As an animal activist working tirelessly for stricter animal abuse penalties, Amherst resident Michael Smeck has seen some of the worst cases of animal abuse and, oftentimes, those responsible received little more than a slap on the wrist.
But on Sunday, animal advocates were one step closer to their ultimate goal of charging animal abusers with a felony with the passage of House Bill 90, otherwise known as Nitro’s Law.
Until Nitro’s Law, Ohio law provided only misdemeanor charges for kennel owners convicted of animal abuse. In 90 days, when the law goes into effect, kennel owners, operators and employees who are suspected of animal abuse could face first offense, fifth-degree felony charges.
The law would encompass any commercial business with a kennel license, including boarding, training, breeding and rescue facilities, although it would not affect a large breeding facility, or puppy mill.
The law, pushed by the Nitro Foundation, was signed by Gov. John Kasich as part of the budget after its passage in the state Senate by a 21-11 vote and the House with a 51-43 vote. The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Bob Hagan, D-Youngstown, and Rep. Ronald Gerberry, D-Austintown, was five years in the making, stalling in the Senate before its passage.
The proposal began with an anguished dog owner.
In 2008, Animal Charity humane agents raided a Youngstown kennel and found seven dead dogs and eight who were malnourished. Nitro, a rottweiler from New York, was one of the dogs boarded at High Caliber K-9 Kennel that died prior to the raid.
The owner of the kennel, Steven Croley, was sentenced to 30 days in jail, $1,746 in restitution and three years’ probation.
For Nitro’s owners, who thought Nitro was safe at High Caliber K-9 Kennel, the sentence was a disappointment, and they created the Nitro Foundation and lobbied to change animal abuse laws in Ohio.
The story of Nitro struck a chord with Smeck, who owns a rottweiler-shepherd mix.
“We raised him from a little puppy. He’s like family,” he said.
Smeck decided to join the cause in August 2011 by heading the push in Lorain County for the Nitro Foundation.
Smeck, who has been vocal at animal abuse trials, protested Monday outside of Lorain Municipal Court, hoping the judge would consider stricter charges against Emanuel Eisel, who is accused of fatally stabbing a border collie who growled at him.
Eisel’s case was bound over to the Lorain County grand jury for review, and the cruelty to animals charge, a second-degree misdemeanor, was updated to cruelty to companion animals, a first-degree misdemeanor. Eisel also is facing resisting arrest, obstructing official business, intimidation and vandalism charges in relation to the incident.
Smeck said cases like Eisel’s show that Ohio laws need updated. He also is working to implement a law against bestiality in Ohio — there is none — and to add companion animals to a domestic violence protection order.
“Now that (Nitro’s Law) is finally on the books, we can add to it,” he added.
Since his start two years ago, when he had trouble getting enough people out to a protest, Smeck said the public sentiment regarding animal abuse has really taken a turn.
Last year, Smeck had just four people outside the trial of Darlene Jacovetti, who was accused of animal abuse after she allegedly left her dog in a hot car for 15 minutes while she went shopping. That charge was later dismissed.
Now, with the help of the Lorain Pooch Patrol, and other local animal rights groups, Smeck said more people are coming to rallies and showing their support.
“I think people in Lorain County didn’t realize how much animal abuse there is. I think people are really fed up,” he said.
One of Smeck’s allies is Pat Fogo, an Elyria resident who started up the Pooch Patrol after Herbie, a pit bull mix, was found malnourished and neglected in Lorain.
Herbie, who was rescued and cared for by Lorain police Officer Richard Broz, died March 1 after a battle with medical issues and cancer. Fogo said Herbie propelled her to start the Pooch Patrol, although she had been involved with various animal groups in the past.
“Herbie really struck a chord with me because he was just thrown out on the side of the road like trash,” she said.
Fogo, who owns five rescued boxers, said her work with animals began at a young age. Her grandmother who raised her rescued several dogs.
“This was my way of continuing her legacy,” she said.
Fogo said she has gotten criticism from some people who ask her why she doesn’t focus on child abuse instead, but she said it’s important to be a “voice for the voiceless.”
“If people can learn how to treat animals, they will learn how to treat people better,” she said.
Fogo and Smeck, who were pleased with the outcome of Nitro’s Law, said there is still more to be done. The two are hoping to pass an all-inclusive law, which will encompass everyone, not just kennel owners.
Nitro’s owners, Liz Saab and Tom Siesto, issued a statement following news of the passage of Nitro’s Law.
“Finally, after all these years of losing Nitro so horrifically in 2008, Nitro and his kennel mates will be able to rest in peace. Their deaths are not in vain, this law will make a huge difference and be built upon to include more and more for the protection of our companion animals — our family members,” they said. “We can’t begin to thank all the people who helped to make this happen. Thank you to all of the people who joined our grassroots effort and never gave up, all who stuck with us through thick and thin.”
Contact Chelsea Miller at 329-7123 or firstname.lastname@example.org.