Res­cue groups want Or­ange to free long­time shel­ter dog

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Kate San­tich Staff Writer

Oreo is 70 pounds of mus­cle and en­ergy — a friendly, happy pit-bull mix who lives to swim and chase sticks. He can knock you over, lit­er­ally, with his ex­u­ber­ance.

He is also a res­i­dent of the Or­ange County An­i­mal Ser­vices shel­ter, where he has spent most of the past year sep­a­rated from the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion — a fact that has made him the cen­ter of a con­tro­versy with an­i­mal-res­cue groups, whose lead­ers call Oreo “a hostage.”

They say he should be freed for adop­tion.

An­i­mal Ser­vices man­ager Dil Luther — who had in­ter­vened in De­cem­ber when Oreo was slated to be eu­th­a­nized — dis­agrees, say­ing the dog needs more time and train­ing with him. After a pair of in­ci­dents late last year in which Oreo growled and lunged at shel­ter staffers who were try­ing to cor­ral him after play­time, Luther has per­son­ally worked with the dog, teach­ing him some ba­sic com­mands.

“He’s an ex­tra­or­di­nary dog,” Luther said. “But he needs con­sis­tency in train­ing, and I haven’t se­lected where I want him to go. If I let him go to some­body who can’t han­dle him, I can get sued. And I have a moral obli­ga­tion to make sure that dogs that shouldn’t be re­leased, aren’t. He’s a hand­ful.”

But this week, as Oreo — now 3 — marks a year since his pre­vi­ous owner sur­ren­dered him to the

shel­ter, res­cue group vol­un­teers who have mon­i­tored the sit­u­a­tion be­gan call­ing on their sup­port­ers to lobby the county to free Oreo for adop­tion. They say most dogs are adopted within a month, and Oreo is no more dif­fi­cult to man­age than any other young, ram­bunc­tious pit-bull mix.

“It’s bizarre,” says Erin Swil­ley, pres­i­dent of Happy Trails An­i­mal Res­cue. “I’ve never seen a shel­ter hold a dog hostage be­fore. If he’s not ready after a year, then he needs to be with some­one who can pro­vide him with more reg­u­lar train­ing, which we can ar­range.”

Swil­ley said her group takes two or three dogs a week from the shel­ter to help get them ex­tra so­cial­iz­ing and train­ing so they can be adopted. She has even taken dogs with a his­tory of bit­ing — which Oreo doesn’t have — and re­trained and placed them. Hav­ing met Oreo her­self, she de­scribes him as sweet, and Luther doesn’t dis­agree. She has of­fered to find a suit­able place­ment for the dog.

A se­ries of emails be­tween Swil­ley and Luther show a po­lite but con­tin­u­ing dis­agree­ment on what’s best for Oreo, dat­ing back to Fe­bru­ary.

Luther said he likes the dog and con­sid­ered adopt­ing him but said he de­cided against it be­cause he wouldn’t be home enough. He also con­sid­ered hav­ing Oreo work for law en­force­ment at one point but said he learned the agen­cies pre­fer other breeds.

“I’d still like to have him as an am­bas­sador for the shel­ter, to show peo­ple that these dogs can be well trained,” he said.

Oreo has been fea­tured in a cou­ple of pub­lic­ity cam­paigns for the shel­ter al­ready, and Luther said he wants him to ap­pear in some obe­di­ence-train­ing videos to be filmed in the next few weeks.

“Prob­a­bly soon after that, I’ll let him go to a res­cue group,” he said.

But Brit­tany John­ston, an ad­min­is­tra­tor for the Face­book page Res­cue Me Or­lando, said there have been too many de­lays al­ready and that Oreo is lan­guish­ing in iso­la­tion. There, in an air­con­di­tioned sec­tion of the shel­ter, he lives in a sin­gle ken­nel sur­rounded by dogs with be­hav­ioral or med­i­cal is­sues. Only Luther is autho­rized to han­dle the dog, which means Oreo is left in his ken­nel each week­end and overnight, John­ston said.

“They told us he is no longer avail­able for adop­tion or res­cue,” said John­ston, a vol­un­teer at the shel­ter, whose group helps shel­ter dogs find per­ma­nent homes. “Since Dec. 23, 2016, he has not been shown on the [county] web­site, and he’s still sit­ting in the iso­la­tion build­ing. We have the best of the best res­cue groups that wants to help him re­cover and get him any train­ing he needs to help him find a home. Be­cause that’s what we feel like he de­serves.”

Luther said Oreo is in the same set­ting where any trainer would keep a hardto-han­dle dog — a ken­nel by it­self — and that peo­ple are watch­ing out for him around the clock. They are just not let­ting him out when Luther isn’t around to su­per­vise.

“We had him avail­able for adop­tion the first month, and no­body wanted him,” Luther said. “Quite frankly, I feel like we gave this dog a chance, and we put a lot of time into this dog, and he lives a great life. So this is all re­ally de­mor­al­iz­ing.”

JOE BURBANK/STAFF

Oreo has been at Or­ange An­i­mal Ser­vices’ shel­ter for a year.

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