A group of local residents is looking to completely overhaul the way North Hudson towns handle animal control. The Union City Feral Cat Committee (UCFCC) has posted a 23-page report on their website detailing extensive complaints with the existing system, specifically regarding the treatment of cats in the region.
Their goal, according to UCFCC founder and spokesperson Fernando Portes, is to convince the towns of North Bergen, Union City, West New York, and Weehawken to replace the existing animal control vendor with one that conforms to a series of specific protocols.
Among the many issues raised in their report are the lack of a local shelter, the absence of defined goals for the existing vendor, and the fact that the current animal control company is a for-profit venture, making it ineligible for grants and discouraging donations or volunteers.
They are also strongly in favor of instituting “trap, neuter, and return” (TNR) programs, which capture and spay feral cats so they cannot reproduce, and then release them back into their natural habitats.
Portes says the four towns annually pay upwards of $310,000 to Geoffrey Santini and his company for animal control services. They want to see a different group take over animal control for all four towns, and in fact have suggested themselves for the role.
“In a free market economy we are asking elected officials to put that service up for bid and see what anyone can do with the $310,000,” he said. “We’re confident we can solve all these problems with the same $310,000 because we have a nonprofit organization.”
The Union City Feral Cat Committee was formed by residents who initially wanted to see more programs in place for homeless cats.
According to Santini, North Bergen and Union City put contracts out for bid every year or two. “Anybody’s allowed to bid on it,” he said. “They award it based not on the lowest bid, but the most qualified.”
NJ Animal Control and Rescue has contracted with North Bergen for the past three years and with Union City for two years, he said.
From cat owner to animal advocate
Portes has been a Union City resident since 2001. He has been feeding feral cats near his home since 2007 and established the UCFCC in 2012 after losing his cat of 21 years.
“I tried to do something for all the homeless cats outside my building,” he said. “There was a colony of homeless cats and I wanted to fix them and provide winter shelter, but there was nothing in Union City, Weehawken, West New York or North Bergen to help those poor animals. No shelter where people can bring them. No traps to fix them.”
Years ago, many local towns sent their stray animals to shelters in Jersey City and Newark. But with the economy slowing, more animals have wound up abandoned and animal control vendors and shelters have become more expensive. A few towns have tried to start their own small shelter or hired an individual to deal with animal control.
In 2008, the state closed down the SPCA animal shelter in Jersey City when it was found to have major health violations, including rotting carcasses and animals in poor health. Around that time, a group of volunteers started the Liberty Animal Shelter in that town, which still operates today.
Researching other towns
Portes said that after he began helping local cats, he got assistance from three other residents and obtained traps and a holding space. “We fixed the entire colony and thought we don’t want this to be a one-time effort,” he said. “We want to make it available to all four towns.”
So they researched animal control practices in other municipalities, focusing largely on New York City and Secaucus (which started its own small shelter). They compiled their results into a report of 23 pages, with about 200 pages of backup documentation, and posted it online.
The report goes into great detail on their dissatisfaction with Santini. They were particularly irked by what they perceived as a lack of transparency from Santini, unlike the UCFCC, which posts all their activities and expenses on their website (ucnjfcc.org).
“We have a well connected animal control contractor who doesn’t tell anyone how many cats he put to death or how many were adopted. In order to get data from him, it took 18 months of us chasing him down. That’s unacceptable,” said Portes. “Even more alarming, he has no goals or key performance indicators. Any first-class organization should have key performance indicators and goals and know how they’re going to meet those goals.”
Transparency and numbers
Portes proposes creating one regional organization for animal control services in all four towns, much like North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue provides firefighting services throughout the area.
The UCFCC, a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation, already has more than 160 volunteers in the area according to Portes, and would be able to apply for grants, unlike Santini.
He said they would like to take over animal control for all four towns, handling not only cats, but dogs, birds, and any other animal control issues.
While he admits that the group lacks experience, Portes said, “Even though most of us are new and were forced into the animal care business, we’re going to hire people who have been doing this. It’s a market economy, and there’s always a disrupter who can do something far better than a well established company.”
The other side of the ‘tail’
But Santini had a different take, pointing out that he does much more than what the volunteers are doing.
“His focus is not animal control; it’s feral cats, which is a great cause,” said Santini. “But animal control is not just feral cats. I get called in by different law enforcement agencies; the DEA, state police. If there are pit bulls, I take the dogs away. Yesterday I had to open a sewer grate and crawl down to rescue five ducklings. Portes wants them to transfer all the monies and put them into his committee. Then what happens to the other 95 percent of animal control?”
Janet Castro is the director/health officer for the township of North Bergen. She said she has never been contacted directly by Portes and that while the town is in agreement with some of the issues raised by the UCFCC, they differ on the opinion of Santini’s services.
“He’s there 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” she said, noting that Santini responds immediately to a call at any hour. “Geoff has a staff that works for him, a great group of employees who come into the Health Department every day. We used to contract with the Humane Society [in Newark] I believe it was, a decade ago, and they weren’t available on weekends or nights. The public response [to Santini’s services] has been positive. We ensure he is licensed by the state and the shelters are licensed by the state.”
Santini has been involved in animal control since the early 1990s throughout the area. His firm was hired to take over animal control duties in Bayonne in 2011, but when his contract expired in the spring of 2014 it was awarded to another contractor instead, according to Bayonne Business Administrator Joseph DeMarco.
“It’s hard for us to speak to that,” said North Bergen spokesperson Phil Swibinski. “The situation is different with different municipalities. The one thing we can speak to is his performance here in North Bergen, which we’re satisfied with.”
Santini was also criticized by local residents in 2011 for routinely using a Union City animal clinic to deal with North Bergen and West New York’s stray animals, a clinic that residents said was not complying with certain regulations. The state inspected the clinic and determined that it failed to keep adequate records, failed to isolate sick animals, and didn’t have a disease control program.
No shelter in the four towns
The UCFCC report states that “Mr. Santini does not have any shelter in any of the four towns he serves and as a result residents, most of whom do not have cars, cannot go to his far away shelters in Lodi and Cliffside Park to adopt or surrender pets.”
Swibinski responded that it is not incumbent on the animal control officer to operate shelters.
“I deal with two shelters,” said Santini. “Bergen County Humane and Rescue in Cliffside Park and Bloomfield Animal Shelter in Bloomfield, New Jersey. And that’s because they’re no-kill shelters.”
Any animals who are found or rescued are taken to the shelters and checked by vets, followed by immediate postings on social media. If the owner calls up, “I personally return the animal to the person’s home,” said Santini.
Portes wants to see a new local shelter, and suggests using Secaucus as a model. “They have a nonprofit that runs their shelter,” he said. “Secaucus has a shelter administrator that makes I believe $160,000 a year. We would never be able to pay that much but we plan to provide $50,000 a year to an expert who has been doing this more than 25 years. We have that person identified already.”
One area where the township and the UCFCC agree is the need for a TNR program. “We do recognize we have a serious feral cat issue in town,” said Castro. “In the last two years it’s really grown out of control. We’re exploring a TNR program within the community where we would elect a volunteer TNR committee.”
The program would be based on successful TNR programs in other communities, with an application process for volunteers and one or two appointed leaders.
“We do share a lot of issues” with the UCFCC, said Swibinski. “Especially when it comes to the TNR process. Let’s open a dialogue. Let’s work on it together.”
Anyone interested in contributing to the UCFCC can visit their website at ucnjfcc.org and click on “How to Donate.”
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.