Shelter Reform Roundtable Set Up to Fail

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As a response to the Helmetta Regional Animal Shelter debacle, State Senator Linda Greenstein took up the issue of shelter reform. State Senator Greenstein’s district contains several municipalities which contracted with Helmetta Regional Animal Shelter. Ms. Greenstein found out firsthand what the true nature of many New Jersey’s shelters are like when she was denied access to the facility.

State Senator Greenstein convened a roundtable recently on reforming New Jersey’s animal shelter system. Understandably, Ms. Greenstein attempted to bring together a variety of people who could provide valuable input into the eventual drafting of shelter reform legislation. Unfortunately, many of these individuals represent obstacles to meaningful shelter reform legislation.

Humane Society of the United States and Animal Welfare Federation of New Jersey Dominate Roundtable

Despite its name, the Humane Society of the United States (“HSUS”) has been one of the biggest opponents to real shelter reform in the nation. In the 1990’s, HSUS told shelters to kill rather than send animals to rescues due to moving the animals being potentially “stressful.” In 2003, HSUS argued a shelter should not give a euthanasia list to a rescue group dedicated to saving animals from a local kill shelter. HSUS advised the shelter not to work with this rescue group arguing the rescue group was holding the shelter “hostage.” Ironically, regressive shelters often hold animals hostage in exchange for rescues not speaking the truth about these organizations. In 1998, HSUS opposed Hayden’s Act in California which prevented shelters from killing animals that rescues were willing to save. Luckily, California enacted this legislation which resulted in rescues saving large numbers of animals. During the 1990s, feral cat activists in North Carolina requested HSUS help them persuade their local shelter to allow TNR in their area. Not only did HSUS refuse to help the TNR advocates, HSUS wrote a letter to the local prosecutor stating feral cat colony caretakers should be charged with abandonment. Around 2007, HSUS raised funds from the public to “care for the dogs” seized during the Michael Vick dog fighting case, but did not care for the dogs and actually lobbied authorities to kill these dogs. Last year, HSUS stopped a Minnesota bill which would prevent shelters from killing animals rescues were willing to take, ban the gas chamber and heart sticking, and killing owner surrenders immediately. Thus, HSUS has long opposed progressive shelter reform efforts.

HSUS actions are consistent with an industry lobbying group focused on protecting the organizations it represents and not the animals. Most industries have a lobbying group to advocate for its companies’ interests. For example, the American Bankers Association works to undermine financial regulations. The American Petroleum Institute spends large sums of money to open up lands to exploit natural resources at the cost of the the environment. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which is the major lobbyist for the food industry, has fought to kill legislation requiring food companies to label products with genetically modified (“GMO”) ingredients. Similarly, HSUS tries to block efforts designed to make shelters do more work and face more scrutiny. Thus, HSUS is nothing more than an industry lobbyist group with a kind name when it comes to shelter reform legislation.

The Animal Welfare Federation of New Jersey (“AWFNJ”) also has a poor track record. This group’s mission statement includes “uniting all New Jersey animal protection organizations”, but makes no mention of reducing the death toll at New Jersey animal shelters. Based on the most recently reported data to the Office of Animal Welfare, 27,936 dogs and cats were killed, died or went missing at New Jersey Animal shelters in a single year. This number rises to 30,048 if dogs and cats shelters failed to account for are included in the totals. Despite the severe problems at numerous New Jersey shelters in the last year, the AWFNJ was shockingly silent. In fact, the AWFNJ’s web site currently lists the former manager of one of these problem shelters as a member of its Board of Directors. The Montclair Township Animal Welfare Advisory Committee, whose Vice Chair is a local respected veterinarian, long advocated the Shelter Manager, Melissa Neiss, be replaced due to the shelter’s alleged neglect of its animals. Why should we trust an organization which allows this sort of person to serve on their Board of Directors? Even worse, the AWFNJ wrote a letter to Governor Christie in 2011 opposing new legislation preventing shelters from killing owner surrenders during a 7 day hold period. Luckily, the 7 day hold period for owner surrendered animals became law and killing owner surrendered animals within minutes of arriving at shelters is now illegal. Thus, the AWFNJ has done little to nothing to stop recent shelter abuses and tried to block essential shelter reform.

HSUS and AWFNJ have too much influence over the shelter reform roundtable. New Jersey State Director of HSUS and AWFNJ board member, Kathleen Schatzmann, serves on the roundtable. Niki Dawson, who worked at HSUS in 2012, and recently served as AWFNJ President is also a member of the roundtable. Similarly, St. Huberts Executive Director, Heather Cammissa, held several positions at HSUS, including Kathleen Schatzmann’s current job, and and is on the Advisory Board of AWFNJ. Additionally, the current AWFNJ President and Director of Animal Alliance, Anne Trinkle, also serves on the shelter reform roundtable. Thus, the shelter establishment industry has too much of a voice in actually reforming and regulating New Jersey’s animal shelters.

Helmetta Regional Animal Shelter’s Failed Regulator Serves on Shelter Reform Roundtable

The Director of Middlesex County Department of Health, Lester Jones, is also a roundtable member. Mr. Jones’ agency allowed the Helmetta Regional Animal Shelter to go on its merry way for years despite large numbers of complaints and poor inspection reports. Even worse, Lester Jones actually defended the shelter last August saying the problems were no big deal and again in September. Additionally, the Middlesex County Department of Health opposes TNR and Helmetta Regional Animal Shelter fulfilled Lester’s department’s wish with the facility’s catch and kill policy for feral cats. While Lester Jones did make some meaningful suggestions at the roundtable, the past history of his organization is worrisome.

Shelter Establishment Shows its True Colors at Shelter Reform Roundtable

State Senator Greenstein made some key points about New Jersey’s shelters. Specifically, State Senator Greenstein said existing shelter law and its enforcement allows many shelters to do bad things. Ms. Greenstein cited Helmetta as an example of a shelter which took too many animals in to properly care for them.

State Senator Greenstein correctly pointed out the distinction between kill and no kill shelters as follows:

“My take on this whole thing standing back on it and looking at it is that it comes down to these competing philosophies,” she said. “There’s the old-fashion philosophy which we call a kill shelter. I realize that you are pretty much taking the animals in like you would any other trash and you have to keep them for a week then you probably much expect to get rid of them and that leads to the idea of that it’s ok for them to get sick and it’s ok for the conditions not to be too clean and the state standards don’t require too much.”

She said then there the whole new philosophy that you shelters that are doing a good job are into this “no kill philosophy.”

“Try to get them adopted and do whatever you can to keep them healthy,” she said.

Despite this correct and common sense summary of the situation, the shelter industry hacks jumped in and said don’t use the words “kill” and “no kill” as it apparently hurts the feelings of people killing their animals:

New Jersey State Director of the Humane Society of the United States Kathleen Schatzmann warned that the term “no kill shelter” could be “very polarizing to certain groups.” “If perhaps we cannot use that terminology I think all of the good groups have the same end goal in mind to lessen the euthanasia rates and have as much adoption and volunteer participation as possible,” said Ms. Schatzmann.

No kill is mainstream now as major national groups, such as Maddies Fund and Best Friends use the term. In fact, Best Friends argues we should start being honest and drop the word “euthanasia” altogether and use “kill” when shelters take the lives of healthy and treatable animals. Both these groups directly are working on making large communities no kill while HSUS contributes hardly any of its funds to saving companion animals. Additionally, the more we avoid being honest about what is at stake (i.e. whether we kill animals or not), the less likely we will take action to stop it. Thus, HSUS employee and AWFNJ board member, Kathleen Schatzmann, once again shows these groups are more focused on protecting the shelter industry than the animals who are being slaughtered by the people running these so called shelters.

Former HSUS employee and ex-AWNJ President, Niki Dawson, showed where her allegiances lie with this doozy of a remark:

Helmetta Regional Animal Shelter Interim Director Niki Dawson agreed that the phrase should be “avoided.” “It is polarizing for those animal facilities that are doing the best that they can but may not have the resources to have an on-site behavioral trainer to work with some of the more difficult dogs,” said Ms. Dawson.

So shelters are killing animals because they can’t afford a behaviorist? This is a joke as shelters across the nation with few financial resources manage to save their dogs. Perth Amboy Animal Shelter, which serves a community with a higher poverty rate than Jersey City, saved 97% of its dogs in 2013 and only euthanized 5 dogs in 2014. Additionally, Perth Amboy Animal Shelter only spent $281 per cat and dog in 2013. As a comparison, East Orange Animal Shelter, which had horrific problems last year, spent $345 per dog and cat in 2013. Associated Humane Societies, which has its largest kill shelter in Newark, took in revenue of around $1,000 per dog and cat based on its most recently reported data. Similarly, Old Bridge Animal Shelter, which serves a middle class area, saved 99% of its dogs despite only having a budget of $152 per dog and cat in 2013. If Perth Amboy Animal Shelter and Old Bridge Animal Shelter can achieve this success with their meager funding, then other shelters can do so as well.

Shelters do not require an on-site behavioral trainer to save their dogs. Approximately 80-90% of dogs coming into shelters do not have severe behavior issues. Therefore, shelters can achieve no kill or come close to doing so without needing serious behavior rehabilitation. Shelters can hire a trainer on a part time basis or even get a trainer to volunteer their services to help the few dogs with serious behavior issues. Finally, shelters can run large scale dog play groups, such as Amy Sadler’s Playing for Life program, which significantly reduces behavior problems in shelter dogs. Most importantly, these types of playgroups do not require a trainer or behaviorist.

Niki Dawson’s comments are very disappointing, but not surprising. While I held out hope Ms. Dawson changed her ways, her past experience working at HSUS and at high kill shelters likely still impacts her mindset. While serving as Executive Director at Camden County Animal Shelter, the dog kill rate increased from approximately 20% in 2007 and 19% in 2008, the two years before Ms. Dawson’s tenure as Executive Director began near the end of 2008, to 28% in her last calender year at the shelter in 2010. In 2013, Camden County Animal Shelter’s kill rate was back down to 19%. In 2010 while Niki Dawson was assisting Liberty Humane Society, many people in the community criticized her shelter for killing dogs. In a roughly one month span, Liberty Humane Society killed 25 dogs along with 47 cats and some people questioned how the shelter used temperament testing to make life and death decisions for dogs. No kill leader, Nathan Winograd, told Ms. Dawson she was not doing enough positive outreach and she had alternatives to killing dogs. Thus, Ms. Dawson’s defense of high kill shelters is not surprising based on her fairly recent experience running these types of facilities.

St. Huberts Executive Director, Heather Cammisa, who used to work at HSUS and is on the AWFNJ Advisory Board, said New Jersey’s animal shelters are just dandy:

Executive Director of St. Hubert’s Heather Cammisa said that they have made tremendous progress in New Jersey in not euthanizing animals.”We’ve come a really far way so now that we can share how we got there with our states they look up to us as a leader,” said Ms. Cammisa. She attributes it to responsive, effective animal control in every municipality, low-cost spay and neutering accessibility and the law in 1983.

Call me crazy, but I don’t consider the loss of as many as 30,000 or more dog and cat lives in New Jersey shelters during 2013 a success. Furthermore, would you consider Ron’s Animal Shelter an example of “tremendous progress?” Ron’s Animal Shelter killed 65% and 86% of its dogs and cats in 2013 and reported virtually identical kill rates in 2006. Any state that allows a shelter to keep on operating a slaughterhouse like that is no “leader.” Additionally, New Jersey animal shelters had a combined dog and cat kill rate of 28% in 2013 while only 11% of dogs and cats were euthanized in Colorado’s animal shelters during that same year. New Jersey’s kill rate was nearly 3 times higher than Colorado’s euthanasia rate despite Colorado shelters taking in nearly 3.5 times as many dogs and cats per capita. Thus, New Jersey animal shelters are not “leaders”, they are an embarrassment.

Like Niki Dawson, Heather Cammissa’s past history working for a kill shelter likely influences her views. Ms. Cammissa served as Executive Director of the Jersey Shore Animal Center for 5 years. During her last year as Executive Director in 2006, the shelter killed 45% of its cats. Furthermore, she worked for HSUS during a tumultuous time when HSUS vehemently opposed the no kill movement. Not surprisingly, her current shelter refuses to use the term “no kill” and says its “divisive among animal welfare professionals.”

That being said, Ms. Cammissa did say New Jersey shelters need to “clean up” their data reporting. Unfortunately, many more things need fixing as well.

Animal Alliance Director and AWFNJ President Anne Trinkle claimed our laws are fine and we just need better enforcement:

“The law, as it is written, is pretty comprehensive it is just a matter of enforcement,” said Annie Trinkle, director of Animal Alliance and Welfare Federation of New Jersey.

I do agree that New Jersey animal shelter laws are reasonably good relating to humane care. Certainly, effective enforcement would help. However, the penalties for noncompliance are too weak and municipalities hold too much power when things go wrong. Additionally, more specificity on how humane care is provided, such as requiring animal enclosures be cleaned twice a day, is needed. As a result, a horrific shelter like Helmetta can continue on its merry way for far too long.

Enforcing shelter laws mandating humane care may lead to increased killing if lifesaving requirements are not put into law. Simply put, shelters can comply with existing laws cheaply and easily by killing animals right after their 7 day hold period. That is why I recommend that New Jersey enact the Companion Animal Protection Act.

Shelter Reform Roundtable Members from Outside the Animal Shelter Lobby Must Stand Up and Fight for What is Right

The shelters invited to the roundtable are not role model shelters in my opinion. While these shelters do have relatively low euthanasia rates and I’m sure provide humane care, these organizations’ contribution to making New Jersey a no kill state falls far below their potential. Specifically, these shelters are blessed with excess space relative to the number of local animals they need to adopt out and some serve very affluent areas. Unfortunately, based on my recent analysis of these shelters’ performance on dogs and an upcoming one on cats, these organizations do not save nearly as many animals from New Jersey as they should. Thus, these groups are not rock star shelters and their low euthanasia rates are due more to favorable circumstances than highly successful operations.

State Senator Greenstein said certain members of the roundtable were not interested in fundamental change. Unfortunately, this is not surprising given the number of the establishment shelter industry insiders on the roundtable.

As I’ve previously stated, our state’s shelter system needs monumental changes if we are going to become a no kill state. Specifically, we need to do the following things to end the killing of healthy and treatable animals in New Jersey:

  1. Require the Office of Animal Welfare to do quarterly inspections for every shelter in the state
  2. Institute the Companion Animal Protection Act (“CAPA”)
  3. Enact a no kill resolution instructing all shelters to develop a plan to reach at least a 90% save rate as the Austin, Texas City Council did
  4. Mandatory data reporting in the Companion Animal Protection Act should require an audit or at least a thorough independent review for accuracy

CAPA and a no kill resolution are essential as regressive shelters will simply kill more animals after the 7 day hold period if we raise humane care standards. Furthermore, too many shelters, such as Helmetta Regional Animal Shelter, will bully volunteers and rescues from speaking up about poor treatment of animals without explicit laws making this illegal. CAPA requires shelters to follow many parts of the no kill equation, which is a series of programs proven to reduce or actually end the killing of savable animals. Specifically, CAPA requires animal shelters/municipalities do the following common sense things:

  1. Implement TNR and prohibit anti-feral cat policies
  2. Develop detailed animal care protocols for all animals, which includes nursing mothers, unweaned kittens and puppies, and animals which are old, sick, injured or needing therapeutic exercise
  3. Clean animal enclosures at least two times per day to maintain proper hygiene and be welcoming to prospective adopters
  4. Not kill any animal a rescue is willing to take
  5. Prohibit banning of rescues unless the rescue is currently charged with or convicted of animal cruelty/neglect
  6. Contact all rescues at least two business days before an animal is killed
  7. Match lost pet reports with animals in shelter and post stray animals on the internet immediately to help find lost pets owners
  8. Promote animals for adoption using local media and the internet
  9. Adopt animals out seven days a week for at least six hours each day, which includes evenings and weekends when potential adopters are likely to visit
  10. Not have discriminatory adoption policies based on breed/age/species/appearance (i.e. can’t prohibit pit bull, elderly pet, etc. adoptions)
  11. Offer low cost spay/neuter services, substantive volunteer opportunities to the public, and pet owner surrender prevention services
  12. Not kill any animals when empty cages exist, enclosures can be shared with other animals, or foster homes are available
  13. Shelter Executive Director must certify they have no other alternative when killing/euthanizing an animal
  14. Publicly display animal shelter intake and disposition statistics (i.e. numbers of animals taken in, adopted, returned to owner, killed, etc) for the prior year
  15. Provide the local government and the public access to the intake and disposition statistics each month
  16. Pet licensing revenues must be used to fund low cost spay/neuter and medical care for shelter animals rather than go to other government uses

My advice to the other roundtable members, such as the two former Helmetta Regional Animal Shelter volunteers and State Senator Greenstein, is to stand up for what is right. Do not let people with imposing sounding job titles intimidate you. The public is behind you and wants you to enact the above things. As in Austin, Texas, activists fought the Austin Animal Services shelter director and the ASPCA and made their city the largest no kill community in the country. Like the HSUS and former HSUS members on the roundtable, the ASPCA told activists not to criticize the high kill city shelter. After 1 year of implementing the ASPCA plan, killing actually increased by 11%. No kill activists subsequently convinced the City Council to implement the no kill resolution despite the ASPCA’s opposition and Austin has been a no kill city for the last four years.

To those not on the shelter reform roundtable, please contact State Senator Greenstein at this link and tell her you want fundamental change like the recommendations above.

Our shelter system is in crisis and we need to call out the defenders and enablers of the status quo. If we truly want to save our state’s homeless animals, we need to say enough is enough. Only then will we put the policies into place to make New Jersey the no kill state it should be.

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6 thoughts on “Shelter Reform Roundtable Set Up to Fail

  1. Thank you for this excellent account of the recent shelter reform roundtable, and the short comings which will likely result in the continuation of business as usual in the NJ shelter system. Rome was not built in a day, and similarly I would expect Senator Greenstein’s roundtable to hopefully represent simply a starting point for her to become as informed as possible in this forum.

    It is my hope Senator Greenstein will be open to input from other individuals and groups who are interested in reforming our states shelter system policies and standards. As you have pointed out, Perth Amboy and Old Bridge are 2 examples that show it is possible to operate a compassionate and successful operation even on a limited budget. It is time that those shelters in our state operating at sub-par levels, with high kill rates and substandard conditions within their facilities, resign themselves to the fact that there is room for improvement and they need to evaluate their operations to identify where they are lacking and what they can do to achieve the results and success that those like Perth Amboy and Old Bridge have managed to, even in the absence of reformed shelter guidelines the roundtable is seeking to establish.

    Many of these facilities operate using tax dollars and as taxpayers we need to demand that those dollars are spent wisely and effectively and that those in charge of services our dollars provide are managing these facilities as efficiently and creatively as possible and to meet an acceptable level of standards that positively reflect on the municipalities which they serve.

    Animals have come to be much more than just pets in recent years. People have come to value animals as members of their families and recognize how their lives are enriched by the role they play in their personal lives as well as society on the whole as service dogs for the disabled, security for our airports, police and armed forces, bedbug detection and even humane removal of problematic geese.

    These municipal shelters should and need to be held to a higher standard of excellence just as other services that municipalities provide on their taxpayers dollars. Our police depts. and fire depts. are always striving to improve. Whether it be response times, crime rates, etc., and they constantly evaluate procedures for where improvements can be made and implement training and drills that focus on improving their performance. Shelters should be held to a similar standard of conduct. Shelter directors need to be held accountable for the operating standards, conditions and performance of their facility.

    This is the new millennium and these facilities need to rise to the times and serve the community not just exist in some out of the way corner in it. People are more passionate about animals now than ever before. Shelters need to welcome and make use of those in their community willing to be involved. Unfortunately, many of the shelters don’t because they do not want people to see the practices they know are less than acceptable and which need improvement but the directors are either too lazy, too corrupt or too understaffed to change. Transparency is lacking and that is a major reason the inadequacies will continue to be a problem to the detriment of the animals and those who they belong to or who have an interest in their welfare.

    Senator Greenstein needs to be open to at least listening to input from others outside those with lucrative agendas they need to protect, like the groups she entertained at the first roundtable, if she genuinely is interested in the kind of meaningful change new legislation has the promise of creating.

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  2. Fyi many of your suggestions were discussed as well. Needless to add it is only the first of many round table discussion. I applaud the Senator for not only being instrumental into getting the various agencies to react to Helmetta , but now to reform and protect animals. Just remember an open discussion is listening to ALL sides. Your entitled to your opinion but I think your article is to negative when it is just a first step towards change. That is something you should be happy about.

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    • Virginia,

      I appreciate the feedback. As I stated in my blog, State Senator Greenstein correctly assessed the situation. My concern is with the anti-no kill people on the board and their ability to influence. HSUS and the ASPCA have fought no kill for years and consistently are late to the game when it comes to innovations in animal sheltering. Many of the progressive things they now tout, they once opposed (i.e. working with rescues, TNR, etc.). You can read a lot about it here:

      http://www.nathanwinograd.com/?p=13947

      Thus, my message is for you and the other individuals on the roundtable who are not affiliated with HSUS/AWFNJ is to fight for what is right.

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      • That was discussed including the defining of “no kill” and “low kill”. Including compelling shelters exhaust all avenues before using euthanasia . Behavior evaluation and rehabilitation.

        Sent from my T-Mobile 4G LTE Device

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      • I believe the Senator will make the right decision for the animals. She has various people to hear all the pros and cons of all the issues. Keep in mind this is the first meeting. The cry in this country is “no kill” so that I am sure will guide her as well, in my humble opinion.

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