Former dog warden warns: watch out for pit bullsWritten by Brandi Barhite | Community Ombudsman | firstname.lastname@example.org
Former dog warden Tom Skeldon loves people, not animals.
And while he believes that cost him his job with the county, he still believes the lesson he learned from his father was right.
Phil Skeldon was the first paid director of the Toledo Zoo. One day, the young Tom Skeldon noticed the gibbon, Blondie, and her baby were gone.
The elder Skeldon said the apes had died and no one knew why. He invited him to the autopsy.
When Tom started crying during the procedure, his father delivered a message that would help shape his career.
“Look at it; you respect these animals, you take good care of them, you treat them well, you learn from them, someday you may earn your living from taking care of animals like this, but you don’t love animals,” his father said. “Because if you love animals, you are going to get your heart broken all the time and you won’t be able to survive. You won’t be able to do the job and make the decisions that are required.”
Skeldon lived by this message in the U.S. Air Force, where he trained dogs in Vietnam, and later as he directed a small zoo in Wilmington, Del., trained dogs in the Philippines and served as Lucas County Dog Warden.
Even though he resigned Jan. 31 amid media and political pressure for euthanizing too many dogs, including pit bulls, he is still worried — about people.
He has a warning.
“This spring, summer, fall, here in Toledo, there will be a number of people mauled, maimed, disfigured and there may be somebody killed by a pit bull,” Skeldon said. “Now, it never happened in the 22 years I was dog warden, and part of that is luck, but part is that we had created a persona where the people with these dogs knew there would be consequences.”
Ohio law says “dogs commonly known as pit bulls” are inherently vicious and subject to certain regulations. The law went into effect three months before Skeldon became dog warden in October 1987.
Toledo’s law — recently declared unconstitutional by Judge Michael Goulding — limits residents to owning one “pit bull” or “pit bull” mix and requires owners to keep their animal leashed and muzzled when not on their property. A violation is a first-degree misdemeanor offense, which is compromised by the judge’s ruling, Skeldon said.
“Some little kid is going to pay the price,” he said. “The word is out in the City of Toledo — the dog warden is no longer enforcing the laws and we can do what we want.”
Not a good pet
Skeldon is also worried about the Toledo Area Humane Society board reversing its long-standing policy on adopting pit bulls. The first pit bull was recently adopted; a second adoption is in the works. Skeldon said this new policy, coupled with the city’s vicious dog law being in limbo will make the pit bull problem worse.
John Dinon, executive director of the humane society, said several safeguards are in place before a pit bull is adopted, including an industry-standard temperament test and pre-adopt visits. The staff also educates potential owners about the city and state laws.
Dinon serves on the Lucas County Dog Warden Advisory Committee, which has been asked to draft a new dangerous dog ordinance.
“We expect to have a draft ready next week,” Dinon said May 19.
“We are really looking at dog behavior and owner responsibility. We want it to be preventative.”
Dinon said when Skeldon retired and Julie Lyle took his place, people might have worried about public safety. But they don’t need to be.
“We are really working hard to be a safe community … the deputies are still the same folks,” he said.
Lyle said her staff is only enforcing the state law, not the city law, which limits her options. For instance, state law allows for owning more than one pit bull.
“We need people to use caution when they see stray dogs. We need people to alert us to problems. We cannot solve problems if we don’t know about them.”
She used to work for the humane society in Marquette County, Mich., where pit bull adoptions were allowed. The Lucas County dog pound is not adopting out pit bulls, but it provides a limited number of pit bulls to the humane society.
“We offer ones that we consider safe, no health problems and no behavioral issues,” Lyle said.
Skeldon said no one can convince him that pit bulls make good family pets.
The No. 1 biting dog is the pit bull and, since 1982, there has never been a year where pit bulls didn’t account for about half of fatal and disfiguring attacks, he said.
“Pit bulls are bred to grab ahold, hang on, shake and not let go. They are bred to kill. And they are very, very good at it.”
Skeldon said he can train dogs, including pit bulls, but the average person who gets a pit bull is not a professional.
“Many people who have pit bulls view them as renewable resources, throwaway dogs, a means to an ends whether that is protecting my drug house, winning in a dog fight, just having the macho, toughest dog in town or breeding them to sell them to people who want them for those reasons,” Skeldon said.
Dawn Capp, director of Chako Pit Bull Rescue in California, said pit bulls have historically been called the “nanny dog” because they are good with children. She grew up with pit bulls. Her siblings rode their dogs like horses.
But dogs are dogs, Capp said, and parents should always watch children around any type of dog. She had a friend whose son ended up in the ER because of a Chihuahua.
“Pit bulls are basically dogs,” Capp said. “You just have to remember they have a terrier lineage and a pit dog lineage. It is important to evaluate that individual dog is a match for your family.”
Bred to kill
Skeldon was told by his superior, County Administrator Michael Beazley, not to speak to the press during the tumultuous year that led to his resignation.
But he had a lot to say.
When Skeldon became dog warden, he asked then-Lucas County Prosecutor Anthony Pizza about enforcing the law.
He was told if a vicious dog is improperly confined and he comes upon it, don’t leave the situation until the owner has put the dog away correctly or the dog is seized.
In that first year, Skeldon and his staff seized about 350 pit bulls, the next year, 140 and then 90, until it was down to 50 in 1993. It then began to rise again because of an increase in gang and cocaine activity.
“We were lionized for our stance on protecting the public and then we became the villains for doing what we have been doing since 1987,” he said.
Skeldon said the recent pit bull attacks in Toledo, including the one April 18 when a girl on the East Side was badly bitten, are a precursor for what is to come. As dog warden, he responded to pit bull bites each year, but they usually didn’t happen until May, when the weather generally gets nicer.
“On the street in Toledo, what is being enforced, and not being enforced, is pretty quickly known by people who would like to break the law,” he said.
In an editorial in Animal People newspaper, Merritt Clifton commended Skeldon for cutting the volume of shelter killing of dogs in Lucas County by 77 percent — a little better than the improvement in the national rate during the same years.
He wrote that critics “howled” that 54 percent of the dogs Skeldon killed in recent years were pit bulls. Yet the national figure in 2008 was 58 percent and, under Skeldon, the Lucas County rate of killing pit bulls per 1,000 people was 2.9, compared to 3.2 for the U.S., he said.
Skeldon was also outspoken on spaying and neutering when it was unacceptable for animal control directors to tell people to fix animals, Clifton said. Skeldon also fought against the use of the decompression chamber, which was a painful, although efficient, way to kill a large amount of dogs at one time.
“Tom was very much instrumental in changing that paradigm — trying to find ways to give animals a chance that might not otherwise might not have them,” Clifton told Toledo Free Press.
Skeldon, 62, is settling into retirement. He will receive his first Social Security check next month — something far from his mind during the media storm last year.
“It was harder on my family than me, my brothers, sisters and wife,” he said. “We are a big family and none of us have ever gotten rich serving the people of Toledo, but yet we have served the people of Toledo for four generations.”
Lucas County Commissioner Ben Konop said he doesn’t regret pursuing the dog warden and his policies. Change was needed.
“We are definitely heading in the right direction. I would say that Ms. Lyle has come into a very difficult, difficult situation and has done a really remarkable job in a short amount of time. Just in a month, the live release rate has gone up from about 39 percent to 54 percent.
“My concern with the dog warden is that too many adoptable dogs were getting killed and the killing of these dogs had no relation to public safety. What Julie has demonstrated in her first month is that reducing the kill rate at the pound and public safety are not mutually exclusive. You can do both.”
Konop does not have pet because of a policy at his condo. He said his childhood dog, Ernie, was adopted from the pound.
Skeldon said Lucas County Commissioner Pete Gerken took him to lunch in November and asked him to resign.
“Gerken sat me down at lunch and said, ‘It is not going to stop. They are just going to hammer you and hammer you and hammer you.’”
“The only politician who stood up for me, even in private, was Pete Gerken,” Skeldon said. “I didn’t get any other backing. Privately, some people who were not in my chain of command would give me a smile or a hug, but not come out publicly and say anything.”
Gerken said Skeldon served several commissioners, who found his work to be professional. He was dedicated in his view that the job was law enforcement, which he was told to do.
“I don’t fault him for not going beyond the charge. His mission was always to keep people safe,” Gerken said.
Skeldon said he wanted to retire at the end of 2011 to make sure he had a good enough nest egg to send his 17-year-old daughter to college. He and his wife, Fanny, adopted Danielle because they couldn’t have children after his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.
“I am not rich, but I am OK,” Skeldon said. “The house is paid for. We have always lived frugally. Both cars are paid for.”
What helped is Skeldon paid $200 per paycheck from 1992 to 2001 to buy his federal government time and military time. So instead of retiring with 22 and a half years, he retired with 31 and half.
One of the first things he did after retiring as dog warden was take off to the Philippines, where he served two tours in the Peace Corps.
“I stayed at my wife’s cousin’s house, went scuba diving twice per day, ate a lot of good food,” he said.
When he returned, he felt like he was stealing. He was used to getting up and going to work every day. These days, he is sleeping better, though.
“I would find myself watching the news at 11 and getting a little uptight before I went to bed, but then I would say to myself, ‘Wait a minute, you aren’t going to work tomorrow. You don’t have to deal with the union, you don’t have to deal with the politicians, you don’t have to deal with the press and you don’t have to deal with the drug dealers’.”
Barb Knapp, president of Ohio County Dog Wardens Association, said Skeldon is still the go-to person for pit bulls and court cases. She gets calls from dog wardens asking for him.
“Everybody makes dog wardens out to be dog haters … you need to have rules for people who own these type of dogs; the people are the ones who are going to make these dogs mean,” she said. “Our job, and people seem to forget that, is to protect the public.”
Knapp has seen older pit bulls who act sweetly, but lunge at other dogs when they walk by.
Skeldon is afraid that is going to become more prevalent in Toledo — or worse, pit bulls will also lunge at human beings.
“I love people — that was probably my undoing,” Skeldon said.