At the aptly named Gentle Ben's Giant Breed Rescue, 22 dogs romp in a 2-acre fenced yard in New Sewickley. The dogs, some weighing as much as 150-200 pounds, live with Noreen and Richard Kohl in their 4,000-square-foot brick house.
The couple have been operating their nonprofit rescue for 11 years in what the township website describes as a rural community with 7,076 residents. Cows graze in pastures near the Kohl residence.
Each year 40-50 dogs -- including mastiffs, Newfoundlands, Great Pyrenees, Saint Bernards and Great Danes -- are rescued, rehabilitated and adopted into new homes. Some have been abused or neglected. Many come from animal shelters and humane societies that do not have room for giant breeds. Many would have been euthanized.
But now New Sewickley officials have taken steps that could force the shutdown of Gentle Ben's Giant Breed Rescue.
Last September a neighbor, Barbara Layton, complained to officials about odors and said one of the dogs had escaped and frightened her. Police investigated, and referred the matter to the township's zoning hearing board.
When word went out in emails and on Facebook, rescue organizations and individuals rallied to the cause, including five lawyers who volunteered to represent Mrs. Kohl for free. More than 5,000 people signed an online petition in support.
Matthew D. Monsour, an attorney with the McGuireWoods firm in Pittsburgh, is representing Mrs. Kohl and Gentle Ben's.
The zoning hearing board, whose members are appointed by the township board of supervisors, listened to extensive testimony in January and March from Mrs. Layton and from neighbors who support the Kohls.
The township zoning ordinance says "the keeping of five or more such animals for economic gain shall be deemed a commercial kennel." New Sewickley officials are calling Gentle Ben's a commercial kennel, requiring at least 5 acres zoned for agricultural purposes, Mr. Monsour said. Zoning officials would not grant Gentle Ben's a variance to operate on 2 acres that are zoned residential.
Mr. Monsour plans to appeal that ruling in Beaver County Common Pleas Court. Gentle Ben's is a nonprofit rescue, not a commercial kennel because the Kohls are not selling dogs for profit, he argues.
The situation with New Sewickley could set a bad precedent for other nonprofit rescues, Mr. Monsour suggests. Many people involved in rescuing animals have voiced that same concern.
It's not clear what the current legal status is for the 22 dogs in the rescue.
Duane Rape, chairman of the board of supervisors, has tried to distance himself from the dispute.
"I have nothing to do with this. ... I try to pick good people for that zoning hearing board and I try not to interfere with their decisions," he said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "We have to live by the laws of New Sewickley Township."
Mrs. Kohl said the issue started as a neighborhood dispute and she declined to name the neighbor.
The neighbor had adopted two dogs from Gentle Ben's, Mrs. Kohl noted. She acknowledged that a dog did escape, but it did not hurt anyone and was quickly caught. The Kohls apologized to the neighbor and sent her a fruit basket "which she seemed pleased to receive."
When Mrs. Kohl sought help, 18 neighbors all said they had no problem with the dogs. Others outside the township have sent letters and emails to New Sewickley officials, including Lois G. Winter, president of the Lawrence County Humane Society in New Castle.
Since 2006 that shelter has sent 30 or 40 dogs to Gentle Ben's because "small shelters like ours are not set up to handle giant breeds," Ms. Winter wrote. Many of the dogs needed expensive veterinary treatment and surgeries, which the Kohls provided, she said.
Operating expenses were about $50,000 last year, Mrs. Kohl said. Most came from donations and fundraising events, but she and her husband donate about $10,000 each year. Mrs. Kohl works full time at Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh, while her husband cares for the dogs.
Rescue groups that adopt out 26 dogs per year are required to get an operating license from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and are inspected twice a year by state dog wardens. Gentle Ben's has passed all inspections, Mrs. Kohl said.
Animals Friends' Bow Wow Bingo is 7 to 10 p.m. next Saturday at Greater Pittsburgh Masonic Center, 3579 Masonic Way, Ross, 15237.
Sally Wiggin from WTAE-TV and P.J. Maloney from KQV Radio will call the numbers and hand out prizes. The event includes a buffet dinner, beer and wine. Adoptable animals from the Ohio Township shelter will attend. Attire is business casual.
Tickets are $70 and can be ordered on the Animal Friends website www.thinkingoutsidethecage.org or at 412-847-7052.
Bark For Life
Dogs will be walking in South Park next Saturday to honor cancer survivors and to raise money to help save lives. The American Cancer Society Bark for Life is 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the park fairgrounds and museum building on Corrigan Drive. Donation is $25 per dog. Go to www.relayforlife.org/pasouthhills to register in advance or register at 10 a.m. at the event.
The walk starts at noon, led by 6-year-old cancer survivor Bryce Bryzanski and his dog. Other activities: a 10:30 a.m. demonstration with the Castle Shannon K9 dog, 11 a.m. Blessing of the Animals, 11:15 a.m. canine contests including Best Dressed Dog, and autographs signed by Mr. McFeely of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.
Rabies and chip clinic
Dogs and cats can get rabies inoculations for $10 and microchips for $30 at the Animal Care and Welfare Inc. clinic, noon to 3 p.m. May 5 at PA Fitness West Gym (rear), 650 Penn Lincoln Drive, Imperial 15126. Nails will be clipped for $9.
Proceeds benefit the nonprofit's spay and neuter program. There will also be a 50/50 raffle, basket raffle, and adoptable cats.
Dogs and cats can get all kinds of shots -- and $15 microchips -- 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. May 5 at Larry's Laundromutt, 201 Ohio River Blvd., Edgeworth, 15143. Proceeds benefit Western Pennsylvania Humane Society.
Rabies vaccines for dogs and cats are $8.
Other canine shots are $13 each for DHPP or DHLPP, $10 for bordetella and $20 for Lyme disease. A heart worm test is $20.
Feline shots include $13 for PVRCP, $30 for FeLV FVRCP, $17 for FeLV and $25 FeLV/FIV test.
Card Party and Lunch
"Hearts for Strays" is a fundraiser for Animal Protectors of Allegheny Valley in New Kensington. The $22 party is May 18, starting at 10:30 a.m.; reservation deadline is May 11.
The 11th annual event at the Magnolia Room in Creighton includes lunch, raffles, auctions and door prizes. For reservations: 724-339-7388.
Sam Is Adopted!
In February 2012, a badly scarred pit bull named Sam was rescued from a Florida dog fighting ring. He ended up in Pittsburgh with the Hello Bully rescue. On April 19 he was adopted, with much rejoicing on his Facebook page, Bulletproof Sam.
You can see pictures of one happy, relaxed looking pit bull and his new family -- John and April Gruver (owner of Vanilla Pastry Studio) and their children, Andrue, 9, and Allyson, 15. Sam even has two canine "sisters" -- white boxer Katie, 4, and Bernese mountain dog Clementine, 2.
"Sam is a dreamboat and we love having him home," Mrs. Gruver wrote in an email.
Linda Wilson Fuoco: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3064.