With 179 charges of animal cruelty pending against its owner, the future is uncertain for a controversial Elliott County animal shelter that has long angered some dog lovers in Kentucky and beyond.
Randy J. Skaggs operates the facility under a non-profit called the Trixie Foundation.
Skaggs says the facility is a no-kill sanctuary, and calls it Eden. It’s a place where discarded dogs find shelter and love, living out their days “nestled beside a bubbling brook in a secluded valley surrounded by the wooded, hilly forests” of Eastern Kentucky, according to its web site.
Critics scoff, arguing the sanctuary is actually a nasty, overcrowded mess where dogs don’t get adequate medical attention and sometimes die suffering because Skaggs won’t euthanize them.
Skaggs, 66, acknowledges there could be improvements, but says the sanctuary provides good care and has saved hundreds of dogs from abandonment and death.
“We set out to do something nobody else would do,” Skaggs said.
Skaggs’ facility falls short of recommendations from national animal-welfare organizations in terms of healthcare for the animals, its infrastructure and some of Skaggs’ practices.
Kentucky State Police arrested Skaggs in early March on 179 misdemeanor charges of second-degree cruelty to animals, and 179 counts of not vaccinating dogs against rabies.
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 , said the animals were “very overcrowded” and at risk for disease outbreaks and increased aggression, according to the warrant.
Veterinarian Derek Caudill of West Liberty told authorities that Skaggs brought an average of five animals a week to his office. Many "demonstrated significant illness, disease or malady that would require diagnostics, hospitalization or prolonged treatment,” but Skaggs ordinarily refused treatment, Mitchell said in the complaint.
Authorities raided the foundation last week, removing 14 dogs and three kittens.
Representatives of the Ohio rescue group that took the animals said they will hold them until Skaggs' criminal case is resolved.
A state police officer declined to comment on what will happen with the rest of the animals.
Skaggs has pleaded not guilty.
He called Caudill’s remarks a lie and said he keeps medicine on site and has the expertise to handle many health issues.
If the ailment is beyond his abilities, Skaggs said he seeks professional medical treatment.
“I think if people could see the animals the way we see them, they would see that they’re happy and they’re healthy,” Skaggs said. “They have a good life here.”
Chris Schindler said he and another staffer from the Humane Society of the U.S visited the facility about eight or nine years ago after receiving complaints about the number of animals there.
Schindler said he did not see anything that he believed was illegal or cruel, though he stressed that was several years ago.
The conditions were not optimal, however .
There were about 100 dogs at the facility at the time. The 179 dogs there the day Skaggs was arrested “is pushing the limit,” Schindler said.
Skaggs has defenders who say he has devoted his life to caring for animals in a place where many public shelters in the region were substandard when he started the foundation more than 25 years ago, leaving few options for saving dogs.
“He loves these animals and he does the best he can with them. I feel he has saved thousands of lives,” said Brenda Little, a Johnson County resident who has known Skaggs for 20 years and is on the board of the foundation.
Little, who has been involved in dog-rescue work and has 19 dogs, said she had never seen animals suffer at Trixie, nor had she seen any conditions she would consider cruelty.
But Skaggs also has harsh critics who allege he uses the dogs as a front to get donations and then spends money on things that don't directly benefit them, such as land.
Opponents have accused Skaggs of diverting donations to support his drinking; of failing to get needed medical treatment for dogs or to properly treat for fleas, mange and worms, leaving the ground to “run red” with diarrhea; of feeding dogs moldy food; and even of having sex with dogs, Skaggs said in a 2009 lawsuit.
“Your place is a stinking filthy mess and YOU KNOW IT!” Julia Sharp, who runs a rescue group in Rowan County, said in one message, according to the lawsuit.
Skaggs said the statements were false and sued Sharp and a Wisconsin woman for defamation. They said in responses that they had done nothing wrong. The lawsuit was dismissed after Skaggs stopped pursuing it.
These days Sharp still says conditions at Skaggs' facility are wretched. She participates in a Facebook page which refers to it as a “gulag” and includes a petition to close it.
Former employees told the Herald-Leader that dogs often did not receive proper treatment for open wounds and other illnesses at the facility.
Abigail Miller, 28, said that when she worked at the facility in January, she saw dogs she felt needed treatment. One had an ear swollen with fluid. Another’s eyes were scabbed, and a dog named Virgil had a chunk of flesh missing from his neck; he scratched at it and cried, she said.
When Miller asked Skaggs about taking another dog that was wheezing and coughing to the vet, Skaggs laughed and said, “ 'I know what I’m doing. Screw the vet,' " she said.
Miller said she felt the dogs were not getting proper nutrition and that some needed to be put down.
“They’re suffering, that’s what I think," Miller told the Herald-Leader. “It’s not a sanctuary."
Miller said conditions were not great for workers, either. She answered an ad for the job that promised $600 a month, housing and an opportunity to help care for animals, and arrived in January with a friend and a 3-year-old Great Dane, Rufus.
But she found her cabin had no working toilet or bath. Water flow to the house was sporadic, and brown water backed up into the tub, Miller said.
Miller and her friend slept on top of a storage shelf to avoid the dirty mattress in the cabin. They lasted three days before leaving.
Skaggs acknowledged some cabins do not have toilets, but said employees can use toilets and bathe in other buildings.
State workplace-safety investigators cited a number of alleged violations at the facility in 2014, including a spot of black mold in an employee cabin, which also had dog and cat feces and urine throughout; electrical problems that could expose people to injury or death; a lack of smoke detectors; no fire-alarm system in buildings; and tripping hazards.
One building “smelled so bad that (officers) could not stay in there too long,” inspectors with the Labor Cabinet wrote in a report.
Employees told inspectors they had asked Skaggs to fix the problems months earlier, without success.
State regulators proposed a $35,000 fine, but agreed to a settlement of $1,800 because Skaggs had fixed the problems and in consideration of the facility being a non-profit organization. Skaggs' attorney said he could not pay the full fine and stay in business.
The Trixie Foundation houses the animals on two acres in a rural corner of Elliott County, divided by fences into about a half dozen animal enclosures called “runs.”
All are outfitted with structures where animals could avoid rain and other conditions.
Most of the large shelters are heated, but some smaller buildings made to house individual animals are not.
In the largest run, dozens of dogs live together on the quarter-acre lot.
The conditions don’t meet recommendations of several animal-welfare groups.
For instance, the Association of Shelter Veterinarians recommends no more than a half dozen dogs live together.
Skaggs also runs afoul of recommendations that shelters allow their animals to be adopted, which helps avoid overcrowding. Finding a home for animals is a “critical responsibility” for shelters, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Skaggs said he refuses to let anyone adopt dogs because believes he can guarantee that the animals live a healthy and happy life at the sanctuary, and because they form attachments to other dogs there.
Even some people who believe Skaggs’ heart is in the right place say the sanctuary is understaffed and doesn’t have enough money, which leads to animals living in less-than-ideal conditions.
Rhonda Brewer, a former employee, told the Herald-Leader that dogs would occasionally fight, and that the staff would throw water on the dogs to stop them.
Brewer said the foundation’s employees could have been in serious danger during some of those violent, dog-on-dog altercations.
“A person could get mauled there," she said. Brewer worked at the foundation for a month .
But Brewer told the Herald-Leader that Skaggs cares about the animals and does not actively abuse them through beatings or otherwise.
The animal cruelty charges, she believes, are unjustified.
Brewer said the dogs should be separated into smaller groups, and that Skaggs should utilize a 180-acre piece of land adjacent to the foundation where he could expand the sanctuary and give dogs more space to roam.
Skaggs bought the land for $101,000 in 2016 and now keeps his two horses there.
He recently purchased thousands of dollars of chain link fence, which he plans to use to create new dog runs on the property.
Brewer also recommended better medical care and a more organized system for vaccinations and health checks.
“It could really be a beautiful place for animals to retire, but the man needs to change,” Brewer said.
Skaggs operates the facility on donations. The Trixie Foundation averaged about $109,000 in gifts annually between 2012 and 2016, the last year with an available tax return.
In 2016, the foundation reported $123,210 in revenue, most of it from donations, and total expenses of $71,505. In 2015, total reported revenue was $107,248 and expenses totaled $105,115.
Skaggs reported spending more both years on landfill and laundry fees than on veterinary bills.
The tax information shows Skaggs is not spending enough to adequately care for animals at his facility, members of a group called Kentuckians Vote for Animals said in a letter asking Elliott County Judge-Executive Carl Fannin to shut down the place.
Based on the 179 dogs involved in the charges against Skaggs, he spent only $9.25 a month on each dog for vet care in 2015 and $10.10 a month in 2016, Cynthia Criswell and Melissa Bowman said.
“These figures alone should be enough to convict Mr. Skaggs,” they said in the letter. “A dose of flea medication or heartworm prevention would take up this amount per animal per month.”
"He is not capable of cruelty," said Amye Bensenhaver, a former state assistant attorney general who came to know Skaggs after he sent open records requests to all 120 counties in the mid-1990s, requesting information on county animal-control programs.
Bensenhaver and others credited Skaggs' efforts with raising public awareness about problems in animal control programs. He also has sued to try to force improvements.
"He really loves those animals," she said.
Skaggs said he has spent some donated money on equipment, land and fencing, but all with the goal of expanding and improving the facility to benefit the animals.
Skaggs believes the criminal charges against him are retaliation over his efforts to bring attention to Kentucky’s failure to adopt adequate animal protection laws and his efforts to push for improvements.
“We’re the ones that took the heat,” he said.
Skaggs told the Herald-Leader that the foundation needs improvements, particularly more space for the animals, but said the criminal charges are unjustified.
“We could always improve our situation. All it takes is money, all it takes is volunteers, all it takes is a little help,” he said. “When people say we’re doing a crap job – I say, ‘Boy, you have no idea what’s out in there in the real world.’”