An ongoing legal battle between Jersey City’s Liberty Humane Society animal shelter (LHS) and several of its ex-volunteers will continue this fall when criminal charges against two ex-volunteers will be heard in Union City and Secaucus municipal courts.
A war of words began during the summer of 2010 when groups of shelter volunteers, managers, and board members disagreed over how the shelter carried out its euthanasia policy. Some board members resigned, but the criticism continued.
A group of former volunteers complained that certain dogs were euthanized for alleged bad behavior even though families were willing to adopt them. Angry messages on websites led to criminal complaints against two activists who allegedly made threatening comments against shelter leadership.
The LHS board filed a lawsuit against the volunteers, and in turn, a group of volunteers filed a lawsuit against the LHS.
‘There is a lot of hope for this place.’ – Stacie DaBolt
The volunteers’ lawsuit against LHS alleged racketeering, extortion, killing adoptable animals, and the misuse of public funds. However, that suit has been partially dismissed.
In the midst of the fighting last year, the LHS had to address a number of violations that were found by the state in an inspection in August 2010, including lack of sufficient space to house animals and the sheltering of sick and healthy animals together. A recent inspection found improvement, but some building issues remain.
Loving animals is a battlefield
Howard Myerowitz, who is representing the LHS in their suit against the volunteers, said, “[LHS] wants them to take responsibility for what they have done. They like to pretend this is freedom of speech and voicing of opinion, but you don’t have a right to threaten, harass, and defame. That is not First Amendment.”
LHS has alleged that the former volunteers posted comments on internet pages threatening LHS leadership and their families.
One volunteer, Brad Levy of Sparta, was arrested by Jersey City police in November of 2010 for alleged harassment and making terroristic threats.
Myerowitz said the ex-volunteers continue to post comments on-line and have allegedly posted violent videos of people being raped.
Myerowitz said it is almost as if the shelter and its practices have taken a back seat to the vitriol.
A lawyer for former volunteer Brad Levy did not return phone calls.
Levy’s criminal trial started earlier this year and a few witnesses testified, but the trial was postponed while a detective underwent surgery, according to Myerowitz.
Don Larsen, who represents the volunteers, said the lawsuit filed by the volunteers is no longer active and that part of it was voluntarily dismissed. He said the chancery case is done, while the law division case won’t be finished until January 2012. He has said in the past that what the volunteers hoped to attain with their suit was to put the shelter in the hands of someone who could provide better leadership.
Regarding the suit by LHS against the volunteers, he said recently that it “was a strategic lawsuit. [LHS] filed a SLAPP lawsuit against its critics.” A SLAPP – “strategic lawsuit against public participation”– seeks to silence critics by exhausting them with legal fees until they give up on criticism.
Facebook and the web as a forum
For many years, the only animal shelter in Jersey City was the SPCA shelter on Johnston Avenue. After various state investigations and inspections, it was closed two years ago. Meanwhile, a group of volunteers had founded LHS and erected an alternative shelter near Liberty State Park. After the other shelter closed, LHS took in all of its animals. The LHS shelter currently deals with stray and unwanted animals from both Jersey City and Hoboken.
The shelter depends on the help of volunteers who serve the organization by fostering dogs, hosting fundraisers, training dogs and supporting shelter operations.
Problems surfaced last year when tensions rose over management policy, fiscal oversight, and adoption and euthanasia practices.
Volunteers and animal activists created a Facebook group and blogs to air their concerns. The critical comments became more aggressive in August 2010 when the board and interim manager were allegedly threatened.
“A lot of horrible statements were being said…it crossed the line at the end of August,” said current LHS Board President John Hanussack recently. At the time of the alleged harassment, he was a board member. He perceived a post allegedly attributed to Levy as a threat to his pregnant wife and his child, and he called the police.
“[My wife] ended up spending time in the hospital over this,” he added.
The police took a few months to link the comments posted under various aliases to Levy and eventually arrested him on criminal charges.
LHS made criminal complaints against Levy and another volunteer. More recently, in July of 2011, they filed an amendment to add more counts, and added another animal activist for allegedly posting threatening comments on sites like Examiner.com and on an animal activist blog.
Since the events of last year Hannusack said the board is more focused on LHS instead of being distracted by the “naysayers.”
Hannusack, 42, has lived in Jersey City most of his life and has a dog. He joined the board in August of last year and became president earlier this spring.
Michele Perotta and Althea Bernheim also currently sit on the board. The board is undergoing some restructuring and Hanussack expects to have new board members soon. The board is focused on straightening out the state inspection issues.
“One of the goals that we have is that we are here today, here tomorrow, and for many years to come,” said Hanussack. He said other board priorities include fundraising through events and increasing the donor base.
“The staff and board that we currently have, have their heart and soul dedicated to the organization,” said Hanussack. “The board members don’t get paid. Anyone employed in animal welfare doesn’t get paid enough. Yet, they live, sleep, and eat their work, trying to do the best they can with the resources they have.”
Aside from the all-volunteer board, the shelter is run by a paid shelter manager and two additional staff members.
Hanussack said the fallout from the accusations and lawsuits against the shelter has severely damaged its reputation and hurt contributions to the shelter, as well as the reputations of the former interim manager and former board president.
“We already have many factors working against us before we even wake up in the morning,” said Hanussack.
He mentioned that a lot of landlords and condo complexes don’t allow dogs, have a size restriction, or don’t allow pit bulls, which are all factors that prevent apartment and condo dwellers from adopting dogs. He said dogs abandoned from dog-fighting and backyard breeders increase the shelter population.
Despite these challenges Hanussack said he believes LHS does a great job.
“I was looking for a challenge and a change…Boy, did I get one,” said Stacie DaBolt, the new shelter manager.
DaBolt joined the shelter six months ago and was previously field operations manager for the Arizona Humane Society, overseeing animal cruelty investigations. She ran an emergency triage program, the only one of its kind. She also appeared in a documentary for Animal Cops Phoenix on the Animal Planet channel.
“I come from a great place in knowing how it should be run and what a shelter should be doing,” said DaBolt.
DaBolt estimates that the shelter has taken in 1,500 animals from January through the end of July. For the same time period, 572 animals have been adopted, including approximately 150 dogs. DaBolt estimated that 175 animals were transferred to rescue organizations.
“We transfer a lot more dogs than cats,” she said. “We just don’t have the proper kind of setting that is conducive to dogs.”
The shelter is at full capacity with approximately 57 to 60 dogs and close to 300 cats. Only approximately 150 of the animals are currently healthy and adoptable, she said.
Evaluating dogs on behavioral issues
A major topic of debate last year was that former volunteers believed the shelter was putting animals to sleep for minor aggression, and/or not allowing people to adopt animals when the people were willing to work with animals with some behavioral issues.
“Right now, this shelter doesn’t have the resources or type of building to go no-kill,” said DaBolt.
She mentioned that the animal control contracts with Jersey City and Hoboken mean no-kill is not possible.
“We do not euthanize for space,” noted DaBolt. “But there is a reality that we have a responsibility…as an animal control shelter.”
She added, “We definitely give these dogs as much time as we possibly can to get them adoptable. The last thing I want to do is euthanize an animal.”
She said the shelter does everything possible to rehabilitate dogs, send them to foster care, or send them to a rescue.
The live release rate is 70 to72 percent and euthanasia rate is 25 to 30 percent, she said, depending on the month and the situation. By law, the shelter keeps records of animals that have been euthanized. Animals that are put to sleep are either aggressive, have aggressive bite issues, and/or are behaviorally unsound or untreatable, she said.
DaBolt said she takes animal evaluations very seriously and has implemented new evaluation measures in determining whether an animal will be put to sleep. A new behaviorist was hired this year to evaluate animals.
The shelter uses ASPCA standards. Animals go through a complete 45-minute evaluation for behavior and resource aggression, including dog-to-dog testing and testing reactions to strangers and kids.
‘Pitbulls are Loving’ program
DaBolt said the current volunteer group of 150 to 200 volunteers is “amazing.” DaBolt said she has not received any personal threats herself from former volunteers.
She said she has an open door policy and has sat down with every single one of the volunteers from last year and told them the shelter’s policies.
“For the most part I’ve had positive feedback,” said DaBolt.
DaBolt said the shelter has improved upon a Pitbulls are Loving (PAL) program that gives volunteers the opportunity to work with challenging dogs in the shelter by giving them special personalized training and handling to help make them more adoptable.
DaBolt said the shelter is currently working with the state, which has inspected the shelter since she arrived. While the facility did not get a satisfactory pass, they don’t have a fail. She said that as far as day-to-day operations, medical, disease and cleaning protocol, the LHS got a pass, but building code issues prevented an official satisfactory pass.
“We don’t have a big enough building to have the adequately sized cages because of the space issues,” DaBolt said. “We need a brand new facility to get appropriate dog kennels and appropriate runs.”
The shelter is in the process of raising money for a reconfiguration phase of the existing building and/or a new facility.
“There is a lot of hope for this place,” said DaBolt.
The shelter is located at 235 Jersey City Blvd. in Jersey City. For more information on volunteering, fostering. or adopting an animal, call: (201) 547-4147.
Adriana Rambay Fernández may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.