Focus on the animals

Deputy brings varied experience to job as dog warden

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She still has the same gloves from more than a decade ago.

“You can tell they’ve been with me everywhere,” she says as she drums out a silent tune of Rob Zombie’s on the steering wheel pumped up, though the weather is dreary. “I always wear them especially going into these hoarder situations because you never know what you’re going to come across and you always have to protect yourself.”

But while cognizant of her own safety, her heart is still focused on the animals she saves.

Sgt. Kelly McGilton is the dog warden for Washington County, a job encompasses more than just the wellbeing of dogs, dog-owners and the community surrounding the canines. As a Washington County Sheriff’s Deputy she also acts as the voice of all animals victimized by their owners or others in the county.

“That’s my role as the state sees it,” she explains during an investigation into a dog shooting in Watertown. “These animals can’t speak for themselves, so who else can advocate for them?”

Her heart shows as she turns around in the rain on Ohio 339 after passing a groundhog stunned in the roadway.

“He must have been rolled,” she says as she tries to shoo the creature the size of a soccer ball off the busy highway as semis and large farm trucks roll past.

“They can be aggressive little creatures, I just don’t want him running towards me and getting hit,” she says before deciding that the catch pole would need to be used with the frozen creature.

Once she lifts the groundhog, worries of a broken hind leg fall away as the adrenaline kicks in and he’s ready to run as soon as she releases him off the bank and into the grass below.

“That’s our win for the day!” she cheers. “Now I feel good.”

McGilton took on the role when the county moved the position from a civilian post to under the purview of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in 2011.

“She has done a phenomenal job with it,” says Sheriff Larry Mincks. “And she has probably accumulated more activity in her tenure as the dog warden than anyone before her. I’ve had a lot of compliments about her and how she works with people and treats them with respect even if she’s there in a bad situation.”

And McGilton loves the role so much, she plans to live out her career here.

“I was on the board of the humane society and the sheriff knew how much I loved animals,” she says. “I jumped at the chance to take this on, I plan to retire here, it’s a great team, I love what I do.”

Her favorite tool? Dog treats.

“The best tool in this profession is good dog treats,” she explains. “Works better than raw chicken even at getting an anxious or aggressive dog to calm down enough that we can get to them.”

But her badge and gun are just as handy as the large bags of specialty dog treats she carries in her marked truck throughout the county.

She still is first and foremost a law enforcement officer, she wanted to be a cop since she was little with elder brothers rough housing around.

And even six years into the role, she’s still called out to assist with cases not involving animals.

Thursday, while she writing an animal cruelty report, a foot pursuit in Reno drew her out to County House Lane.

“If I’m on duty and it’s an immediate assistance call of course I go out if they need help,” she explains after the runner, Mark McIntyre, 35, homeless, was in custody. “Especially when you’re searching for a suspect, the more bodies out searching and closing the perimeter, the faster you catch them.”

And since the Humane Society of the Ohio Valley is less than a mile from the place where McIntyre was last seen, McGilton makes sure to call the shelter for a heads up in case he made it past the perimeter.

“We work so closely between the humane agents and I,” she says after a quick speed dial. “Our work overlaps a lot especially in the hoarding cases and trying to find housing.”

McGilton also works closely with the local law enforcement agencies and even gets many anonymous calls to check on suspected cruelty cases where animals are thought to be starving, sloshing through excrement or being tortured.

Once McIntyre, who was wanted on multiple warrants out of Monroe and Washington counties, Belpre, Williamstown and Huntington, W.Va., is found, McGilton sets out to follow up on a livestock animal cruelty seizure from Wednesday.

That case took quite a bit out of her though so a brief coffee stop on the way out into the county is needed as she recounts not only the enormous caseload she has in the 635.15 square miles of county hills but also the support she has from her husband and children.

“You could not do this job or be in law enforcement without the support system at home,” she says as she grabbed a dose of caffeine. “I get calls in the middle of making dinner or as soon as we get to family events and I have to go. Thankfully my husband has the ability to pick up immediately and run with it.”

Checking on the fostered livestock from the seizure Wednesday she noted the range in cases she sees and how though the law is black and white on what’s appropriate for the welfare of animals, people’s views and underlying problems vary.

“I hear a lot of people say that they could never do my job, but you don’t see yourself as a hero,” she explains. “Some of these animals have never felt love or compassion, but some of these owners are hurting, too, and need help. I can tag team with them, create a plan with their families so that those in need of care don’t end up hoarding more dogs two years later after their probation is up.”

Even the donkey that gave her a solid chase Wednesday was willing to let McGilton come close Thursday.

“This case brought on new people to help,” she says gesturing to the foster family. “And I really hope more are willing to step in whether it’s to foster or even just transport when we have these big cases because we can find homes for dogs but llamas, horses and other livestock aren’t as easy to place.”

She not only photographs the conditions of the animals at the foster home but also talks with the farmers who opened their grounds to the emaciated miniature ponies, goats, chickens and a donkey. She also notes that the home is filled with children who are resocializing the animals and teaching them to trust humans again.

“My son has helped me foster and so I know this just does so much good for these kids, it gives them such an open heart,” she says.

Though the job isn’t easy, she says she gets the most satisfaction after a case is closed, seeing animals thriving in homes or on farms with adequate care and love. That’s what keeps her going, and gives her hope, knowing there are good people out there willing to open their lives to these animals.

“My philosophy is if you keep them all you can’t save them all,” she says, noting that she has adopted a few fostered dogs over the years that were especially “damaged goods.” “I have a soft spot for those projects and they’ve become the best dogs in the world, but others should feel that joy, too. They should get the chance to give these animals compassion and love.”

At a glance

¯ Sgt. Kelly McGilton, 35, has served as the Washington County Dog Warden since November 2011 when the Washington County Sheriff’s Office took over the duties.

¯ McGilton has worked as both a road deputy and on the drug task force and has been in law enforcement since she was 21.

¯ She is constantly in search of locals willing to aid in transport, fostering and care of both dogs and livestock seized in animal cruelty cases.

¯ Contact the Washington County Sheriff’s Office at 740-373-7070 for more information on how to help.

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