County dog warden has many tails to tell

Sarah Baldwin

Deputy Cheryl Heckman and Chief Beverly Kirkhart of Portage County Dog Warden are shown with two of the many dogs at the pound. One of the youngest is the 2-month-old dog on the right. The dogs that are found or brought in stay up to three days if unlice

Credit: Andrew popik

When many people decide to become a dog owner, they often envision their prospective pooch as a loyal bundle of love wrapped up in soft brown fur and a wagging tail. Then reality collides with the fantasy, and the once-cuddled companion becomes nothing more than an animal annoyance.

That’s when the Portage County Dog Warden, Beverly Kirkhart, and her deputies come into the picture. Kirkhart has been working at the pound for the last 18 years. She started when her friend, who was the dog warden at that time, asked her to fill a temporary spot answering phones at the pound. Little did she know it would become a long-term career.

“I came, and I just stayed,” Kirkhart said.

As the dog warden, Kirkhart oversees all the operations of the county dog pound. In addition to supervising three deputies and taking care of finances, she coordinates clinics where dogs can get inexpensive vaccines for rabies.

“There are so many elderly and low-income families, and they can’t afford to go to the vet all the time,” Kirkhart said.

Kirkhart has encountered some interesting situations. Animal collecting, a mental illness where the afflicted person collects more animals than they can care for, is something she has run into several times. The worst case she encountered involved a man who had more than 30 dogs living in his residence. The dogs were removed from his care, but due to legal circumstances, Kirkhart had to treat this situation as though the dogs were strays, Kirkhart said. The animals had to be put up for adoption three days after they were obtained, and the man had his friends get all of the dogs back.

According to Kirkhart, some people react with violence when they think their dog will be removed. She and the other deputies have had incidents where guns were pulled on them when they were attempting to take a dog.

“You get in some sticky situations. I get threatened all the time,” said Bill Trivelli, deputy of the County Dog Warden.

Another problem Kirkhart encounters is dog-fighting. When animals are both bred and trained as fighters, such as pit bulls, they are not safe to have around children or other animals and will need to be euthanized.

“Pit bulls are normally a very nice dog,” Kirkhart said, “but you just can’t trust them around other animals.”

Another type of dog that often has issues with aggression and biting is a wolf hybrid.

“People don’t understand they are wild animals. People always say, ‘Oh, they’re so pretty.’ Well, they’ll rip your face off someday,” Kirkhart said.

Dogs that are vicious or sick are candidates to be euthanized. In 2004, 36 percent of the dogs at the pound were euthanized.

When Cheryl Heckman, deputy of the County Dog Warden, is preparing to euthanize a dog, she has to get into the right state of mind.

“You have to psych yourself up that you are doing the best thing for the animal,” Heckman said. “You can show it a little kindness.”

Heckman said that many people don’t understand how she can do the job she does and not dislike dogs.

“People say, ‘Boy, you must hate dogs to work here.’ I say, ‘No, I love dogs.’ That’s why I work here.”

Contact public affairs reporter Sarah Baldwin at [email protected].