ALEXANDRIA TWP, N.J. — After being closed for nearly two years, Hunterdon Humane Animal Shelter has applied for a fire inspection and passed, leading local animal advocates to believe the shelter could soon try to reopen.
The shelter has a checkered past. It was the only shelter in the county that took in all kinds of animals, including livestock, but closed in June, 2016. Callers to the shelter receive a message that it will “be closed until further notice.”
Meanwhile, under a new law enacted in January that stripped the New Jersey SPCA of its law enforcement powers, every county prosecutor must establish an animal cruelty task force to be responsible for animal welfare within his county. The prosecutors are required to assign or appoint an animal cruelty prosecutor to the task force to investigate, prosecute, and take other legal action as appropriate for violations of the animal cruelty laws. Each township also has to appoint an animal cruelty officer.
The deadline for compliance with the new law is Aug. 1.
If charges are filed and any animals seized they would need a place to go. Yet Hunterdon does not have a county shelter as many other counties do.
Hunterdon County Prosecutor, Anthony P. Kearns, III said his office has been in contact with Hunterdon Humane - as well as other organizations - to discuss options for housing animals.
“We want to do what’s best for Hunterdon County and its animals,” Kearns said. There is currently no official proposal with any group.
Local animal welfare advocates said they would love to see the shelter reopen — but only under different leadership. Animal rescue volunteers, former shelter employees and other Hunterdon residents attended the Alexandria Township Board of Health meeting on May 9 to discuss it.
However, the township may have very little say in what happens with the shelter because it is a private entity.
Mayor Michelle Garay said the shelter has yet to file an application for a kennel license. But if it does, and all requirements are met, the township would have no choice but to approve it.
All shelters are required to retain a supervising veterinarian. That has been problematic for Hunterdon Humane. Several vets have signed on and then left after brief tenures. One attendee pointed out that a local veterinarian had offered to serve provided she be given a seat on the board. That request was denied.
Nina VanDyne, who has long been involved in animal rescue said, “Two years ago rescues came in and took animals,” from Hunterdon Humane. Although the area rescue organizations don't have their own facilities, they use foster homes, their own homes, or re-home animals through networking.
The rescues would be happy to manage the shelter, VanDyne said, and could provide a veterinarian, but she said they’ve been unable to reach an agreement with Hunterdon Humane.
Most of those in attendance at the meeting want to see Hunterdon Humane dissolved and the assets turned over to another organization to run the shelter.
Hunterdon Humane’s assets have been transferred before. Until 2004, the shelter was part of the Hunterdon County SPCA. The state unsuccessfully sought to revoke the county’s charter. In response to the attempt, the HCSPCA transferred most of its assets to the newly created Hunterdon Human Animal Shelter.
The courts later ruled that transfer was legal based on a provision in the HCSPCA’s bylaws. According to the Hunterdon Humane’s certificate of incorporation, upon dissolution all assets would be transferred to another non-profit serving the same purpose or a government entity.
At the end of 2014, the shelter’s assets were $6.3 million, according to the organization’s form 990 tax return filed in early 2017. The shelter operated at a loss and reported assets of just under $6 million at the end of 2015.
The 2015 return was not filed until October, 2017. The return for 2016 is not yet available on Guidestar.org.
Not all in attendance were as critical of long time shelter president Theresa “Tee” Carlson. John Monteith, who said he had volunteered at the shelter for many years, said the shelter would not exist without Carlson and her husband, and that most of its money came from the Carlsons or their friends.
Monteith criticized the NJSPCA on how it handled the shelter management when it took over in January, 2014 after Carlson, then 84, was arrested and charged with animal cruelty.
The charges were eventually dismissed as part of an agreement with the Prosecutor’s Office. Under that agreement, Carlson was to have no managerial control of the shelter. She could continue fundraising operations on behalf of the shelter and remain on its Board of Directors as a non-voting member.
Once the charges were dismissed, those provisions were to remain in effect permanently.
However, according to the 2015 tax return, a copy of which was given to the Board of Health at the meeting, Carlson is still listed as president and her husband as treasurer, and Carlson signed the return as president.
Also, not listed on the board are Mike Rogers and Nick Susalis who joined the board in August 2014, after Superior Court Judge Edward Coleman ordered the shelter to reorganize before he returned control of the facility to the county. Under Coleman’s order of July, 2014 the shelter was to revamp its Board of Directors to include a minimum of eight members, preferably 10.
Rogers served as president until at least June of 2016 when he sent out a press release announcing the shelter would be closing temporarily to regroup.
The other members listed on the 2015 tax return include Walter Wilson, an attorney who was disbarred in 2016 and Felicia Niebojeski, a veterinarian who had a practice in Clinton before moving to North Carolina in 2011.
The Board of Health suggested the concerned residents set up a meeting with the prosecutor or go to the Freeholders to express their concerns.