Authorities seized more than a dozen dogs Tuesday from a controversial shelter in Elliott County that the owner describes as a sanctuary for discarded animals but critics deride as an overcrowded mess where dogs don’t receive adequate care.
Representatives of an animal-rescue group in Ohio took 14 dogs and three kittens from the facility, which Randy Skaggs operates through a non-profit organization called the Trixie Foundation.
Kentucky State Police, the state Department of Agriculture and the Elliott County animal-control officer were present for the removal.
Members of the rescue group and a veterinarian looked at the scores of animals and chose which ones to take based on which ones allegedly needed medical care most urgently.
The rescue group loaded the animals in crates and planned to take them to a vet.
Skaggs said there was no justification for taking the animals.
"Their concern isn't about fairness or my day in court, their concern is about shutting us down," Skaggs said. "It's a witch hunt."
State police charged Skaggs, 66, in early March with 179 counts of cruelty to animals and 179 counts of failing to have dogs vaccinated for rabies.
The cruelty charges, all misdemeanors, were based in part on the conditions at the facility in rural Elliott County, according to the citation. Skaggs is scheduled to appear in court May 24.
Members of the rescue organization, All Dogs Come From Heaven Rescue, looked over the animals Tuesday and said they observed ailments including mange and heart problems.
"We're trying to take the worst of the worst," said Lisa Rabanus, a board member of the rescue organization who helped remove the animals.
Skaggs, standing nearby as many of the animals were inspected, said the animals with health problems were receiving treatment.
The removal of the animals went mostly without incident, but a dogfight broke out in the afternoon as workers attempted to remove a dog from the main holding yard.
William Coplen, director of the rescue organization, was knocked down during the fight and received a cut on his face.
Shane Mitchell, an investigator with the state Department of Agriculture, said in the arrest warrant that Skaggs was keeping 179 dogs in a fenced area of about two acres, along with 40 cats.
“The animals on site were observed to be very muddy, running free in a muddy lot with standing water,” Mitchell said in the complaint.
Beth Johnson, a field veterinarian with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture who went to the facility at the time of the arrest, said the animals were “very overcrowded” and at risk for disease outbreaks and increased aggression, according to the report.
The warrant also quoted a veterinarian who said Skaggs often declined treatment for animals against the vet’s advice.
Skaggs has denied the charges, arguing that he and employees provide adequate care for dogs at the facility, which he calls Eden — a sanctuary for discarded dogs that would otherwise be homeless or dead.
“I do it because there’s no place for them to go,” Skaggs said shortly after he was arrested.
Skaggs describes the facility as a no-kill shelter and does not allow people to adopt the dogs.
Authorities did not remove any of the dogs or cats from the facility after arresting Skaggs, raising questions about why police left the animals if the conditions were allegedly cruel.
Members of the rescue group involved in taking animals from Skaggs' facility Tuesday said the plan was to hold them until the trial.
Two woman with a group called Kentuckians Vote for Animals wrote to Elliott County Judge-Executive Carl Fannin last month and asked him to shut down the facility.
The letter said animal-welfare organizations around the state and the country are watching the case and “hoping that the right thing will be done for the animals that are forced to live in the filthy, disease-ridden nightmare that Skaggs calls Eden. We beg of you to step back and see that this is wrong and cruel and that you will help these animals."
Skaggs says he has saved the lives of thousands of dogs since he began operating the facility more than 25 years ago, but rescue groups have long argued he does not provide adequate shelter or veterinary care for the animals.
"Somehow I don't believe it," Skaggs said as the animals were loaded for transport. "I may never see them again."