VAN WERT, Ohio (WANE) – A man accused of animal cruelty and neglect made his first court appearance Wednesday. Rich Strunkenburg was the dog warden for the Van Wert County Humane Society for nearly ten years.
Three dogs and six kittens were found dead at the shelter in July after someone called police, concerned about the shelter’s conditions.
The Van Wert County Council voted to remove Strunkenburg from his position as dog warden a week later. A Van Wert County Sheriff Deputy was assigned to supervise the shelter in his place.
On September 5, Strunkenburg was indicted by a grand jury on four felony counts of animal cruelty and neglect. On Wednesday, Strunkenburg pleaded not guilty to those charges. His pretrial is scheduled for October 9.
In addition to the nine dead animals found at the shelter, Sheriff Thomas Riggenbach said many of the kennels had not been cleaned.
“What we found when this started was completely unexpected,” Riggenbach said. “I would have never guessed that this was something that would have happened. The complaints that had been received were calls for service or not getting back with someone who had left a message. And we put a heavy focus on those issues. He had been doing very well in that regard.”
According to Riggenbach, volunteers were also being told they weren’t needed.
“People were being turned away for whatever reason, and that’s something that we don’t want to have. We want those volunteers to be involved so we’re going to try and increase that,” Riggenbach said.
Despite the issues, Riggenbach said the community has rallied together to help the shelter overcome its past problems.
“I feel the community has responded very well and provided their names, their willingness to help, donations- personal donations and donations from businesses. That support has been tremendous and we certainly appreciate that,” Riggenbach said.
Moving forward is something the multiple agencies are working on together.
“It’s important for the community to know that we’re working hard to improve things here at the shelter. The humane society, the commissioners office, and myself have been meeting, talking about things that we want to do, need to do. Certainly regretful that this situation has happened, but we’re working very hard to make things better here and make sure something like this never happens again,” Riggenbach said.
Sergeant Randy Averesch, with the sheriff’s department, has been assigned to the position of dog warden. Averesch is a former part time warden and K-9 handler with the sheriff’s department.
“He has experience in a couple different areas when it comes to dealing with dogs and dealing with other animals. He’s done a fantastic job. He has a real understanding and knowledge of what is expected out here and the things that need to be done. He’s doing a very good job of taking care of those things, and a real love for animals,” Riggenbach said.
The new warden and the sheriff are also collaborating on a new project. The addition includes an outdoor space with benches, a canopy, and grassy areas for prospective adopters.
“We’ve had dirt hauled in and we’re starting the process of getting it leveled out to create multiple areas for people who are interested in adopting animals. If we have more than one dog that needs to come out, we have several, separate areas that are grassy and fenced in, so they can bring the animals outside. They can bring the animals outside to spend time with, see if it’s an animal that they’re interested in adopting and how well the family interacts with this potential pet that they’re going to adopt,” Riggenbach said.
The shelter can house up to 48 animals. The sheriff said they usually have anywhere between four to a dozen cats and dogs on any given day. If you’d like to volunteer or adopt an animal from the shelter, visit the Van Wert County Humane Society here.