A black Labrador retriever mix with a towing chain padlocked to her collar peered out from her small plastic dog house behind a home on Broadway in Toledo.
Enticed by kibble and treats, the nervous dog stepped cautiously out of her house one day last week.
Her skeleton was clearly visible beneath her dull fur, and pressure sores highlighted her hips’ bony protrusions. The dog cowered slightly and tucked her tail between her legs as her rescuer approached, gripping the chain so the dog couldn’t duck back inside her shelter.
“It’s OK. Good girl,” said Nancy Schilb, an animal cruelty investigator with the Toledo Area Humane Society. Ms. Schilb slipped a leash over the dog’s head before carefully unbuckling her collar and gently leading the scared canine out of the yard.
When it comes to humane-law enforcement, the difficult task of determining what should be done for animals in Lucas County falls on the shoulders of the humane society’s two animal cruelty investigators.
PHOTO GALLERY: See more photos of Nancy Schilb on investigating calls
Ms. Schilb and fellow officer Gene Boros handle about 2,000 cases a year. They must use their knowledge of the law and experience to make judgment calls every day.
“Our goal is to help people keep their animals and care for them properly,” Ms. Schilb said. “We don’t want to take them, but we will if we have to.”
The humane society’s responsibilities are often confused with those of Lucas County Canine Care & Control, Mr. Boros said.
The county office handles stray and nuisance or vicious dogs, investigates dog bites or attacks on other animals, and enforces dog licensing. The humane society investigates animal cruelty for a variety of animals.
Animal cruelty is divided into two categories: neglect and intentional cruelty. Neglect is the failure to provide an animal with such necessities as food and fresh water, shelter, a clean living environment, or veterinary care. Intentional cruelty includes deliberate physical harm or injury resulting from such instances as owners beating animals, neighborhood children torturing cats, or blood sports including dog fighting and cockfighting.
Humane society officers can legally enter private property to investigate reports. They may not bring ladders or other equipment to look over fences and such, but they can use an item already on the scene or even climb onto their vehicles to do so.
If a report describes animals inside a house, garage, barn, or other structure, officers may peek through windows to see whatever may be in plain sight but may not enter such structures without either a court warrant or the owner’s permission.
Officers have the power of arrest, although Ms. Schilb said they rarely exercise that and prefer to call local police in tense situations.
Role of education
Gary Willoughby, humane society executive director, said officers’ primary obligation is education. They try to educate pet owners on the proper care and treatment for both their indoor and outdoor animals.
“Often, that’s all it takes, is a little bit of instruction,” he said.
Mr. Willoughby said people who report possible animal neglect or cruelty generally have good intentions and wish to help. “They see an animal in distress and want immediate action,” he said. “But there are limitations on what we can do.”
Limits of the law
Mr. Boros said some people feel an animal is being mistreated when it isn’t being cared for in the same manner they would care for their own pets. A prime example would be people who believe dogs should be kept inside against those who believe dogs are outdoor animals. “We can only enforce what the law allows us to enforce,” he said. “It’s not always what we would ideally want to see, but there’s nothing we can do about it under the law.”
He added that many residents are very passionate about animals, which can sometimes lead them to feel upset or angry with the humane society when the officers can’t change an animal’s situation because the owner isn’t breaking a law.
“It makes our job difficult,” he said. “We get a lot of repeat callers who just don’t understand. And a lot of people think we can just go and remove an animal based on what they tell us. They don’t understand we have to hear the owner’s side and gather evidence, and that takes time. And what they think is happening with an animal isn’t always true.”
Factors to mull
Cases are very rarely clear-cut, Ms. Schilb said. Many factors must be considered when an officer is deciding what to do in any particular situation.
“Each individual case is different,” she said. “We have to take everything into account when looking at animals. Can they function? Do they seem like they’re in pain? Are they old? You have to consider so many factors for each situation.”
Ms. Schilb offered up the example of her own Jack Russell terrier, Buddy. While he is thin and bony, he is also quite elderly at 18 years old. He eats well, has plenty of energy, and gets regular veterinary care.
“He looks terrible, but he’s fine,” Ms. Schilb said. “He’s getting all of the care he needs.”
But the emaciated condition of the 2-year-old Lab mix seized Wednesday appeared to be a result of neglect. Dubbed “Adelaide” at the time of her rescue — a French-derived name meaning “noble” — the dog had been kept outside with no food or water. Her only shelter from the winter chill was a plastic dog house with no insulation and a hole in the roof.
Ms. Schilb had visited the property twice before, first leaving her business card with a request that the owner get in touch and then a notice that she would seize the dog if not contacted within 24 hours.
“We can put on the notice whatever we want for a time frame,” Ms. Schilb said. “Because of how thin she was, the condition she was living in, and the cold temperatures, I wasn’t going to leave her for more than 24 hours. I wasn’t going to take the chance. If she was in good shape, I would have given more time.”
If an owner does not claim a pet within 10 days of the seizure, it legally becomes the humane society’s property.
“If they do contact us, we’ll try to get them to surrender the animal,” Ms. Schilb said. “But if they want to fight it, then we’ll go to court.”
Only in extreme circumstances can an officer immediately seize an animal without notifying the owner in advance.
“It would have to be pretty bad,” Ms. Schilb said, listing severe emaciation, obvious severe illness or injury, and extremely filthy living conditions as possible reasons for immediate seizure. “It really depends on the situation.”
In winter, many of the reports to the humane society involve dogs kept outside. According to Ohio law, as long as the animal is in good physical shape, has food, water, and suitable shelter, and isn’t cruelly confined, the owner is not breaking any law. The law does not differentiate among breeds or type of fur coat.
“I will make suggestions to improve the shelter or something like that if I think it’s needed,” Ms. Schilb said. “And we’ll go back later to check.”
Dealing with owners
The officers recognize that pet owners they visit in response to complaints are likely to be upset and defensive.
“We try to treat everybody with respect,” Ms. Schilb said. “I’m not going to go barging in and accusing people. I tell them what we were told, that I need to see [the animal], and maybe I can help. We want to offer help, not seize their animals. And sometimes there’s actually nothing wrong, but we got a report and have to check it out.”
The job is often frustrating and stressful and not everyone can handle that, Ms. Schilb said. But for the officers, the trade-off is the satisfaction of improving animals’ lives. “It’s rewarding to see the ones you can save get adopted,” Ms. Schilb said. “That’s why we do what we do.”