A public outcry prompted 12 dogs to be removed from a property in Wayne County, as the battle for tougher laws continues.

LYONS — Last weekend’s bitter cold sent Nina Nigro of Geneva and a friend to a residence in Wayne County.

They were worried about the condition of dogs that were left outside in the cold. When they arrived, they discovered their worst fear, Nigro said: Dogs confined to chain-link fence cages filled with snow.

“No food, no water,” Nigro said in the short video she took of two of the cages, each dog jumping inside the fence as she approached. Nearby, her friend confronted the dog owner in a chilly verbal exchange as she videotaped, according to Nigro.

The pair who paid a visit to resident Robert Juliano Jr. in Lyons weren’t the only ones looking out for the dozen dogs at the residence on Middle Sodus Road. Hundreds of concerned citizens reported the dog owner, alleging animal abuse. State police received more than 200 calls Saturday, Jan. 6, from people worried for the dogs’ safety. In addition to contacting police and animal control officers, neighbors took to social media posting videos of the dogs on Facebook. Troopers said Wayne County sheriff’s deputies visited the owner and he agreed to take the dogs inside for the night.

Juliano was not charged with animal cruelty, but he had been charged two years ago with animal cruelty, on Jan. 9, 2016. Three dogs had been removed from his home and turned over to the humane society.

Juliano could not be reached for comment this past week, despite one of the messages left for him reaching a relative who said he would return the call.

In the recent case, Wayne County Sheriff Barry Virts said deputies had been to the dog owner’s home several times over the past couple weeks. Each time, deputies tried to educate the owner on how to better take care of his pets. Then, last Saturday, they convinced him to bring the dogs inside, but the sheriff said no crime was committed.

“Every time we went out there, the animal cruelty officer, we found no loss of hair, no frostbite, the weight was consistent with the other times that we went out there,” Virts said. “They found the dogs to be in good health order.”

“It wasn’t a situation where we could just storm onto the property and arrest the individual,” added Wayne County District Attorney Mike Calarco. Deputies were to continue monitoring the dogs’ living conditions.

But in a turn of events Friday, the Sheriff’s Office released a statement saying deputies had removed the dogs and placed them in the custody and care of the Wayne County Humane Society. In addition, the Sheriff’s Office reported that the Lyons code enforcement officer has issued a stop-work order to prevent the dog owner from maintaining a kennel for commercial purposes.

All of the dogs have received vaccinations and are properly licensed, the deputies reported.

Over the past week, the Wayne Humane Society had received numerous threats via social media and telephone, which are being investigated, the Sheriff’s Office stated. That investigation is continuing with help from the Lyons animal control officer, Lyons code enforcement, state Agriculture and Markets, the Wayne County Humane Society and animal abuse investigators from the Wayne County District Attorney’s Office.

What protections?

With the return this weekend of biting cold temperatures, people are again on the lookout for dogs and other animals that may be in jeopardy.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, cats and dogs, like people, are susceptible to frostbite and hypothermia and should be kept inside. Longer-haired and thick-coated dog breeds, such as huskies and other dogs bred for colder climates, are more tolerant of cold weather. But veterinarians caution that no pet should be left outside for long periods of time in below-freezing weather.

Nigro and others want more done to protect animals by ensuring that laws on the books have teeth and law enforcement goes after violators.

At issue for some is the law itself.

Allison Meconi was among those following the situation involving the dogs left out in Lyons. A former police officer in North Carolina, she said she couldn’t imagine how the conditions she saw these dogs under weren’t grounds for an arrest. After working 16 years in law enforcement, however, she said she also understands the constraints officers are under in needing to adhere to what’s on the books.

Bill McGuigan is chief of the Ontario County Humane Society. He said when cold sets in, the Humane Society gets a lot of calls from people concerned over the welfare of animals left outside. Article 26 of the New York State Agriculture and Markets Law deals with cruelty to animals. But the law is outdated and lacks specifics that create fuzzy areas in some cases when it comes to enforcement, McGuigan said.

The law would have more teeth if it was updated, McGuigan said.

“It is frustrating for us because the law is so vague the way it is written,” McGuigan said.

For example, if a person feels a dog is in distress, there has to be evidence the dog is in distress. There isn’t a maximum amount of time a dog can be left outside or a threshold for temperature. Dogs of various breeds, along with other factors, can also influence tolerance to cold.

It is all based on observations of the officer to determine if the animal is in distress, McGuigan said.

Mark Plyter is director of the Wayne County Humane Society, which operates exclusively as a shelter and does not have enforcement authority. Plyter also sees troubles with the law intended to protect animals.

“There is a lot of room for interpretation and a lot of gray areas,” Plyter said.

Joel Freedman of Canandaigua, an outspoken animal rights activist, said “if you inflict unnecessary suffering on someone else — human or animal — then it is cruelty. It is common sense."

When it come to adequate shelter for dogs, however, there are specifics in Section 353-b of Article 26 of the Ag and Markets Law. McGuigan said dogs are the only animals in the law specifically required to have shelter and the criteria applies to dogs left outside for long, not short, periods of time.

When it comes to the shelter law, Freedman said it’s about prevention.

“If an animal does not have frostbite, the purpose of shelter law is to prevent it from happening,” Freedman said.

In a Dec. 9, 2017, essay published in the Messenger, “Protecting ‘man’s best friend,’” Freedman wrote that the legislation was designed to permit police and other cruelty investigators to better protect dogs from harm.

The law requires that a dog shelter have a waterproof roof and be structurally sound with insulation appropriate to local climate conditions and sufficient to protect the dogs from inclement weather. It must be constructed to allow each dog adequate freedom of movement including the ability to stand up, turn around and lie down with limbs outstretched. There are also requirements that the shelter and area immediately surrounding it be kept clean and free of accumulated waste.

Freedman mentioned an ordinance Canandaigua City Council enacted 12 years ago that makes it illegal to tether dogs outside for more than 16 hours a day, even if outdoor sheltering otherwise complies with state laws. Freedman and others are pushing for a more restrictive ordinance that would limit outdoor tethering to no more than 8 hours a day — and that much time only in good weather — and to see other communities follow the example set by Canandaigua.

Nigro said she and others are in contact with state Sen. Pam Helming, R-Canandaigua, about their concerns and are pushing for an update of the Ag and Markets law so there can be uniform heightened protections for animals.

Helming responded with a statement:

“I am an animal lover and a strong supporter of animal protections and helping pets and their owners,” she wrote. “During my first year in office, I supported a number of animal advocacy measures, such as instituting penalties for harming a companion animal while committing another felony, increasing penalties for torturing, killing, or neglecting an animal, and preventing animal abusers from working at animal shelters.”

Helming added she “fought to secure $5 million in the state budget to create a first-of-its-kind Companion Animal Capital Fund to provide humane societies, nonprofits, and municipal shelters with grants for capital projects. I look forward to continuing to meet with animal advocates and supporting legislation that helps protect pets from abuse.”

Includes reporting by Daily Messenger news partner, News10 NBC