Dogs in Grand Rapids neglect case deserve a better life

Many of the dogs in Kimberly Savino's care were kept in small crates normally used for transport purposes.

Many of the dogs in Kimberly Savino’s care were kept in small crates normally used for transport purposes.

It is likely I’ll lose some Facebook friends over this blog post. I can’t be too concerned about that. Many of my friends on Facebook are mere acquaintances, people I’ve never met. Others already were my friends long before Facebook, or have become true friends the past several years. Those friends are the people with whom I surround myself.

Kimberly Savino, one of my friends on Facebook, falls into the “acquaintance” category. She is among a group of hundreds of Corgi owners to which I belong. Like many “friends” on Facebook, I have never spoken with her, never met her. I hadn’t seen her in person until Tuesday.

That’s when I sat in the courtroom in Grand Rapids listening to testimony at the hearing to determine whether dogs owned by Savino would have to be forfeited to Kent County. Savino has been criminally charged with neglect in a case involving 39 dogs seized from her home (or, more precisely, Sue and Ryen Strotheide’s home) by Kent County Animal Control. Kent County was seeking to have the dogs forfeited to them.

Savino, the defendant, wants the dogs returned to her. Savino testified she has, for many years, rescued dogs she said “other people didn’t want to deal with,” including those with special needs and medical issues. She moved to Grand Rapids from Massachusetts into the Strotheide home, in part because the city has no limit on the number of dogs allowed in a residence. She moved to their home in May 2013 as a temporary move. In June 2013, she said, she moved her permanently, but said the housing situation was temporary.

Yet the “temporary” arrangement had not changed by June 27, 2014, when animal control seized the dogs (including two dogs belonging to the Strotheides). Photos entered into evidence showed dog crates, the smaller plastic type in which animals are usually transported, stacked on top of one another in a room in the house. More dogs were in another room, also in crates. Yet more dogs were kept in the basement.

Animal control officer Joe Dainelis, who led the seizure, said many of the dogs could not turn around or stand up properly in their too-small crates. The house smelled of urine and feces and many of the crates (and dogs) also contained urine and feces, he said. Dainelis had visited the residence on previous occasions and had not filed any complaints, he testified.

Savino didn’t bring all her rescue dogs from Massachusetts at once. Some were rescued here in Michigan, from a Barry County shelter a few months ago. Savino’s own veterinarian who testified Tuesday said she saw only 10 dogs on an occasion in November 2013 and two more in December. The vet said she wasn’t aware Savino had 39 dogs until the news story came out and she was called to testify.

Kent County Animal Shelter veterinarian Laurie Wright was called to the stand and detailed the condition of each dog as they arrived at the shelter on June 27. She went through 37 dogs (the two dogs owned by the Strotheides are not included in this forfeiture), by name, and described their breed (or mix), sex, age (or approximate) and then condition. A video shown prior to her testimony showed the dogs upon intake and supported her testimony.

The majority of dogs were underweight and had dental diseases, overgrown toenails, ear infections and skin disorders. One tested positive for heartworm. Several had chronic eye problems. Most of the issues, Wright said, were to such a degree that the problems would have been easily recognized and are treatable.

Wright explained the dental health issues are rated on a grading scale of 1 to 4, with 1 being healthy and 4 on the other end of the spectrum. Of the 37 dogs presented (the Strotheide’s dogs were not included) into evidence, 11 had Grade 2 dental disease, 10 had Grade 3 and 10 had Grade 4. Five puppies were not included, nor was a Great Pyrenees who would not tolerate an oral exam because of pain and nervousness, Wright said.

Some dogs were missing teeth, including one with no teeth except the lower molars and another with exposed tooth roots and bone. Aside from the dental issues, Wright noted many of the dogs had feces matted in their coats (including one who needed a sanitary-area shaving in order to eliminate normally), urine soaked and stained feet, discharge from the eyes, and debris and hair in the ears, some of which were inflamed. A few had heart murmurs.

Savino testified the dogs were in fine condition before she and Sue Strotheide left for a trip to Massachusetts in late May. They were gone five days; Ryen Strotheide was in charge of the dogs. Savino said she found the dogs in distress and having seizures upon her return. They had not been fed or watered properly, she said. A door to the “dog room” was to be left open to allow for proper ventilation. Ryen had closed the door and opened blinds, causing overheating, Savino testified. Two dogs died within a couple of days of her return, despite her efforts to save them by rushing them to the emergency vet and performing CPR.

Shortly after the incident, and after he was served with divorce papers, Ryen Strotheide filed a neglect complaint against Savino. When asked why he hadn’t filed a complaint earlier, Ryen Strotheide said, “I thought things would get better. I thought we would develop a system. We were promised help and it never materialized.”

Wright said the condition of the dogs she witnessed was not a result of four or five days of neglect by Ryen Strotheide, but neglect that had built up over time. Judge James Robert Redford, in his ruling, agreed.

“I find the defendant’s testimony incredible,” Redford said. He said Savino’s claim that the conditions resulted from four days of neglect by Ryen Strotheide “is illogical and unsupported.”

“The defendant failed to provide adequate care and the manner in which the defendant chose to warehouse these animals (in transport crates) was completely inappropriate,” Redford said.

He offered two photos admitted into evidence, of the same room inside the home. One, admitted by the defense, showed the room in “perfect” condition, with a minimal number of crates, fresh paint, clean.

“I don’t know when exhibit G was taken,” Redford said, regarding the photo admitted by the defense. “But exhibit 7 (the peoples’ photo) was 24 days after Ryen (Strotheide’s) complaint and it is absolutely disgusting, the filth these animals were required to live in. “Thankfully, the dogs were taken out of the home.”

Redford ruled the county acted appropriately in seizing the dogs from the home. Savino was ordered to pay $106,430 by 4:45 p.m. Friday or forfeit the dogs. If she pays, the dogs will remain in the Kent County Animal Shelter until Nov. 30, at which point Savino’s criminal trial should be finished (a probable cause hearing is Aug. 28 in Grand Rapids District Court).

If she does not pay, the dogs will be turned over the animal shelter and eventually made available for adoption. It is likely west Michigan rescue organizations such as the Humane Society of West Michigan will offer assistance, as has been the case in the past with animals seized in puppy mill or hoarding cases.

After hearing testimony and watching the intake video, I couldn’t agree more with Judge Redford. These dogs deserve individual attention and love, not the kind of attention (or time) one person can give to 39 dogs under one roof. They need medical attention. They need to be free to run in their own yard, sleep in their own bed, eat outside their crates and drink water whenever they want.

They need to be dogs.

If Kimberly Savino truly loves these dogs, as she says, she will give them their freedom and not fight to keep them in the shelter until after her criminal trial for neglect.

It has been my experience that they will get that chance to be dogs once they are made available for adoption. West Michigan animal lovers certainly will line up with applications, ready to give the dogs the happy and loving homes they deserve.