that scenario, a petition to remove him from office would be warranted, but not for enforcing Toledo's pit bull ordinance - which the Ohio Supreme Court ruled last year was constitutional.

I'll give the petition organizers the benefit of the doubt that they sincerely believe we should blame the deed and not the breed. I'll assume their motives are pure, albeit misguided.

But since the time I wrote my story about Mr. Skeldon, I've always believed that most of the people gunning for him are pit-bull fans who make money by fighting or breeding the dogs.

And in that fight, I'll side with Tom Skeldon and the other dog wardens throughout Ohio who have the courage to do their duty and tell it like it is.

Our communities are better off for their efforts.

Dale Emch, a Toledo attorney, is the co-author of "The Ohio Dog Bite Book." He writes The Blade's Legal Briefs column and previously worked as a reporter and editor at The Blade.



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