To kill, or not to kill? Animal shelter under fire for new policy

It is the job of the director of an animal shelter to treat the creatures in his care humanely.

It is also his job, often, to have them killed.

Tom Hart, the new director of the SPCA animal shelter in Jersey City, which also serves Hoboken, West New York, Union City, Weehawken, and Secaucus, recently responded to this dilemma by deciding not to kill any healthy animal in his care.

This has resulted in a battle that has a neighboring shelter complaining, has city officials and animal activists charging that the facility has run out of room to accept new animals, and – as reported in the Reporter two weeks ago – has Hart threatening to sue one activist for her comments.

It also has re-ignited cries from animal activists for the city of Jersey City to designate land for a new shelter.

“We have been advised that the Hudson County SPCA has become a ‘no kill’ facility and is no longer accepting animals,” wrote the assistant director of the Newark Associated Humane Societies shelter to the state’s Department of Health in a Sept. 19 letter recently given to the Reporter. “Although the director may deny that they do not accept animals, the Associated Humane Societies is now being called for emergency assistance from various towns.”

“If you’re going to be a no-kill shelter,” said Diana Jeffrey, the paid director of a statewide association of animal shelters, last week, “the only way is to control the number of animals coming in. If you are the [designated] animal holding facility [a facility whose job it is to pick up all stray animals] for the county, you can’t do that.” Hart took over the former SPCA shelter in Jersey City, which he now calls the Assisi Center, July 1. Before he took over, the facility was saddled with poor health conditions (for which it was later fined by the state), and came under fire after witnesses saw a shelter employee beating a dog. That shelter employee was fired, and the agency’s director stepped down but remained on the SPCA board. (Shelter officials said afterward that the dog was adopted out, although they have been unable to provide proof of this.)

Into this morass stepped Tom Hart, who is an animal lover, director of special projects for the city and a former city councilman. Hart took over on an unpaid basis and began making changes, including instituting the no-kill policy. The policy came to light last month when Jersey City admitted that its animal control officer was not picking up stray animals when called. The city complained that this was because the Assisi Center was filled up and there was nowhere to put the animals.

Hart contended last week that there is room for new animals in his shelter. He said that the city is simply angry because he’s demanding more of its animal control officers. (The shelter is a separate entity from the city.)

“We’ve upset a lot of apple carts,” Hart said. “The animal control officers have been routinely, over the years, reacting in such a way that they get a call, they find an animal, they bring it down and drop it off at the shelter and that animal would routinely be killed after a period of seven days. We don’t do that and we don’t have to do that. We do accept animals from them. We have the records. They’re supposed to be on call 24/7. They’re [only] open 8 to 4 Monday to Friday. So we’ve upset them. And yes, there have been times when we’ve said, ‘Let us rearrange some cage space and hold onto the dog for a few hours.’ They may interpret that as saying we have no room.”

Hart added, “The other thing that upsets them is they know I’m an advocate for the animal control officer not working for the city. Every other place across the country has the ACO working for the shelter. They know that if they work for me they’re going to be on call 24-7. They’re afraid of losing the City Hall benefits packages.

That’s not my concern.”

But staffers in the city’s health department maintained last week that Hart’s facility is not accepting animals. “It’s at capacity,” said city health inspector H. James Boor on Wednesday. “When we pick up animals, they’re not in a position to accept them. They basically say, ‘There’s no room.’ There are other shelters in the area, like in Newark and in Bergen County, but they were able to take maybe a dog or two off us.”

Boor added, “We’re prioritizing the calls. We have the services of a veterinarian when a dog is injured. Right now, that’s about it. We can no longer use the SPCA. From time to time, there’s an opening. But it’s like fighting a fire. You can’t have water one day and not the next.”

The shelter can hold 155 animals, but Hart said Wednesday, “We don’t want to do that. The average daily population is about 80 dogs and 30 cats and kittens.”

Sticky issue

Animal activists said that as it stands, the no-kill policy might do more harm than good.

Jeffrey, the director of the non-profit Animal Welfare Federation of New Jersey, noted that the Jersey City SPCA, besides adopting out healthy animals, is also supposed to perform other functions: it is a place that should check out animal cruelty complaints, and it is a place where stray or vicious animals must be brought. And therein lies a problem.

There are such things as no-kill shelters in the world, and there are even some in New Jersey. But Jeffrey said that they work with other shelters in their area to take their “most adoptable” animals. They also work to spay and euthanize animals so they can’t reproduce. But they are not designated as the places where any strays that are plucked from the streets are to be brought – that task is left to the shelters that they work with. And some strays, Jeffrey said, are not suitable for adoption – so if a holding facility like the SPCA is no-kill, it might result in a wild cat remaining in a cage for its entire life.

Jeffrey said that in past years, the Jersey City SPCA, which can hold 155 animals at one time, has reported taking in 3,000 animals per year. There has to be somewhere for stray animals to be brought, she said.

But Jeffrey balked at saying the no-kill policy should be revoked.

“Euthanasia is an emotional issue,” she said. “If the shelter decided they don’t want to do it, they should do that. But what needs to happen is, Hudson County needs to get another shelter ASAP.”

Ali Morris, a cruelty caseworker for a Virginia-based national organization called People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), is also against the no-kill policy. In a letter she wrote two weeks ago, she said, “While the idea of a municipal shelter that doesn’t euthanize animals may give some people a warm and fuzzy feeling, the reality is that this concept is completely unrealistic and will, if it hasn’t already done so, result in increased animal suffering. …The reality is that after a few months of warehousing animals, with more animals constantly pouring in, Hudson County would need a facility the size of Newark Airport to hold them all.”

Hart was cynical about comments from such groups. He said that they are constantly trying to tear his facility down so that they can raise enough money for a new shelter, which he says they want to control.

“Our no-kill policy has aggravated our enemies,” Hart said. “First they were screaming, ‘They’re killing the animals;’ now they’re screaming, ‘They’re not killing animals.’ Several years ago, no-kill shelters started popping up around the country because people became aware of what was happening at shelters. There’s been a reaction to that, and the reaction came from two groups, largely. One was animal control officers who routinely would bring animals to a shelter and they’d be euthanized. As long as the animal control officer could get the animal off the street, they didn’t care. Others were quote-unquote animal groups who started protesting because the dog or the cat living in the cage was inhumane, etc. It also gave a forum for these animal groups to get their names in the paper, like PETA.”

Hart added, “I’m not basing my practices on anything that anybody else does. Our practices are based on our mission, the prevention of cruelty to animals. We are very aggressive in our efforts to prevent those things that result in the abandonment and the homelessness and the injury to animals. That’s a very novel approach for an animal center, especially around here. It’s not that we have a no-kill policy. What we are is a life center.”

Hart said that his shelter is working to cut down on strays. He said that when an animal is adopted from the facility, the facility makes arrangements to have it spayed or neutered. Hart also noted the shelter is now on the web (including profiles and photos of some of the animals) at And Hart said the shelter is in the process of making conditions better for the animals spending their time there, with better facilities and volunteers coming in to pet and play with the animals.

“The problem for me is these people who allege to be animal lovers or animal people,” Hart said. “Not one of them has set foot in my place. Not one of them has done one thing or raised one dime for these animals. They’re getting their names in the paper. We’re in the process of libel and slander suits. We’re not going to take their nonsense anymore … PETA walks around throwing blood on people wearing fur coats. They’re a lunatic fringe. I don’t want them near my place. They’re a lunatic fringe. I don’t want them near me.”

“No-kill is a tough issue,” said Ann Spina Sperling, the vice president of the Liberty Humane Society, a local animal activist group that has been raising money for a new shelter. “We all want to work toward a no-kill shelter. It’s an extremely hard issue. I wouldn’t want to face it. That’s why I’m not a director or a manager. But an experienced director has to face this issue.”

The shelter, located at 480 Johnston Ave. in Jersey City, can be reached at 435-3557.

$500,000 for new shelter

The Liberty Humane Society, a group that is raising funds for a new animal shelter in Hudson County, recently received an anonymous private donation of $500,000 that was solicited by animal lovers Wendy and John Neu. The city has said that it would donate land on Route 440 and Communipaw Avenue for a brand-new animal shelter if the group could collect enough money. The group believes the donation is enough to start building the shelter. Now, they say, all the city needs to do is pass a council resolution donating the land.

“We have a $500,000 pledge to go through with a new shelter,” said Ann Spina Sperling, the vice president of the Liberty Humane Society, a local animal activist group, last week. “Jersey City has agreed to donate the land. We have the site that we’ve chosen, which we’ve chosen with the mayor. It’s time to move ahead. We want to bring it before the City Council for a final resolution and make plans to start building.”

Sperling added, “In two years, it should be up and running. We have to work with what we have, and we have a lot. …We are expecting more donations. But $500,000 is a lot of money. And we can certainly start a wonderful shelter with that, if we have the land designated, which they promised to give us. There’s no more time to say, ‘Let’s keep looking, let’s keep deciding.’ No matter what we do to that current facility, it’s going to be substandard.”

Diana Jeffrey, of the Montclair-based Animal Welfare Federation of New Jersey, said she, too, believed half a million dollars was enough to get started. She said that a proposed shelter for Union County is expected to cost $1 million.

In May of this year, a firm called DiCara/Rubino Architects of West Paterson submitted a program analysis for a new shelter to Jersey City Department of Public Works head Kevin Sluka. They said mere construction of the facility could cost as much as $3.15 million. But animal activists said that that is a high estimate.

One person who has been battling with the activists is skeptical about the prospect of a new shelter. Tom Hart, who recently took over as director of the existing SPCA shelter, said he doesn’t think the new shelter will ever get built. He said he doesn’t think the groups have or will be able to get enough money. He also said he believes that the city might kick in more money only if the existing SPCA shelter is shut down, which, he believes, is what the activists secretly want and the reason for their constant attempts to discredit his operation.

But the activists feel that with the SPCA limited to 155 animals at once, and with its past history, having another facility to serve the county couldn’t hurt.

“Earlier this year,” stated the Liberty Humane Society in a Nov. 7 press release, “[LHS president Norrice] Raymaker had polled each council member during a public meeting to find that a majority supported the [new shelter] project. Since then, much has happened to illustrate the dire need for Jersey City to act immediately.” Last week, Sperling said, “The time for contemplating our navel is over. It’s time to act. They say it might take two years. If they’d started two years ago, it would have been up by now.”

Charity matters

The SPCA of Hudson County is a registered charity with the state of New Jersey, but one wouldn’t know it by calling the state to find out.

An animal activist group called the Liberty Humane Society, which wants to build its own shelter, forwarded to the Reporter last week a copy of a letter from the state’s Division of Consumer Affairs saying, “The Hudson County SPCA has not registered as a charitable organization with the Division of Consumer Affairs.” The letter is dated Nov. 6, 2000 and signed by Annmarie Taggart, the division’s section chief.

Such information has been fodder by animal activists’ complaints about the shelter in recent weeks.

But shelter director Tom Hart, who says he is spending too much time fending off such allegations, put in a call to the state himself Wednesday with a reporter on the phone.

An employee of the state picked up the phone. When asked, the employee said that the “Hudson County SPCA” was not registered.

But a check of the address, 480 Johnston Avenue, took a few minutes and yielded a different result.

The “SPCA, Hudson County District,” is, in fact, registered, the employee said. But it wouldn’t show up under another name, including “Hudson County SPCA.”

There was more controversy. The state employee said, “They’re on initial registration,” meaning that the SPCA had gotten registered this year. The state employee said that the agency had only registered in May of 2000. But Tom Hart said that this, too, is untrue. He said his accountant told him the organization has been registered since 1993.

Hart said that he has already made several calls to the state about this issue, and that it is taking up too much of his time.

“I go through this every day,” Hart complained. “I should be out there trying to raise funds. I should be doing P.R. about the dog we just saved that we have taken care of. She was going to be euthanized. Now she’s being [adopted and] brought to Maine. …We saved the dog’s life.”

The stray dog, Hart said, was found by a couple after it had been recovering from a car accident in some children’s garage. The kids’ father had made them remove the dog. The couple found it and brought it to the SPCA. SPCA staffers took it to a vet and asked the vet to spare its life. Its health noticeably improved by the next day, and now the couple’s mother will take the dog home to Maine with her.

Tax problems

But when it comes to complaining about the shelter, there’s also the business of the Internal Revenue Service.

Animal activists have charged that the SPCA has not filed its income tax forms, or 990s, for several years.

Gregg Semanick, a spokesman for the Springfield, N.J. office of the Internal Revenue Service, said last week that he could not locate any records for the Hudson County SPCA at 480 Johnston Ave. for the past three years. He said that if the organization had been filing under a different name or address, the records might not have showed up.

He did say that the “Hudson County District for the Prevention of the Cruelty to Animals at 480 Johnston Avenue, Jersey City” was listed as an exempt organization (501 (c)(3)).

Tom Hart said that the agency had, indeed, filed its 990s. The activists disagree.

And they have other complaints. Among them is the fact that the SPCA’s board of directors refuses to say who they are. They also refuse to step down, despite having been at the helm during the various controversies at the shelter.

When asked who the directors are Wednesday, Hart refused to reveal them on the record.

“All this is just part of this whole system that really needs to be overhauled if the Hudson County SPCA wants to adequate in the future,” said Ann Spina Sperling of the Liberty Humane Society last week. “We don’t want to get into a battle with Tom Hart. We know he’s doing his best.”

There’s a final problem at the shelter. Several times over the past few weeks, calls by the Reporter to the facility (at 435-3557) were sometimes met with the elongated beep of a fax machine. Other times, however, the number was working.


© 2000, Newspaper Media Group