As a former Shelter Director who has borne the brunt of criticism more than once during my time caring for animals in an open-intake environment, it pains me to write this article. However, when a wrong is committed on the magnitude and scale that was committed at the Franklin County Dog Shelter in Columbus, Ohio last week, I have no choice but to speak up and write this important article.

You see, over the past week, countless unimaginable wrongs were committed under the roof of the multi-million dollar county dog shelter — wrongs which resulted in the senseless killing of nearly 100 healthy dogs after ONE positive distemper test result.

pit bull puppy

Source: Pixabay

Throughout the following week (which was arguably the most dysfunctional week in shelter history), county leadership ignored public outcry, misled constituents, and shut out groups and individuals who stood by with open arms to help the shelter during this period.

Sadly, Franklin County officials have a lengthy track record of arrogantly believing that the public deserves no voice in how our county’s animals should be cared for while at the Franklin County Dog Shelter.

Let me be clear in my outrage with some additional context.

By September 10th, ONE dog had tested positive for distemper. Just one. And in response, on September 10th alone, at least 52 dogs were immediately euthanized. Please keep in mind that none of these dogs were tested for distemper.

Only after the public mobilized in outrage and demanded answers did Shelter Director Don Winstel finally provide any explanation. He claimed the dogs were killed because they were classified as “high risk,” mostly due to behavior – behavior which, according to Winstel, made them “unlikely to be able to handle a quarantine period.”

Related: Hundreds Of Dogs In Montreal Shelters Will Be Killed Under New Law

They didn’t have a contagious, life-threatening disease. They weren’t suffering so badly that euthanasia was the most humane option. It was simply assumed that if they were quarantined, their behavior would deteriorate to a point that they would need to be euthanized.

dog shelter protest

Protesters at the Franklin County Dog Shelter. Source: Alisha Westerman

Among those killed was a litter of eight puppies and their mother, Grace. The puppies were brought to the shelter to be surrendered while a rescue organization stood at the door ready to intercept them. The reputable rescue has worked closely with the shelter for a long time, pulling dogs weekly and providing them with excellent care. The rescue was equipped with a veterinarian and a medical plan to quarantine the dogs.

The rescue was turned away in the front lobby; the dogs were instead brought into the contaminated environment where they would be killed less than 12 hours later at the command of Director Don Wintsel.

stray dogs

Source: Pexels

In the days that followed, Director Don Winstel and county officials (particularly Commissioner John O’Grady) spent their time ignoring questions, ignoring protests, and backpedaling while trying to cover up their own mistakes with half-truths and weak deflection tactics.

It should be noted that distemper is a highly contagious infection that can be fatal, and like most things, prevention is the key.

That means VACCINATE YOUR PETS.

You, as the owners. First and foremost.

However, not everybody does or ever will vaccinate their pets, and open-intake shelters have absolutely no idea what will come through their doors.

Which is exactly why shelter protocols — put together using the latest industry standards and expert studies, to make sure that the most humane decisions are made that keep both the animals and the public safe — are absolutely critical.

dog shelter euthanize

Protesters at the Franklin County Dog Shelter. Source: Alisha Westerman

But according to Kaye Dickson, the former Franklin County Dog Shelter Director (from March 2015 to March 2016), “the county had absolutely no protocols or procedures in place for dealing with infectious disease control.” Dickson, who was praised by county officials when she was hired AND when she resigned her post in order to run for Sheriff, said,

“Had I still been in charge as Director, I would have immediately notified the public (regardless of county approval) and then immediately contacted the advocate and rescue community for an emergency conference to discuss best next steps.”

However, in talking to shelter staff, and veterinarians contracted with the Franklin County Dog Shelter who wished to remain anonymous, requests had been sent to County officials for TWO YEARS to implement an infectious control policy. Those requests were ignored.

dog shelter protest

Protesters at the Franklin County Dog Shelter. Source: Alisha Westerman

If we want to change things for the better at the Franklin County Dog Shelter, it is critical that we direct that frustration at the guilty parties: in this case, Director Don Winstel and Franklin County Commissioner John O’Grady.

Let me explain why.

Director Winstel ran the Franklin County Dog Shelter from 2009 to 2011. During his reign as Director he euthanized more dogs than any other Director in nearly 10 years. He openly discriminated against pit bulls — in fact, the majority of the thousands of dogs he euthanized each year were healthy, happy dogs Winstel visually identified as “pit bulls”.

Related: Reading This Redefined How We Think About Pit Bulls

So what were their crimes? Why did they deserve to die? According to Winstel, simply because they were born as blocky-headed wiggle butts.

stoic pit bull

Source: Pixabay

But the even more critical reason that so many of us are outraged: distemper.

I spoke to Dr. Ellen Jefferson about distemper in shelters. Dr. Jefferson is the Executive Director of Austin Pets Alive, the largest No-Kill City and community in the United States, with an outstanding 94.7% save rate for the city’s dogs and cats. Dr. Jefferson is a featured speaker at conferences for Maddie’s Fund, Best Friends Animal Society, and the No Kill Advocacy Center.

Here is what Dr. Jefferson said about distemper in shelters:

“Distemper is a devastating disease, but it can be effectively managed and limited in a shelter, especially with the help of the community. Although it enters a shelter through a community dog, it is a shelter (or densely populated area) disease. Dogs are generally immune if they have had vaccines on board for at least 2 weeks. Separating dogs into areas based on vaccine status can help, as well as removing any obviously ill dogs into foster if possible and resident dogs are fully vaccinated. You can’t take it lightly, but killing because of exposure is no longer acceptable. The old days of depopulating ‘to be safe’ are thankfully over.”

dog in shelter cage

Source: Pixabay

I also spoke to Dr. Katy Nelson about distemper. Dr. Katy Nelson is an associate veterinarian at the Belle Haven Animal Medical Centre in Alexandria, VA. as well as the host and executive producer of “The Pet Show with Dr. Katy” on Washington D.C.’s News Channel 8. She also serves as a pet health expert on numerous national television shows, including Nat Geo Wild, and serves as the Medical Director of Pet Health for Live In the Now.

Dr. Katy said, “No shelter is immune to viral disease outbreaks, and an outbreak of a disease like distemper is a lot of work to manage. But depopulation of an entire population of exposed, but possibly healthy dogs, is much harder to handle. Depopulation is a very formal way of saying ‘mass euthanasia,’ and is only ONE solution in a viral outbreak within a shelter…and should always be considered the final solution after all other methods have been exhausted. Shelters need to know that there are resources available and should feel comfortable asking for help. Ignoring an illness, and not informing the community of what is occurring, is not only harmful to a shelter’s reputation, but to the community itself.”

Finally, as a former Shelter Director, I turned to one of my own expert sources: the University of California, Davis and the Koret Shelter Medicine Program. Regarding distemper, the Shelter Medicine Program says,

“..Not all exposed dogs will become infected. Due to varying levels of maternal antibody, it is not even uncommon for only some members of a litter to develop disease. The risk of infection depends on the animal’s individual immune and vaccination status, the overall cleanliness of the environment and the level of proximity between the exposed and infected animal.

“The most important factor in disease risk is vaccination: a ‘fully’ vaccinated animal over four months of age is at very low risk of CDV infection. However, even incompletely vaccinated animals may survive a possible exposure…. If a single case occurs in an area where all animals have been vaccinated and environmental spread risk is deemed low based on the above listed factors, further steps to mitigate risk may not be necessary.”

The Shelter Medicine Program’s information sheet continues,

“Dogs with no current or historical clinical signs can be tested for antibody titers. In these dogs, a positive titer indicates probable protection even if they have been exposed to the virus…. Asymptomatic adult dogs testing positive for protective titers are at low risk for developing distemper infection. It is reasonable to move these dogs through the shelter as usual rather than placing them in quarantine.

Related: 5 Things I Wish You Knew Before Euthanizing Your Dog

“Interpretation of titers in dogs < 5 months of age is a little less clear-cut, as positive titers may reflect either an active immune response or waning maternal antibody. Puppies testing positive are likely low risk but this is less certain than with adults and immunity may rapidly wane. These puppies are relatively safe to move to adoption or rescue…

“Establishing risk categories for exposed animals also limits the number of dogs who need quarantine, isolation, or special rescue. When the number who would need something special falls to only those who are truly at risk, often the situation turns quickly from unimaginable to manageable.”

euthanization protest

A protester at the Franklin County Dog Shelter. Source: Alisha Westerman

Here is the series of events that led to the unnecessary euthanization of 99 dogs:

August 31st: A dog named Maya (patient zero) was humanely euthanized at the Franklin County Dog Shelter. Adopted and returned, Maya was very sick and it was suspected that she had distemper, so tests were sent out. At this point the shelter does nothing to inform the public, or even shelter volunteers (I should know, I am one) who come into the shelter regularly.

September 3rd: Test results come back positive for one case of distemper. County KNEW FOR SURE. Shelter announces sale (?!) — $18 adoption fee, 100 dogs adopted out to the public.

September 4th-5th: Shelter Dog Adoption Sale continues despite shelter and county knowledge that a dog tested positive for distemper.

September 4th: Shelter hosts public adoption event “Mingle With The Mutts,” exposing more public dogs, and dogs from rescues who attend the event to help get their own dogs adopted (or in this case, infected). Shelter also attends community dog event, “Yappy Hour” with four shelter dogs and many rescue dogs and public dogs, all drinking out of the same water bowls and congregating together.

September 5th: Shelter does NOTHING.

September 6th: Shelter does NOTHING.

September 7th: Shelter does NOTHING.

September 8th: Shelter began consulting with “experts” and informed the public. Those experts refuse to come forward to this day to back what the shelter did next… FIVE DAYS after doing absolutely nothing.

September 9th-11th: Shelter closes, begins mass euthanasia of “high-risk” dogs. High risk dogs include dogs “whose behavior assumes they would not be able to handle a quarantine period.”

September 10th: 52 dogs euthanized. Virtually every dog euthanized did not test positive for distemper. Almost every dog was euthanized because it was presumed their behavior would not handle a quarantine period.

September 16th: Shelter tests all the dogs in the facility, utilizing the University of Wisconsin’s School of Veterinary Medicine.

September 16th-21st: 48 more dogs euthanized, bringing the total number euthanized to 99.

September 21st: University of Wisconsin’s School of Veterinary Medicine test results come back after all dogs were finally tested for distemper. All 137 tests have come back negative. The quarantine period that most dogs were preemptively killed for wasn’t necessary once the dogs were tested.

September 22nd: Shelter re-opens.

happy pit bull

Source: David Wood / Flickr

When asked by local media how this situation could have been handled better, Director Wintsel replied, “I can’t come up with a specific thing we should have done differently.” 

If you’d like to help local advocates as they continue to fight these practices, consider signing this Peace for Paws Ohio petition, which will be sent to Commissioners John O’Grady, Marilyn Brown, and Paula Brooks.


Header image via Rafael Castillo / Flickr

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