By Kathy Antoniotti
Beacon Journal staff writer
Local health officials and animal control officers descended on a local animal rescue agency Tuesday and removed 70 cats and 38 dogs that were being kept in alleged filthy conditions inside the home.
Heaven Can Wait rescue agency, which operates out of a house on Vesper Street in North Akron, was condemned Tuesday because of the unsanitary conditions found inside the home, said Jodie Forester, sanitarian supervisor for the Akron Health Department. Some of the animals were not in cages.
''There is dried, raw sewage in the basement and old animal food and feces through the residence,'' Forester said.
Heather Nagel, the rescue group's founder and executive director, defended the shelter and said the raid is jeopardizing the health of some of the dogs and cats housed inside the 1,800-square-foot house.
She said the interior descriptions of filth are being exaggerated and that the animals were well cared for — some at a cost of $1,000 for medical needs.
The raid, she said, came prior to the volunteer group's daily cleaning and that any waste had accumulated since 7 p.m. Monday, when the last cleanup and feeding occurred.
She said her group, founded six years ago, serves as advocates for dogs and cats.
''I do find it offensive,'' Nagel said of the raid and allegations. ''If you went to them [Humane Society or the pound], before cage cleanings, you're going to find pee and poo in a crate.''
Nagel conceded that her group does not have a kennel license and, therefore, is prohibited by the city from housing more than four dogs. She said the poor economy, however, has brought a rush of stray cats and dogs.
Humane Society officers and rescue workers gathered caged animals from the porch of the house and placed them inside vans for transport to a facility on Quick Road in Boston Township, where the animals' health and temperament will be assessed.
''Some of these animals are going to need immediate medical care,'' said Humane Society Executive Director Karen Conklin, who was outside the house overseeing rescue efforts.
She said she got a call for help Tuesday morning from the Akron Police Department.
''We have an agreement with APD that if they go into a house with animals and need help, they can call us,'' Conklin said.
She said she called Summit County Executive Russ Pry's office and asked for help transporting the animals. The county sent vans from its animal shelter, Conklin said.
Akron Law Director Max Rothal said there is a long history involving the property, including several letters his office sent to Nagel's attorney. He said no one was living in the home.
Several neighbors witnessing the removal of the animals came to the defense of Heaven Can Wait but refused to give their names.
James Tomlinson, who has lived next door to the house for more than two years, said the problems Heaven Can Wait faces are ''two-sided'' and suggested the legal action by the health department Tuesday was retaliation for Nagel's recent involvement with the recall efforts against Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic.
''She was for the mayor's recall. The house had orders [from the Health Department] before [Heaven Can Wait] got here, and she is politically involved,'' Tomlinson said of Nagel.
Nagel is running in the November election for an at-large city council seat. She would not comment on whether she believes the raid was timed to harm her candidacy.
She said the raid came without warning. The last contact she had with the city, she said, was in September, when she was told to make exterior repairs or face a $100 fine.
Nagel also said each animal has been examined by a veterinarian prior to being made available for adoption. She worries that some of the animals will not receive their medications.
''I've never been a quiet member of society, and I've done it for the right reasons all along because of the animals needing homes,'' Nagel said.
''I think there's a lot of factors that have gone into why this happened. If it had been properly handled, I don't think this would have taken place today.''
Plusquellic said he wasn't aware of the raid until Tuesday afternoon and didn't know a complaint had been filed involving Nagel's property.
''I never mentioned it or said, 'Go do this,' or anything,'' Plusquellic said.
Tomlinson said the rescue agency is doing good work and is a good neighbor.
''You get a small smell once in a while. I said something once, and they turned the air vent in a different direction,'' he said.
Kathy Fichter of Barberton said she and her five children have been volunteering at the agency for a year and a half after adopting a dog from the Summit County Animal Shelter.
They come once or twice a week to clean cages and play with the pets.
''We adopted a black Lab, and you see their faces and know you can't help them all. We knew we wanted to make a difference,'' she said of her involvement.
Fichter said someone is in the house cleaning cages every day. The strong odor, which reached the tree lawn each time the door opened, didn't bother her or her children.
''There are a lot of animals in there. There is going to be an odor. They use air cleaners, and the animals are very happy here,'' she said.
Forester said the property had orders from the Health Department for years, but the department has been denied access to the house at least four times in the past year.
The last time it was inspected was February 2008, she said.
Forester said she asked for a warrant Tuesday based on the smell outside the house. Akron Municipal Judge Stephen A. Fallis signed it Tuesday morning.
''The probable cause was the smell. The property has deteriorated on the inside and outside since then [the last inspection],'' she said.
Volunteers from One of a Kind Pets were also helping load animals into vans headed to the Humane Society. They were assessing how many of the animals they could accept in the West Market Street agency after they were cleared by the Humane Society.
''Two years ago you would never have had this agency cooperation,'' Conklin said.
''They would have been struggling with this on their own,'' she said.
Kathy Antoniotti can be reached at 330-996-3565 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writer Phil Trexler contributed to this report.
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