The caretakers of 20 very big dogs had the best New Year's Eve ever when they learned that a court order enables them to continue operating Gentle Ben's Giant Breed Rescue in New Sewickley Township, Beaver County.
"I'm still in shock," said Noreen Kohl, who has operated the 501(c)3 nonprofit organization with her husband, Richard, for nearly 12 years.
"There have been so many sleepless nights" since September 2012, Mrs. Kohl said. That's when a neighbor, Barbara Layton, complained about odors and said one of the dogs had escaped and frightened her.
Although 17 neighbors told officials they support the continued operation of Gentle Ben's, the New Sewickley Township Zoning Hearing Board ruled that Gentle Ben's is a "commercial kennel" that cannot operate at the Kohls' home, which is zoned for residential use.
Gentle Ben's has a special mission. It takes in mastiffs, Newfoundlands, Great Pyrenees, Saint Bernards, Great Danes and other big breeds. Many come from shelters, rescues and animal control agencies that would have euthanized them because they don't have space for dogs that weigh as much as 150 to 200 pounds. Many dogs arrive in poor condition after being abused or neglected. Many need expensive veterinary care that other organizations are unwilling or unable to provide.
The Kohls' home is in a rural community with 7,076 residents. Cows graze in pastures near their home.
They unsuccessfully fought for their dogs without the help of an attorney "because we just didn't have the money for that," Mrs. Kohl said. But a white knight stepped up to help. Matthew D. Monsour, an attorney with the McGuireWoods firm in Pittsburgh, agreed to file an appeal -- pro bono, meaning for free -- with the Court of Common Pleas of Beaver County, Civil Division.
The court ultimately ruled in Gentle Ben's favor, but justice was not swift. In the long months of legal limbo, "every time we took in a new dog, I would wonder if that was the last dog we would be permitted to save," Mrs. Kohl said.
The most recent rescue happened last weekend when she drove to Washington, Pa., to pick up Avalanche, a Great Pyrenees that had been rescued and transported from a hoarder in Ohio. The 7-year-old dog lived outdoors and weighed 57 pounds, which is grossly underweight.
Avalanche also has a large tumor that will be expensive to treat, starting with tests to determine whether the tumor is cancerous and whether it can be removed. The Kohls will pay for all the veterinary care that is needed.
Right now the Kohls have 20 dogs. There are no kennels. All dogs sleep and eat inside the house and use a doggy door to go outside to a one-acre fenced exercise area on the two-acre property. Each year they find homes for 30 to 50 dogs. Court documents say that in a recent year Gentle Ben's took in about $40,000 in donations and adoption fees, but the Kohls spent an additional $56,000 of their own money to cover costs of operation, including dog food and vet bills.
Both work full-time jobs to financially support their mission, which has no employees. The Kohls receive no salary or wages for operating the rescue.
Would you want 20 dogs living next door to you? I'd love it, but to be fair, many other people would not.
Neighbors William and Barbara Layton were "intervenors" with the zoning board on the Kohls' appeal. Here's part of their side of the story, included in the 23-page "memorandum opinion and order" from Common Pleas Court:
In 2012 the Laytons complained about barking. At the zoning hearing last spring, they said dogs have escaped from the Kohls' property, posing a "safety hazard to the community and other dogs." Mr. Layton complained about the odor of feces and said large amounts of dog food "may attract rodents."
Another neighbor, Jennifer Arkett, testified to a number of concerns and complaints, saying Gentle Ben's was "not in accordance with the zoning ordinance." She cited safety and "sanitation issues as to the waste created by the dogs, despite acknowledging that the Kohls remove the fecal matter daily," court papers said.
The court opinion and order allow the Kohls to operate Gentle Ben's, Mr. Monsour said. "It affirms the right of nonprofit entities to operate in noncommercial areas. This is especially important for private individuals doing good deeds from their homes. ... The Court's opinion supports their right to use their land for these beneficial and not-for-profit purposes."
Mr. Monsour typically works for corporate clients. He called this case a refreshing change.
"This case meant a great deal to me personally," he said. "The selfless work that the Kohls do on behalf of these poor dogs is something to behold." And yes, he did travel to their house to get a firsthand look at the dogs, the house and the fenced yard.
You can see pictures and video of all the dogs at Gentle Ben's Giant Breed Rescue Facebook page.
If you're considering adopting a dog, call 412-841-2590 to set up an appointment to visit. The mailing address for donations is Box 533, Zelienople, PA 16063.
Linda Wilson Fuoco: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3064.