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Published: Monday, 6/20/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

Humane Society has legacy of helping Lucas Co. animals

Advocacy, shelter among tasks of nonprofit group

BY CLAUDIA BOYD-BARRETT
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Patty Gelb, director of marketing and development at the Toledo Area Humane Society, spends time with a dog at the facility. Patty Gelb, director of marketing and development at the Toledo Area Humane Society, spends time with a dog at the facility.
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Next week: A look at the job of a humane society cruelty investigator.

On a recent morning at the Toledo Area Humane Society, a blur of cat fur dashed suddenly under chairs and desk legs in the rescue organization's back offices.

"Georgie! Come see me!," marketing director Patty Gelb pleaded, patting a hand on the table next to her.

The cat stopped and, with a disarming glance, the creature's painful story became clear.

In place of fur and whiskers, the front of George's face was covered in the pink and white scars of a burn victim. His green eyes peered eerily from beneath a disfigured brow.

"We don't know exactly what happened to him," Ms. Gelb offered. "It's amazing what he looks like now compared to when he first came in."

Humane Society staff believe George was burned intentionally with lighter fluid. He was brought to the society's offices in Maumee just after Halloween in 2009, and it took him months to recover from his injuries.

Today, he is the Humane Society's mascot and a vivid reminder of what this century-old organization is working to prevent.

"Animal cruelty is a horrific, horrible crime," Executive Director John Dinon said. "[Investigating it] is hugely important, because if we weren't doing it I'm sure the police and sheriffs would do some but … I don't think it would be their highest priority."

Investigating and preventing animal cruelty has been the Toledo Area Humane Society's mission since its founding in 1884. It originally looked out for the welfare of children and senior citizens as well. But today its focus is animals and ensuring that people take good care of them.

Agency mascot George the cat lounges on the desk of John Dinon, executive director of the Toledo Area Humane Society. George was taken in after Halloween in 2009 with severe burns on his face. Agency mascot George the cat lounges on the desk of John Dinon, executive director of the Toledo Area Humane Society. George was taken in after Halloween in 2009 with severe burns on his face.
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Although the society receives no government funding, it is charged under Ohio law with investigating and prosecuting animal cruelty cases in Lucas County. It also provides a wide variety of other animal-related services, including public education programs, advocacy work, and an expansive shelter and adoption effort.

As an animal shelter, the Humane Society bills itself as the community's only "open admission" facility, which means it accepts all animals surrendered to the organization regardless of health and behavior. In addition to dogs and cats, the society takes in unwanted "pocket pets" such as rats and hamsters, and will pass farm animals and exotic pets on to other authorities responsible for their care.

Each year the Humane Society takes in about 1,400 dogs, 2,400 cats, and a few hundred other types of animals, and its cruelty officers investigate over 2,000 annual reports of abuse and neglect.

Most of the animals that come to the Humane Society are surrendered by their owners, but others are confiscated because of mistreatment.

An increasingly large number of dogs come from the Lucas County dog pound, where warden Julie Lyle is working to increase the number of adoptions. The warden offers the organization only "adoptable" dogs that have passed medical and behavior evaluations.

Last year, the Humane Society took in 623 dogs from the county pound, almost half of its total dog intake. That's almost double the 366 dogs handed over to the Humane Society by former dog warden Tom Skeldon in 2009. Mr. Skeldon resigned in 2009 amidst criticism he killed too many dogs.

"We used to get many fewer from the dog warden, so we would go to Montgomery County, Franklin County, and Hardin county and get dogs from there," Mr. Dinon said, applauding the efforts made by Ms. Lyle to improve the pound. "Now we get so many from the dog warden … we have all we can handle."

Animals that arrive at the Humane Society are given a medical evaluation and are spayed or neutered if necessary. The Humane Society has its own veterinary office staffed by two veterinarians and two technicians.

Head veterinarian Debbie Johnson said much of her work is spay/neuter surgeries, but she also deals with animals suffering from abuse or neglect. Such animals might have broken bones, burns, or diseases or be close to starvation.

She described dogs and cats with collars that had grown into their necks because their owners never bothered to buy them a new one when they grew.

The most horrific case of abuse she's seen were the burns on George the cat.

"It's just hard to imagine that people would do something to an animal that's defenseless," Dr. Johnson said. "It sticks with you for a long time."

Staff behaviorist Aja LeBarr works with dogs in the dog play group at the Toledo Area Humane Society. Staff behaviorist Aja LeBarr works with dogs in the dog play group at the Toledo Area Humane Society.
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Each dog and cat surrendered to the Humane Society goes through a behavioral evaluation.

For dogs, the test is called the Safety Assessment for Evaluating Rehoming, or SAFER, and was developed by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. It is a standard assessment used by many organizations, including at the county dog pound under Ms. Lyle.

During an evaluation, a trained member of staff handles a dog's fur and paws and stares into its eyes to see if it responds aggressively. The trainer also tests what happens when food or a toy is taken away from the animal and how it behaves around other dogs or cats.

How a dog responds to the assessment determines its fate. Animals are ranked between 1 and 5 on a range of criteria, and those that score 4 or 5 on a majority of the items are usually put down.

If an animal scores badly on a few items, staff will often work to correct the issues. When an animal is aggressive around food, for example, a tray of feed is placed in its kennel for several days so it realizes meals are not a scarce resource.

The exception is "pit-bull" type dogs which, because they are considered dangerous under state law, must score 1 or 2 on all test items to avoid being put down, society representatives said.

Behavior and Enrichment Coordinator Aja LeBarr, who administers the evaluation, said it is possible to rehabilitate even the most aggressive dogs, but only if an organization has enough time and resources, something the Humane Society lacks.

The nonprofit organization runs on a budget of $1.6 million a year, with money coming from donations, adoption fees, and an endowment fund.

"If we have four or five dogs in long-term rehab, we won't have space for other dogs," Mr. Dinon indicated. "We have to make decisions to help as large a number of animals as possible."

As a result, the Humane Society puts down 10.5 percent of its dogs, and 18 percent of "pit bulls," although no dogs deemed "adoptable" are destroyed.

The situation is different for cats. About half of all cats taken in by the Humane Society are destroyed, including some that could be adopted. Mr. Dinon said the number is higher than with dogs because of the huge problem of cat overpopulation in Toledo, making it difficult to find homes for all of them.

Animals that do make it through the medical and behavioral analyses are housed at the Humane Society until permanent homes are found for them.

Cats are housed together in a spacious room furnished with boxes, benches, and shelves where they can play and sleep. Bird feeders hang outside the windows to attract birds to keep the cats amused. New arrivals are placed in a cage in the room so they can get accustomed to the other cats without coming into direct contact.

Dogs, meanwhile, are placed in kennels about four by seven feet wide, although because of a lack of space some are put in smaller crates on the floor. The kennel area is well-lit, clean, and ventilated.

Although the dogs do not have a lot of space to move around in the kennel, they are taken outside three times a day to get exercise. Twice daily they go for walks with volunteers.

Once a day they run around with other dogs in a specially built play yard, equipped with wooden ramps and tunnels.

The exercise the dogs get is crucial to maintaining their physical and mental health, Ms. LeBarr explained.

"They get crazy in their cage. They're just more adoptable when they have interaction with other dogs," she said.

Being confined for long periods can also lead to stress and aggression, so frequent exercise helps mitigate that possibility, she added.

Providing care for so many animals would not be possible without the help of volunteers. Three hundred donate time to the organization, mainly to help with cleaning, walking the dogs, and cuddling the cats.

It's a huge boost to the Humane Society's staff of 30.

"Volunteers work side by side with the staff, and we have a lot of talent," said the director of volunteers, Mary Moser. "We are very blessed."

Ultimately, the Humane Society's goal is to find homes for as many animals in its care as possible.

To help with the adoption process, animals are classified into nine personality categories to help people select pets that fit their lifestyles.

These categories take into account factors such as the amount of exercise the animal needs and whether it behaves well around children or other animals.

Once they select an animal they'd like to adopt, people are encouraged to spend time with the animal in a special "bonding room" at the Humane Society before taking it home.

Each adopted animal is spayed or neutered and has received a medical exam, appropriate vaccinations, flea treatment, and heartworm prevention.

All are microchipped for identification before going home.

Adoption fees range from $25 to $200, with various special prices and discounts available.

Complementing the Humane Society's core animal rescue and adoption efforts is a variety of education and therapy programs.

They include a behavior help line that anyone from the community can call to receive free advice on how to correct pet behavior problems, a foster-care system where ill, injured, or young animals stay with volunteers until they are ready for adoption, education programs for children to learn about responsible pet care, pet therapy programs for the elderly and people in need, temporary housing of pets belonging to people escaping from domestic abuse, and low-cost dog obedience classes for the public.

The Toledo Area Humane Society's offices. The Toledo Area Humane Society's offices.
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Ultimately, many of these programs are geared toward helping avoid pet neglect, abuse, or abandonment.

"We really try to get to people before they show up to surrender their dog," Mr. Dinon said.

The Toledo Area Humane Society is at 1920 Indian Wood Circle, Maumee. It is open every day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. except Monday and holidays.

For more information go to www.toledoareahumanesociety.org or call 419-891-0705. For the Behavior Helpline, call 419-891-0706. To report animal cruelty or neglect, call 419-891-9777.

Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett cbarrett@theblade.com or 419-724-6272.



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