WEBBVILLE, Ky. — To hear Randy Skaggs tell it, his Trixie Foundation nestled deep in the backwoods of Elliott County is heaven on earth for abandoned animals.
He calls it “Eden” for the more than 200 dogs and cats he keeps on a two-acre plot that’s often a muddy quagmire. And he claims that working at Trixie is “an animal lovers’ dream job.”
Skaggs’ numerous critics argue that Trixie really is a hellhole where animals suffer until they die, and that conditions for humans who work and live there aren’t much better.
An investigation by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and WAVE3 News found that Skaggs has been enabled by Kentucky’s woefully weak animal protection laws, by lax worker-safety enforcement and, until recently, by the unwillingness of public officials to demand that he provide better care for his dogs and cats.
On March 7, following a sustained barrage of complaints from Skaggs’ detractors and a state Department of Agriculture investigation, he was charged with 179 criminal counts of animal cruelty and 179 additional counts of failing to provide rabies vaccine for his dogs.
Under Kentucky law, animal cruelty includes failing to provide adequate food, drink, space or health care.
The criminal complaint accusing Skaggs includes a statement from Derek Caudill, a veterinarian in neighboring Morgan County, who said Skaggs routinely ignored advice for treating sick animals.
Caudill also told investigators he thought the animals at Trixie should be removed from Skaggs’ care.
But nearly two months after Skaggs was charged, all of the 179 dogs — plus about 45 cats, some chickens and two horses — were still there.
Last week, shortly after KyCIR asked state and local officials why the animals at Trixie hadn’t been removed, 14 of the oldest, sickest dogs, and four cats, were seized.
But there apparently are no immediate plans to remove any more of the approximately 200 animals that remain in Skaggs’ custody while he awaits trial.
No adoption, and years of neglect allegations
Skaggs was wearing rubber boots and baggy flannel pants when KyCIR and WAVE3 News stopped by unannounced last month to interview him and look over his operation.
He sported a bushy white beard, and his blonde hair, partially covered with an orange stocking cap, flowed past his shoulders onto his chest.
Standing on a foot bridge spanning the small creek running by Trixie, the 66-year-old Skaggs answered reporters’ questions for more than half an hour.
He told us that he was born and raised in Ohio, that his parents died in a plane crash when he was a teenager and that he graduated from Morehead State University.
He established the foundation more than 28 years ago in memory of his dog, Trixie, who died after being attacked by other dogs. And he said he knows all the animals by name, because he lives with them “24/7” — and once went eight years without leaving the property.
The animals don’t leave either. Unlike mainstream animal shelters, Skaggs refuses to allow the adoption of any dog or cat he acquires. So once they end up at Trixie, they stay until they die. That has led some of Skaggs’ critics to call him a hoarder, an accusation he denies.
“We’re doing the work that others won’t,” added Skaggs.
Viewed from the bridge and Little Brushy Creek Road, the Trixie property inside the fence was a sea of mud, and many of the dozens of animals we could see stood, sat or lay in it.
Although Skaggs admitted that conditions at Trixie could be better, he didn’t promise to improve them, at least not immediately. Indeed, he claimed that nothing really needed changing.
“Do you see any abuse out there?” he asked. “We’re taking outstanding care of the animals that we have. The best is yet to come here, it really is. We’re gonna win. We’re gonna get bigger and we’re gonna get better.”
Skaggs acknowledged that some dogs at Trixie remain outside day and night, regardless of the weather, in small, hay-filled dog houses. “If they wanna be,” he said. “It’s up to them. They’ll just come and go.”
Those we were able to see appeared to be well-fed and happy, tails wagging, eager to greet visitors. But Skaggs refused to let the reporters or a WAVE3 cameraman see most of the Trixie property, including inside the run-down wooden buildings where he and his four employees live and where some of the older and sicker animals were housed.
Skaggs wouldn’t let us take a closer look because, he said, “I don’t want to.”
He added that he didn’t want to risk one of his dogs biting a stranger.
“I got enough legal troubles right now.”
Those legal troubles are due in large part to the persistence of Julia Sharp, an animal-rights activist from neighboring Carter County. For more than a decade, Sharp has been leading a charge, echoed by animal rights activists nationwide, to shut down the Trixie Foundation and Skaggs.
“The guy is a monster,” she said.
Sharp said that years ago, she tried to help Skaggs by lining up college students willing to assist with cleaning, repairs and other chores, but that all of her efforts “met with opposition, absolutely everything.”
“I watch all these good, solid people struggle, trying to help animals every day, and there he is, sitting in the mud pit, raking in donations, drinking beer and letting dogs do without,” she said.
Skaggs filed a defamation lawsuit against Sharp in 2009, citing derogatory things she had said about him and Trixie. The case was dismissed in 2011 after Skaggs fired his lawyer and didn’t pursue it.
The rancor between Sharp and Skaggs has not subsided. He believes that the pending criminal case against him “all boils back down to the pressure put on state government, because of Julia Sharp.”
Why does Skaggs still have animals?
Under Kentucky law, animal cruelty can take various forms, including failure to provide adequate space or health care.
State law requires each county to have an animal shelter or to contract with another county or a nonprofit organization that does.
The law also sets minimal standards for shelters, including protecting animals from the weather; providing enough room for them to move around freely; cages that are easy to clean and disinfect; and proper veterinary care for sick or injured animals.
But the law provides for no oversight, no enforcement and no consequences for violations. County shelters are almost entirely self-policing.
For 11 consecutive years, Kentucky has ranked dead last nationally for its animal protection laws, according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a California-based nonprofit.
But a state Department of Agriculture investigator still found severe enough conditions at Trixie earlier this year to generate a criminal complaint against Skaggs.
According to the complaint, department veterinarian Beth Johnson accompanied the investigator, Shane Mitchell, to Trixie on February 2 and concluded that animals there were “critically overcrowded,” and thus at increased risk of disease and aggression.
Johnson also expressed concern in her report that Skaggs appeared to be caring for animals “on a ‘day by day basis.’”
“Their funding is not secure, and what is going to happen when there is no funding available?” she wrote.
In addition, Johnson and Mitchell found refrigerated vials of rabies vaccine that had expired in 2016. And although Skaggs claimed to be approved to vaccinate Trixie dogs and cats, a search of the state’s certification database as far back as 2012 found no trace of Skaggs, according to Johnson’s report.
Despite the fact that animals often are seized when abuse charges are filed, Skaggs’ all remained in his care until last week, in the same conditions the state has alleged are illegal — confined to an area not much larger than a football field.
When KyCIR asked the Department of Agriculture in mid-April why it had not attempted to remove the animals from Trixie once Skaggs was charged, Sean Southard, the department’s director of communications, responded:
“We don’t have the authority to direct or request the removal of these animals.”
But that appears to be precisely what happened following KyCIR’s inquiries to department and other officials.
The search warrant executed at Trixie last Tuesday was obtained by department investigator Mitchell, and he was on the property, directing operations, when the animals were removed.
The warrant authorized the seizure of “any animals” there, although only 14 were taken.
Department spokesman Southard said he saw no inconsistency between his prior statement and Mitchell’s actions.
The animal seizure also was in sharp contrast to Skaggs’ 55-second court appearance on March 15, when there was no mention of the animals’ plight. Nothing was said about the need to do anything, nor was Skaggs directed to act.
He simply pleaded not guilty to the charges and walked out. If convicted, he could be jailed for up to a year and fined thousands of dollars. The next hearing in the case is scheduled for May 24.
The delay in removing animals from the care of someone charged with abusing them is inexcusable and unacceptable, according to Louisville animal-rights attorney Katie Brophy.
Brophy believes a prosecutor is “ethically and legally obligated” to confiscate animals after a cruelty allegation — or else risk being complicit in that cruelty.
Elliott County Attorney Patrick Trent, who’s prosecuting Skaggs, told KyCIR last month that he had tried without success to get the animals removed.
“The logistics of moving that many animals are extensive,” Trent said. “We have to have somewhere to put them.”
Trent said none of the organizations he had asked for help — including the Humane Society of the United States and Animal Rescue Corps — would assist.
“I had never expected to have trouble getting them to intervene,” Trent said. “But they have essentially dropped the ball on us.”
Humane Society officials declined to discuss the Trixie case. Scotlund Haisley, president of Animal Rescue Corps, said it was dealing with too many other cases at the time of Trent’s request to take on another one.
The animals confiscated from Skaggs last week are now in the care of All Dogs Come From Heaven, a rescue organization based in Amelia, Ohio.
Brophy, the animal rights attorney, said whatever Trent has done or tried to do so far is not enough.
“This really is a systemic failure on every governmental level, from the counties to the governor to the Kentucky legislature, past and present,” Brophy said.
One alternative to removing the remainder of the animals from Trixie is called “shelter in place,” which would involve leaving the animals on the property, but under someone else’s direct care and supervision.
Sheltering in place at Trixie might have been a challenge, given that Skaggs shared his spartan housing with numerous animals.
But Susan Jones, an assistant Jefferson County attorney who has prosecuted animal cruelty cases for nearly a decade, said if sheltering in place is the only option, “you make it work.”
That could include removing the animals living with Skaggs in his residence, and expanding the two-acre area to give the rest more room to roam, Jones said. Skaggs would be ordered to have nothing to do with them.
“We’ve got victims who have no power and are being treated badly enough to warrant the charge of cruelty to animals,” she said. “You find a way.”
Trent told KyCIR last month that sheltering in place is not an option he had actively pursued. In a follow-up call last week, he declined further comment.
Worker safety violations found, forgotten
Another state investigation raised additional serious questions about living conditions at Trixie — this time, for its employees.
Documents obtained by KyCIR from the state Labor Cabinet describe a repulsive habitat at Trixie when cabinet inspectors went there on May 19, 2014, in response to a complaint.
But the cabinet ultimately gave Skaggs a pass.
Coming off a narrow dirt road, four miles from the highway, more than seven miles from the nearest (unincorporated) town, and with no cell phone service, the inspectors noted they felt “very uncomfortable” approaching the property.
On site, the inspectors said they saw:
A urine-soaked, falling-apart chair in the employees’ ramshackle housing. Animal feces, and more urine, everywhere. Black mold growing in the bathroom. Non-working kitchen appliances. A live wire running from the bathroom through a nearby flowing stream. Numerous other electrical hazards.
What they didn’t see: smoke detectors, fire alarms or extinguishers.
“The area smelled so bad that (the inspectors) could not stay in there too long,” they wrote in their report.
And what they described about Skaggs’ living quarters was just as offensive.
That building too was soiled with feces and urine, the inspectors said. It had no running water or electricity. Skaggs’ “bed” consisted of an elevated wooden platform. Floorboards near the door were splintered, making walking unsafe.
Skaggs was cited for 14 violations of standards for employee safety, living and working conditions. He didn’t dispute them. He simply told the Labor Cabinet in a handwritten response that he had fixed the problems.
And the cabinet took his word for it.
No follow-up inspection was ever conducted to ensure compliance. No one from the cabinet has been back since.
And the $35,000 fine initially proposed for Skaggs’ violations was slashed by nearly 95 percent, to just $1,800, after Skaggs complained that a harsher penalty would put him “out of business.”
Chuck Stribling, the cabinet’s federal-state coordinator for occupational safety and health, said the agency doesn’t have enough resources to routinely perform follow-up visits.
“That’s the way it works,” Stribling said.
He acknowledged that Skaggs could have lied about coming into compliance.
“You hope the employer’s being truthful and honest when they sign that piece of paper that says they’ve abated the hazard,” Stribling said.
The likely consequences of lying to the Cabinet seem to be nil. Stribling said only “about 1 of 100” complaints generates a follow-up inspection.
Had one been done recently, the cabinet might have found conditions not too unlike those it encountered four years earlier, according to a former Trixie employee.
Abigail Miller said she had been living in her car in Lexington when she responded to a Craigslist ad and went to work at Trixie in January. But she didn’t last long – just a few days.
Miller told KyCIR that she and a friend were attracted to Trixie partly because it offered free lodging.
Skaggs “made it sound like, ‘Oh, you’re gonna have a stove and everything’s gonna be good. This is really a dream,’” Miller said. “My friend and I wanted to work there as long as we could, but it was just not OK.”
The 28-year-old Miller said “not OK” included a dirty mattress on a wooden frame, a toilet that didn’t work, and a bathtub filled “with brown water that had backed up.”
Photographs and videos she shared with KyCIR appear to show blood, vomit, feces and dead rodents on the ground, several scrawny-looking dogs with open wounds and containers in animals’ living quarters labeled “poison do not touch.”
“It was impossible to keep anything clean,” Miller said. “We were just covered in dog poop and mud the entire time. And we had to use a bucket with a trash bag in it for a toilet.”
Replying to Miller’s description, Skaggs described her and her friend as a “plant” sent to Trixie by his critics to expose him. And Skaggs contended that “instead of doing their job, they took photographs.”
He conceded, however, that those photographs “were less than flattering, let me put it that way.”
Few options in EIliott County
The other option for abandoned animals in Elliott County is the county’s “shelter.” Located next to the maintenance garage, it consists of two small, unheated cages with wire mesh fronts.
The cages were empty when KyCIR and WAVE3 visited last month. County officials said heated cages were being built, and that animals are held by the county for no more than five days before they are released to a rescue organization or a veterinarian.
The county’s animal control officer, Ronnie “Harv” Smith, said he typically picks up approximately 20 dogs a month. Smith said he’d been to Trixie several times, and that he was disgusted by what he saw.
Asked why Elliott County – one of the state’s poorest – hasn’t had a better shelter, Smith replied, “Ain’t no money.”
Meanwhile, forms that the Trixie Foundation files with the Internal Revenue Service paint a very different financial picture at the nonprofit “sanctuary.”
The forms show that Trixie received more than $100,000 in contributions each year from 2014 through 2016.
But at least one major donor withdrew financial support for Trixie after learning about conditions there.
Prior to her death in 2016, Alice Roberts of Covington had donated as much as $55,000 to Trixie, including money to purchase a white Chevrolet van for transporting animals, according to Skaggs.
Her donations stopped about a decade ago, after attorney Daniel Mistler and James Auvil, a veterinarian, visited Trixie on behalf of Roberts to see if troubling stories they’d heard about the place were true.
Mistler declined to speak with KyCIR. But Auvil, who is now retired, said they viewed sick animals in need of medical attention, substandard housing and overall mismanagement.
Auvil said he left Trixie with a feeling of “just, horror,” and that he and Mistler recommended that Roberts stop giving money to Skaggs.
She did so “immediately,” Auvil said.
Skaggs’ recollection of Mistler’s and Auvil’s visit is much different. He insisted that the visitors thought the animals at Trixie “looked great.”
He also asserted that most of the donations Trixie receives are spent on animal care. But the foundation’s 2016 tax form shows that, of its more than $123,000 total income for the year, Skaggs spent less than $22,000 on animal food, supplies and medical care.
Other expenses he listed included $23,000 for employee salaries and benefits and almost $15,000 for utilities and maintenance.
At year’s end, the foundation reported a $51,705 surplus.
Skaggs reported paying himself just $772 over three years, working an average of 80 hours a week.
Trixie workers also are paid a pittance – a mere $50 to $100 a week, Skaggs acknowledged. He encourages employees to apply for public assistance.
Critics say that the meager wages, even when combined with free housing, often mean that Trixie tends to attract vulnerable people who are down on their luck, jobless and often homeless.
“Anybody that comes here for the money is a fool,” he said. “Everybody that’s here right now, they’re here because they care.”