Friday, August 1, 2014

The Removal of Joe Rock

Revised: August 1, 2014, 00:47 GMT
Revised: August 3, 2014; 22:39 GMT
Revised: August 6, 2014; 13:50 GMT

. . .  I realized that the only way to end it, once and for all, in Ohio was to remove Tom Skeldon. That became my mission and consumed much of my time for about two years.

Tom Skeldon . . . had gained a Hitleresque reputation as an out & out “dog killer”.

The fall of Skeldon turned the tide. Old time dog wardens who supported him began to be silenced . . . .

For those readers who have been on the moon for the last few years, Tom Skeldon served as the Lucas County, Ohio, dog warden from 1987 until his resignation under pressure on December 31, 2009.

The comments above are excerpted from an interview with Jean Keating and Dawn Stretar,1 both of whom were instrumental in removing Skeldon from office. Skeldon's departure made it possible for Keating and Stretar, along with two other Toledo-area pit bull advocates, Representative Barbara Spears and John Robinson Block,2 to concentrate their efforts on overturning Ohio's law that defined pit bulls as inherently vicious.

The comments of Keating and Stretar, made during the long battle to silence Skeldon and following his departure,  are characterized by a self-righteousness that transcends simple arrogance. The campaign to remove Mr Skeldon had become so charged with anger that there is a disturbing personal meanness in the comments of the Toledo advocates. The messianic intensity so often apparent in pit bull advocacy is unrestrained; the self-consciousness, the inner watchdog that helps us behave civilly, humanely, is nowhere in evidence.

Jean Keating                                       Rep. Barbara Sears

Franklin County

Ohio's Franklin county commissioners were warned in 2008 that the county dog shelter (FCDS) was adopting out sick and vicious dogs. Overcrowding, mismanagement, and disease crippled the shelter. The director and assistant director were removed and Donald P. Winstel stepped in as acting director. Joe Rock was appointed Assistant Director of the shelter and took over as Director of FCDS when Winstel retired in 2011.

In 2012, through the efforts of Representative Sears, Mr Block, and others, Ohio state law was changed and pit bulls were no longer considered inherently vicious. This change had profound ramifications for Ohio's dog wardens, many of whom were suddenly given the choice of adopting out pit bulls or transferring them to pit bull rescue organizations.

Rock's job became far more complex.  There were accusations that Dr. Vincent Morton, the shelter veterinarian, and Rock were euthanizing too many pit bulls. Shelter volunteers and pit bull advocates led by Elizabeth Lessner claimed that Morton provoked dogs to aggression to mark them for euthanasia. Lessner and other advocates began to apply pressure on the county commissioners, which quickly escalated in the spring of 2014. In March the FCDS was placed under the jurisdiction of Deputy County Administrator Erik Janas, perhaps with the portfolio of quelling the troubling controversy. Then events escalated:
  • March: Within days of his appointment Janas launches a "routine review" of shelter operations
  • April 8: Franklin County commissioner Marilyn Brown announces that a formal investigation is underway
  • April 14: Rock is placed on administrative leave
  • April 23: Rock is fired by Janas
Janas told the press the "county commissioners were privately briefed" on the day Rock was fired. Rock served at the pleasure of the commissioners, said Janas, and could be fired at any time.

It's difficult to imagine how Ms Lessner found the time to manage this putsch. She is best known as the restaurateur behind the Columbus Food League, a collection of popular restaurants.  She is the operator of Eartha Limited, a waste diversion business that helps restaurants recycle food scraps. She sits on boards and commissions. She manages her own extensive websites, one of which has dozens of pages devoted to the FCDS.3  Ms Lessner is an important person, and after her Best Columbus Champion of 2013 award she was a person who is listened to by an Assistant Deputy Commissioner.

Ms Lessner has posted numerous photos of her own and others' pit bulls on her websites. The following image was recently posted on Lessner's Tumblr page with the caption: Wally likes to get his entire mouth around Dottie’s head while she naps.

Lucas County Redux

In April of 2010, three months after the departure of Mr Skeldon as Lucas County Dog Warden, Julie Lyle took over the helm. Ms Keating, Mr Block, and Representative Sears all expressed confidence in Ms Lyle's leadership.

Then in the early spring of 2014 someone learned that pit bulls were still being euthanized under Ms Lyle's leadership, and suddenly all eyes are focused on the warden again. The euthanized dogs, mostly pit bulls, became aggressive when their food source was threatened and thus were considered unadoptable.  A number of dogs with resource guarding issues were enrolled in a pilot program, with hopes that these dogs could be rehabilitated and successfully adopted out.

Nearly a dozen articles on the resource guarding at the Lucas County shelter appeared in Mr Block's newspaper. The food guarding trials occupied city council and the dog shelter for the better part of three months this spring, and still there was no clear resolution. Ms Lyle should be polishing her resumé.

Rising Expectations

In other words, the dog shelter also is a fishbowl, where everything is under scrutiny.
Columbus Dispatch, May 24, 2014

Truer words were never spoken, especially after the precedent set in Lucas County of allowing pit bull advocates to establish policy.

The terms of employment for dog wardens have suddenly been turned upside down. Instead of meeting the needs of their communities and their animal wards, they must first of all satisfy the demands of the local pit bull advocates. This puts the wardens in the position of balancing the unrealistic expectation of radical advocates, who are interested primarily in saving every pit bull from euthanasia, with the realities of a dramatically altered legal landscape. The advocates demonstrate little or no awareness of testing for canine aggression,4 nor interest in the realities of sheltering and euthanasia.5 They are unconcerned by the increased liability shelters now face due to the dramatic spike in attacks by rehomed shelter dogs, primarily pit bulls:
The number of fatal or disfiguring attacks involving U.S. shelter dogs rose to 10 in a year for the first time in 2009, soared to 18 in 2010, leveled off at 11 in 2011 and 13 in 2012, then shot up to 27 in 2013––and 34 in just the first half of 2014.

Thirty-five shelter dogs, including 24 pit bulls, seven bull mastiffs, a Lab who might have been part pit, two Rottweilers, and a husky, have participated in killing people since 2010.
   ~~Animals 24-7, June 23, 2014
Instead of firing Mr Rock, the Franklin County Commissioners should honor him, for protecting the people of Franklin County and their more vulnerable animal companions. And for protecting the county from liability.


As this post was nearing completion Rebecca Katz, the director of the San Francisco Department of Animal Care & Control, posted a farewell note on the department's Facebook page, announcing her removal by the county administrator. The gracious post was quickly removed by the county, but not before it was captured and reposted on news sites.

Ms Katz was removed from her position in circumstances nearly identical to the firing of Mr Rock. Ms Katz was also fired without notice by the County Administrator. Both Mr Rock and Ms Katz had reduced the euthanasia rates at their respective shelters during their tenures, while at the same time increasing the number of adoptions. They both had sterling performance evaluations from their superiors. Nonetheless, both Mr Rock and Ms Katz drew the ire of radical advocates for euthanizing too many animals.6 In Franklin County, Mr Rock was removed specifically for euthanizing too many aggressive pit bulls.

* * * * *

1  Ohio ends BSL after 25 years; Dog Star Daily (March 15, 2012). Jean Keating, President of Lucas County Pit Crew & President of Ohio Coalition of Dog Advocates and Dawn Stretar, Vice-President of the Ohio Coalition of Dog Advocates.
2  John Robinson Block is the Publisher of the Toledo Blade. Block also publishes the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
3  One of Ms Lessner's web sites,,  is devoted to pit bulls. The pages on Corndogs were used in Ms Lessner's campaign against Mr Rock and the FCDS. Corndogs includes numerous internal documents from the shelter which purportedly show malfeasance. A number of pages are password-protected and available only to supporters of the campaign to remove Rock.
4  See Testing
5  See Like a Dog
6  For a comprehensive report on the firing of Ms Katz, including commentary on the No-Kill movement, see recent articles in Animals 24/7, including:

Sources: The removal of Joe Rock

Reynoldsburg council refuses to repeal pit-bull ban
   July 29, 2014; Columbus Dispatch

Franklin County likely will move on replacing animal shelter chief
   June 8, 2014; Columbus Dispatch

Dogged by problems: County’s animal shelter needs a leader who can end the chaos
   May 24, 2014; Columbus Dispatch (Editorial)

Franklin County dog-shelter director ousted
   April 25, 2014; Columbus Dispatch

Vet at Franklin County dog shelter under scrutiny
   April 19, 2014; Columbus Dispatch

Franklin County Dog Shelter director suspended during investigation
   April 16, 2014; Columbus Dispatch

Are pit bulls why more shelter dogs fail adoption test?
   April 11, 2014; Columbus Dispatch

Vet at Franklin County dog shelter under scrutiny
   April 9, 2014; Columbus Dispatch

Pit bulls clog shelters
   August 19, 2013; Columbus Dispatch

Kill rates vary widely at Ohio shelters
   October 21, 2012; Columbus Dispatch

Sources: Food guarding controversy
at Lucas County shelter

Shelter plans study on dogs that guard food
   May 27, 2014; Toledo Blade

More food guarders killed than saved 
Lucas County’s free-feeding program for dogs draws criticism
   April 28, 2014; Toledo Blade

Test a life-or-death matter for shelter dogs
Blade will publish exam scores for canines killed
   March 17, 2014; Toledo Blade

Food guarder killed in error
2 dogs put in pilot program
   March 12, 2014; Toledo Blade

Free-feeding to start at once for dog shelter's food guarders
   March 4, 2014; Toledo Blade

Food guarder reform proposed
   Feb 27, 2014; Toledo Blade

Dogs still die despite vow for change
   February 26, 2014; Toledo Blade

Shelter still killing dogs that guard their food
   February 24, 2014; Toledo Blade

Guarding food dooms dogs housed at pound
   February 16, 2014: Toledo Blade

Sources: The removal of Rebecca Katz 

Author of San Francisco ordinance requiring pit bull sterilization appears to be victim of militant advocates
   July 29, 2014; Animal People

Rebecca Katz out as head of SF Animal Care and Control
   July 29, 2014; San Francisco Examiner

Rebecca Katz, Ousted Animal Control Director
   July 28, 2014; San Francisco Weekly

Head of S.F. Animal Care and Control 'asked to leave'
   July 28, 2014;

Elizabeth Lessner:
Columbus Underground: Best Columbus Champion of 2013
Elizabeth Lessner; Corndogs
Elizabeth Lessner; There are no vicious breeds

Resources on Euthanasia & Sheltering:

Pit bulls were 32% of US shelter inventory in June 2014
   Animals 24-7, July 5, 2014

Stamford shelter manager is first in U.S. to be charged with reckless endangerment for rehoming dangerous dogs
   Animals 24-7, June 23, 2014

Fitchburg (MA) becomes third public shelter to suspend operations due to liability concerns about pit bulls
   Animals 24-7, June 18, 2014

Why do shelters with empty cages kill animals at night?
   Animals 24-7, June 13, 2014

We cannot adopt our way out of shelter killing
   Animals 24-7, March 12, 2014

Shelter Killing Report, 2013

Like a Dog (SRUV)