Debate swirls around shelter

Livingston Animal Shelter denies residents’ allegations of mismanagement

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

SOUTH ORANGE / LIVINGSTON, NJ — The police captain in charge of the Livingston Animal Shelter told the News-Record that the shelter will soon have an isolation room in which sick animals can be kept away from healthy ones, thus bringing it into compliance with state law and satisfying a major grievance South Orange and Maplewood animal advocates have raised in the months since South Orange started sending animals there.

Capt. Gary Marshuetz said plans have been drawn up to convert an adjoining section of the building into an isolation room and other spaces, with Livingston Mayor Shawn Klein adding that construction is anticipated to take place this year. Klein further told the News-Record that the renovations will be paid for by Livingston with funds from this year’s operating budget — which is still being finalized — as well as previous capital budget appropriations and compensation from South Orange’s sheltering agreement.

In the meantime, Marshuetz said the Livingston shelter will continue to take sick animals to the office of Dr. Steven Weiner, its veterinarian supervisor, rather than keeping them around healthy animals and risking the spread of disease. After all, he said, the Livingston Police Department is committed to making the shelter the best environment it can be for the animals.

“We take a lot of pride in it,” Marshuetz told the News-Record in a March 24 phone interview. “We care very much about the animals.”

But the lack of an isolation room was not the only concern raised by local animal advocates. Claire Roberts of the SOMA for Animals group said she visited in December and saw dogs and cats in the same room facing each other, which can cause stress to the animals. According to the captain though, that situation was an anomaly. At the time, he explained, the shelter was conducting a pilot Trap-Neuter-Release program and had ended up hosting an unusually large number of cats. He said it also decided to adopt out the kittens obtained through the program instead of releasing them back into the wild, which meant even less space.

Once the shelter is renovated, Marshuetz said the shelter building will have enough room to host its TNR program and the sheltering of domestic animals under one roof without having that situation happen again. Until then, he said the shelter has decided to rent a trailer to house its TNR program while all domestic animals will be kept inside the shelter building itself. And the building has “more than enough space” to ensure that dogs and cats never face each other, the captain said, especially since the shelter rarely gets calls to pick up domestic cats. In fact, he said the shelter hosts very few animals at all.

In February 2017, Marshuetz said the Livingston shelter took in just two dogs from South Orange and no animals from Livingston. January 2017 also saw two dogs accepted from South Orange and no animals from Livingston, he said.

“A lot of times the shelter is empty,” Marshuetz said. “I think some people just get it in their minds that this is a bigger operation than what it really is.”

Yet even with so few animals, South Orange resident Andrea Joy Albrecht said she is concerned that the Livingston Animal Shelter is not doing enough to find homes for those it houses. Albrecht pointed out that the shelter does not have any social media pages that could be used to advertise adoptable dogs and cats, and she said its PetFinder page is not updated often enough. She told the News-Record that she was able to find a home for one dog taken in by Livingston after writing just a few social media posts when it seemed that no one knew the dog was even there.

In addition, Roberts said she is concerned that the Livingston shelter does not appear to have a policy on owner surrenders. According to Roberts, this is a frightening prospect because, if the shelter does not accept a pet that an owner can no longer care for, she said the pet will likely be taken to the nearby Associated Humane Societies of Newark or the East Orange Animal Shelter — two facilities with high kill rates.

Marshuetz said his shelter would never turn away a surrendered animal outright, though the animal will not necessarily be housed inside its building. If a pet is a health hazard for the owner, he said the shelter would definitely take it in. But if an owner simply does not want a pet anymore, he said the shelter would work with him or her to find a home for the pet.

And the Livingston Animal Shelter is indeed highly efficient at finding forever homes for pets, Marshuetz said. Though it does not currently have a social media presence — something he said the shelter is working on — its volunteers, animal control officers and police officers use their own social media pages to promote available animals. It also advertises in the Livingston-area newspaper and uses its strong relationships with others in the rescue community to adopt out pets, he said. The captain said many in the police department have even adopted animals from the shelter, including himself.

Due to those efforts, Marshuetz said the shelter has not had to euthanize a healthy animal in 12 years. And as far as he is concerned, no such dog or cat will ever be put down because it does not have a home.

“It’s not going to happen on my watch,” Marshuetz said.

Roberts said she is pleased to hear this, but still believes South Orange should not send its animals to the Livingston shelter, saying that she does not think any town should partner with Livingston until the shelter becomes fully compliant with state regulations. That includes having an isolation room and appropriately sized kennels for dogs, which she does not think it has.

Considering that the shelter has no record of inspections done by the Livingston health officer from 2006 to 2013 — state law requires a shelter to be inspected annually — Roberts said she has doubts about its commitment to improvement. And that is especially true when inspections completed in 2014 through 2016 showed repeated issues raised, she said.

“It’s not a record that inspires confidence,” Roberts told the News-Record in a March 24 phone interview. “I think they need to prove their intentions.”

The inspection reports from 2014 and 2015 do show a number of repeated violations, including no covers for outside dog runs and, outside walls in disrepair and openings in the bay doors. But those issues were addressed by the time of the 2016 inspection report, which listed the absence of an isolation room as the only repeated violation. Marshuetz said that demonstrates the shelter’s commitment to correcting any concerns.

The captain also disputed Roberts’ opinion that the dog kennels were not sized appropriately, saying that the Livingston shelter follows the state-mandated formula for determining the amount of room a dog needs. That formula dictates that a dog should have a “minimal square footage of floor space equal to the mathematical square of the sum of the length of the dog in inches” plus 6 inches.

Still, Albrecht does not feel South Orange should use the Livingston Animal Shelter when it could use St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center in Madison instead. The animal advocate said St. Hubert’s is renowned among the rescue community for having pristine kennels, an extensive adoption network, an excellent dog-rehabilitation program and informative educational services. Even if the Livingston shelter becomes fully compliant with state law, she said it could not equal the benefits that St. Hubert’s could provide.

“They are one of the best animal shelters in North Jersey,” Albrecht said in a March 27 phone interview. “It would be extremely beneficial if we could use them for sheltering services and animal control services.”

Albrecht pointed out that, in the past, the village has questioned laying off animal control officer Melanie Troncone and entering into a joint services agreement with Maplewood, which already uses St. Hubert’s, for sheltering and animal control. But South Orange Village President Sheena Collum told the News-Record that the village is not interested in exploring a contract with St. Hubert’s at this time, nor does it want to give up its animal control officer.

Right now, Collum said the village has a month-to-month agreement with Livingston wherein Livingston’s shelter impounds dogs brought in by Troncone at a price of $750 for up to three dogs. If the number of dogs brought in from South Orange exceeds three in a month, the village will pay an additional $500 per dog. In the longterm, she said the village would like to enter into an interlocal agreement with Maplewood whereby South Orange could provide animal control services for both towns in exchange for sharing the cost of using the Livingston shelter for impoundment. Another idea she mentioned was entering into an interlocal agreement with Maplewood and Livingston that would cover the whole spectrum of animal control services.

As for SOMA residents’ concerns, Collum said South Orange is working closely with Livingston to understand the accuracy and status of the issues raised.

“We are encouraged by their good faith efforts and confident that they are properly addressing any outstanding concerns raised,” Collum said in a March 27 email. “We are fully committed to providing animal control services that comply with all applicable laws and regulations, that treat animals humanely and that provide every opportunity for animals to be either reclaimed by their owners or adopted out to new owners.”

Meanwhile, Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca told the News-Record that the township has had some preliminary discussions with South Orange regarding a shared services agreement, and it is now awaiting a proposal from the village. But DeLuca also stressed that Maplewood is “very happy” with St. Hubert’s, calling the shelter a “first class provider of services.” For a switch to happen, he said the township would have to be convinced the Livingston shelter would offer services of an equivalent quality. The cost of an agreement would also play a large factor, he said, pointing out that Maplewood currently pays St. Hubert’s approximately $72,000 for its services.

Of course, DeLuca said Maplewood is also looking into the concerns raised by residents.

“In the end, we have to be comfortable about making a change and the quality of the new service we would be buying” DeLuca said in a March 26 email.

Photos Courtesy of Gary Marshuetz and Claire Roberts