Change at controversial animal shelter; Former councilman tapped to head SPCA

A former Jersey City councilman has been chosen to head the troubled Hudson County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, replacing the current embattled director, officials said last week. The shelter serves Jersey City, Hoboken, Weehawken, West New York and Secaucus. Tom Hart, an animal lover who served as Ward D Councilman for much of the 1980s and ran a failed mayoral campaign in 1989, was voted in by the SPCA board of directors recently to become the new head of the organization, replacing Executive Director Jack Shaw. Shaw will nevertheless remain on the ten-member board of directors. “There will be some dramatic changes,” promised Hart. “Though I’m not here to impose any criticisms of what’s gone on. I’m not going to assign blame.” Criticism and blame nonetheless have come rolling in from many local animal groups, and the shouting became loudest last month when an employee of the shelter, a homeless man named Carlos Tan, apparently beat a dog with a shovel. While officials at the SPCA on Johnston Avenue say the dog suffered no ill effects and has since been adopted, witnesses to the incident insist the dog could not have survived. The city issued summonses to the SPCA as a result of the incident, according to Joe Frank, Animal Control Officer for Jersey City. The violations include failure to report a biting incident, failure to quarantine an animal properly after a biting incident and failure to have a veterinarian available. If found guilty, the SPCA stands to pay out a considerable amount of money. “It’s safe to say they’ll be fined a couple thousand,” if found guilty, said Frank. Positive feedback Hart will have many problems to overcome, but reaction around the county to his appointment was resoundingly positive. “I think we can say, ‘Thank God for the animals,'” said Anne Hobby, President of the Hudson County Animal League. “I think Tom will make the necessary changes,” said Wendy Neu, President of Companion Animal Placement, Inc., a Hoboken-based animal welfare organization, “so we’re very pleased about that.” But while Mayor Bret Schundler’s chief of staff, Tom Gallagher, noted Hart’s past animal advocacy, he was circumspect about the current facility. “The best provider in the world in a sub-standard facility is going to have problems,” he said. The mayor’s office has made no secret that they’d like to see a brand new facility built, preferably on the west side off Route 440, near the Hudson Mall. Where they will get the money to do that is another matter. The city has said they would be willing to commit around $1 million in funding, but would like to see interested local animal groups raise a large portion of the necessary funding. Some of them have been undertaking campaigns to do so. But Hart wants to something for the county’s animals now. “The fact of the matter is, even if we get a new shelter, it’s two years away,” he said. Talks between Shaw and Hart had been going on for some time, according to both. Initially, Hart said he would assist Shaw with veterinary services, public relations and promotion. He was surprised, then, when Shaw suggested he take the director’s position. The position will continue to be unpaid. While many animal groups have complained over the condition of the facility and the treatment of the animals kept in the shelter, Shaw maintains that he ran the shelter appropriately. He said the reason visitors have found sick or ill-fed or injured animals is because the animals came to the shelter in that condition. As a result of these problems, Shaw said the SPCA will change its policies. “We will no longer accept sick or injured or tick-infested animals,” said Shaw. “I am getting tired of getting animals who are extremely abused and having a person come in the next day” believing the animal had been mistreated, he said. What Hart wants to do Hart, a city employee in the Department of Recreation and Cultural Affairs and a former Ward D councilman, plans on changing a number of things at the facility, starting with the name. He no longer wants it referred to as a shelter, but as “The Assisi Center.” (St. Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of animals in Catholicism, and is now considered a historical figure, according to Hart). Hart is also making plans for an Oct. 7 street fair, is printing up T-shirts for sale, is looking into staying open 24 hours, and is pursuing funding from outside sources for the private, non-profit organization. Active in the city for years on animal issues, Hart began the Jersey City Animal Welfare Committee nine years ago. He understands the challenge of keeping an adoption center open at a time when few people are interested in getting their animals from a shelter. “Most people want to buy their status symbol Akita at a kennel, rather than go to the SPCA for a 6-year-old mutt,” he said. And he added, “People involved with animals are not part of a lunatic fringe.” Squabble continues Even with the proposed changes, a squabble between the city and the shelter regarding the city’s payments to the facility may continue. According to Mayoral Chief of Staff Gallagher, the city did not pay the shelter for accepting animals for a period of years in order to “compel better performance.” But Shaw is upset that the city continues to withhold payment while continuing to send animals over. In a settlement reached last year, the city agreed to pay approximately $250,000 in money owed to the facility for a period of about five to six years. That money has been paid out, but the city has not yet paid for services beginning in January of this year. That’s because, said Gallagher, the city sent a contract for the SPCA to sign. But the SPCA subsequently made revisions and forwarded the contract back to the city. The city is looking at the revisions. As for the beating incident, Shaw said his office has only been issued two summonses, for the bite and for allegedly not having a veterinarian on call at the time. He said the shelter will plead not guilty to the veterinarian charge, but said his attorneys are looking into the bite charges. A state investigation of the facility is ongoing, according to a state Health Department spokesman, but the state would not comment on the investigation or say when a final report will be issued. The city of Jersey City also is reviewing the shelter’s license (see sidebar, “What is an SPCA?”). q What is an SPCA? The Johnston Avenue facility is a private, non-profit organization. It received its charter from the state SPCA, but is licensed and overseen by the city. Guidelines are provided by the New Jersey SPCA, and so is enforcement, but Shaw said he has little contact with the New Brunswick organization. Calls to the New Jersey SPCA went unanswered. Like any non-profit organization, the Hudson County SPCA is comprised of a board of directors. With Tom Hart coming on next month, the board will grow to 10. The majority of the money made by the SPCA, according to Shaw, comes from adoptions. The cities that contract with the facility also make payments. Confusion abounds over the roles of SPCAs, because many organizations in different states carry the same name. The reality, however, is that the ties between these groups are loose, if at all existent. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New York, “Many local humane organizations around the country also carry the name ‘SPCA,’ however, local SPCAs, humane societies and other groups are not related to the ASPCA, and there is no national or federated office supervising local animal welfare societies.” If performance is bad enough, the state SPCA could, in theory, revoke the organization’s charter. But that is unlikely. The city of Jersey City is also reviewing the SPCA’s license, according to mayoral chief-of-staff Tom Gallagher.


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