Jersey Animal Coalition Debacle Reveals Deep Rifts With The Community

The Office of Animal Welfare’s and South Orange Board of Health’s Jersey Animal Coaltion inspection report and related NJ SPCA investigation into possible animal cruelty unleashed a tremendous reaction from the local community. Maplewood Online has a message board which discusses local news and events. While the posters are anonymous and content cannot be verified, the sheer volume and passion of responses is quite telling in my opinion.  The negative reactions are also consistent with Jersey Animal Coalition’s Google Reviews. Clearly, many people had some very poor experiences with the shelter’s management.

Jersey Animal Coalition’s relationship with the town of Maplewood also has been rocky. Under Jersey Animal Coalition’s lease with South Orange, Jersey Animal Coalition only pays $1 to rent the facility in exchange for taking in all stray “house pets” brought in by South Orange’s and Maplewood’s animal control officers. “House pets” are defined as “cats, dogs and similar domesticated animals normally kept in the home.” Jersey Animal Coalition contends feral cats are not their obligation while Maplewood believes Jersey Animal Coalition must take in feral cats. Maplewood compromised and agreed to not bring in feral cats which couldn’t be safely handled. Under the arrangement, Jersey Animal Coalition agreed to take feral kittens since such kittens could be socialized and eventually adopted. However, in August, 2012, Jersey Animal Coalition changed course and refused to take these kittens in. In that same month, Maplewood instituted a stray cat feeding ban and a very regressive feral cat policy.

Jersey Animal Coalition’s feral cat policy is inconsistent with the no kill equation. Community involvement and trap, neuter release are two key no kill equation programs. While not accepting feral cats is preferable to impounding and killing them, the shelter should passionately fight to implement trap, neuter release (“TNR”) programs. Personally, I am concerned about the fate of feral cats under Jersey Animal Coalition’s policy. For example, do the towns animal control officers take feral cats who are injured, sick or subject to residents complaints to get killed elsewhere?  If TNR programs are illegal, the shelter should use barn cat programs to send feral cats to live outdoors as a substitute to trap, neuter, release. Based on Jersey Animal’s Coalition’s service area’s approximate population of 40,000 people and nearby Montclair and Union animal shelter’s per capita cat intake rates, I estimate Jersey Animal Coalition should take in approximately 140 cats per year. However, Jersey Animal Coalition’s 2012 “Shelter/Pound Annual Report” submitted to the New Jersey Department of Health only reported 40 cats impounded (given the shelter’s lack of impound records I’m not sure how they even came up with this number). If we assume the 100 cat difference between expected and actual impounds are feral cats, then Jersey Animal Coalition should be able to place this small number through a barn cat program. In reality, the number of feral cats needing placement would be smaller since some of those 100 cats would be kittens who could be socialized and adopted. Thus, Jersey Animal Coalition could have solved the feral cat problem if it simply implemented a barn cat program like other successful no kill communities.

Luckily, Maplewood may have had a change of heart. In February, 2014 Maplewood’s Township Committee voted unanimously for its Health Officer to work with a TNR group to develop a course of action. Unfortunately, Jersey Animal Coalition’s management does not appear to have a significant role in this effort. Additionally, South Orange apparently still has a regressive feral cat policy.

Jersey Animal Coalition’s handling of the feral cat issue also demonstrates poor management of the relationship with the municipalities. If Jersey Animal Coalition did not want to impound feral cats, then the organization should have clearly spelled that out in the lease. The towns health departments have a keen interest in managing feral cats. For example, the towns deal with residents complaining about large colonies of intact animals. Jersey Animal Coalition basically said “you are on your own” after signing the lease and accepting approximately $285,000 of funding to help build the shelter along with paying virtually no rent for a 5,400 square foot facility on a sizable property. To add further insult to injury, the shelter transported hundreds of dogs, most of which were out of state puppies, each year into the shelter per their “Shelter/Pound Annual Reports” while refusing to accept many of their own community’s cats.  As a result, the two towns would have every right to hold some ill will towards shelter management.

Most disturbingly Jersey Animal Coalition’s poor performance apparently decreased the community’s and the Maplewood Health Department’s support for no kill shelters. On Maplewood Online, several people pointed to Jersey Animal Coalition’s inspection report as proof no kill open admission shelters do not work.  Similarly,  Maplewood’s Health Department blamed Jersey Animal Coalition’s no kill policy for overcrowding at the shelter. Unfortunately, Jersey Animal Coalition caused confusion on what no kill is by asserting it is a “100% no kill shelter.” No kill simply means no killing and returns euthanasia to its true definition. No kill shelters do euthanize about 1%-10% of impounded animals for severe medical or behavioral reasons.  Apparently, Jersey Animal Coalition is confusing no euthanasia with no killing and a no kill shelter with a sanctuary. Proper sanctuaries provide refuge for unadoptable animals and offer large outdoor areas for the animals to enjoy. On the other hand, Jersey Animal Coalition’s long term residents spend years living in inadequate sized kennels with no documentation showing legally mandated exercise is provided. Thus, the community has every right to think no kill shelters are a bad thing if Jersey Animal Coalition is the only no kill shelter they know.

Jersey Animal Coalition’s debacle provides an important lesson to no kill advocates. We no longer can stand by quietly when shelters describing themselves as no kill fail to deliver. In my opinion, Jersey Animal Coalition did not properly implement all 11 no kill equation programs. No kill advocates need to develop some sort of certification program, such as peer review in the accounting and legal professions. Currently, the Out the Front Door Blog is the closest thing we have to this. Luckily, Jersey Animal Coalition never made it to the listing of no kill communities. Also, no kill advocates must push for frequent high quality inspections, such as those done by New Jersey’s Office of Animal Welfare. Unfortunately, shelters need more regulation and even self-described no kill shelters cannot always be trusted to do the right thing.

Do Cute Young Animals Decrease Older Animal Adoptions?

Many New Jersey animal shelters and rescues transport highly adoptable puppies into the state. Typically, these groups argue transports of highly desirable animals increase foot traffic into shelters or off-site adoption locations and therefore increase adoptions of older dogs. On the other hand, many other people believe transports take homes away from local dogs and increase kill rates of local dogs.  As discussed in a previous blog post, New Jersey shelters transport large numbers of dogs from out of state each year. Thus, the answer to this question significantly impacts the lives of many local shelter dogs.

Preliminary Data Indicates Young Animals Decrease Older Animal Adoptions

An analysis of kitten impacts on adult cat adoptions shows young animals decrease adult animals adoptions. Darlene Duggan conducted a statistical analysis of the effect the number of kittens available has on adult cat adoptions. The analysis was done at a medium-sized open admission animal shelter during the months of February and August. Kittens and adult cats were defined as 4 months and younger and 5 months and older, respectively. In February, when kittens are less plentiful, 3 fewer adult cats were adopted for every 4 additional kittens made available for adoption. During August, which is during the peak of kitten season, for every additional 3 kittens made available 1 less adult cat was adopted. Thus, additional kittens available at the shelter significantly reduced adult cat adoptions

These results may be even stronger for dogs. While actual data is needed to determine impacts of puppy availability on adult dog adoptions, I think it would be more significant. My personal experience at off-site adoption events is puppies are adopted far more quickly than adult dogs of even the same breed. The size difference between adult dogs and puppies is much larger than adult cats and kittens. As a result, people may perceive puppies as relatively “cuter” than adult dogs verses kittens and adult cats. Additionally, our culture seems to generally view puppies as cuter than kittens. For example, kids more often want a puppy for Christmas and pet stores sell more puppies than kittens despite cats outnumbering dogs as pets in the United States. In fact, a recent study found puppies tended to stay in shelters for roughly half the time as adult dogs. However, this study defined puppies up to 6 months of age and did not adjust the length of stay for puppies who were too young to be put up for adoption. Thus, the length of stay of transported young puppies typically placed for adoption is probably even less and these puppies likely displace significant amounts of local dogs.

Shelters and Rescues Need to Change Behavior

The findings above have serious implications for local animal welfare organizations. Most New Jersey shelters receive large numbers of kittens during the spring and summer. As a result, efforts should be made to make kittens and cats available for adoption in different locations. For example, putting kittens up for adoption at permanent off-site locations, such as Petsmart, or in foster homes will decrease adult cat displacement at shelters. Additionally, shelters can put adult cats up for adoption at other retail outlets with few competing kittens. Also, shelters can exchange animals to minimize competition between young and older animals at each shelter. Thus, shelters should find ways to shield adult cats from competition from more adoptable kittens.

In my opinion, New Jersey animal welfare groups should not transport dogs due to the high local dog kill rate at many shelters in the state. While I believe New Jersey’s per capita intake rate is low enough to reach no-kill status while transporting dogs into the state, many shelters perform poorly and require significant rescue help. As a result of the transport craze, shelters are losing two potential homes – a foster home and a permanent one for dogs in imminent danger.

Animal welfare organizations should try to decrease competition between puppies and adult dogs. In reality, dog transports will continue since it is easier to “rescue” highly desirable puppies. However, organizations running off-site adoption events, such as Petco, Petsmart and Best Friends, should require only locally obtained dogs participate in off-site events. While this may seem extreme, Maddie’s Fund only pays its per adoption subsidy to groups participating in its Maddie’s Pet Adoption Days for local animals. At the very least, these organizations should try and ensure puppies and adult dogs are made available at different locations or times to minimize local dogs getting displaced by transported animals. Additionally, shelters should offer reduced adoption fees and free/discounted services, such as vet care, dog training, and doggie daycare, with community partners for adult dogs to make adult dogs more competitive with puppies.

In conclusion, animal welfare groups need to confront the issues preventing animals from finding loving homes. The more these issues are honestly looked at, the more wonderful homes we will find for homeless animals.