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  • Writer's pictureNo Kill Movement

Ongoing Atrocities in New Jersey's Largest Shelter System Point to Broader Issues in Sheltering

The ongoing atrocities at the Associated Humane Societies have been well documented by the State of New Jersey, dating back decades. They show systemic failures in the state's largest animal sheltering system that have gone unaddressed, while the people in charge have raked in millions of dollars. We will spare our readers some of the goriest details. Nathan Winograd covered those himself. For those who want to read them, they can do that here. We also won't dive too deeply into the historical details. The NJ Animal Observer has done that here. Rather than repeat their work, we would like to address how the ongoing, long-term abuse and neglect at this agency is a clear indication of industry-wide abuses that have been largely ignored by nearly every major organization involved in animal sheltering, and how grassroots advocacy is essential to reforming our nation's animal shelters. In case you think we might be exaggerating, let's look at this quote from this report from State of New Jersey Commission of Investigation. The report begins:

Although Associated Humane Societies [hereinafter AHS] was established in 1923, its relevant history began in 1970 when Lee Bernstein orchestrated a takeover of the Board of Trustees and entrenched himself as executive director with full power over the organization. He transformed a rundown old house that served as a kennel for area strays into a multi-million dollar, comprehensive animal-services empire. Today, AHS has three locations and includes three shelters, two veterinary clinics, a zoo, a pet cemetery, an animal control program for municipalities and an extensive array of fundraising programs. It constitutes the largest shelter operation in the state.

Just as Bernstein deserves the credit for AHS’s growth and impressive successes, he also must shoulder the blame for its severe shortcomings. As Bernstein built his empire, he neglected the welfare of the very animals that formed its foundation. The substandard conditions and treatment of the animals, which existed on a large scale until recently, betrayed AHS’s massive fundraising campaign through the years and contradicted AHS’s persona as a “humane” organization. Bernstein capitalized on the plight of animals to garner millions of dollars in contributions, but failed to apply any portion of those millions to establish a satisfactory level of care and treatment. He ignored the welfare of tens of thousands of animals that passed through the shelters’ doors.

The history of AHS’s shelter operation has been dominated by deplorable kennel conditions, inhumane treatment of animals by workers, mismanagement and nonexistent or inadequate medical care. The problems were neither singular nor occasional. The accounts and descriptions provided by members of the public and former and current staff members, including veterinarians, paint a bleak picture of shelter life. The reality for the animals belied AHS’s propaganda that its “sole purpose” has been “the care and welfare of animals” and that it has “a high adoption rate.” It has been only in recent years, since the commencement of the Commission’s investigation,1 that AHS has expended substantial funds to improve the appearance of the facilities and the conditions under which the animals are housed. Even more recently, there have been improvements in the veterinary care rendered to the animals and in the performance of duties by kennel staff.

That report goes on, for its full 154 pages, to document systemic neglect and abuse by this "humane" organization. It was dated March of 2003. Since that time, not much has changed. In 2009, more reports from the State of New Jersey found things to be similar (link and link). Then, another inspection in 2011 showed things were not much, if any, better, and persist to this day. The charges range from failure to provide reasonable shelter conditions, failure to train staff, illegally killing animals, failure to provide basic veterinary care and worse.

People who follow the sheltering industry know that AHS in New Jersey is not all that unique. We constantly hear news of shelters being charged with everything from abuse of animals to firing volunteers who complain. We have seen it time and again. It is not unique. It is pervasive and systemic in the world of animal sheltering.

There have been shelter employees caught throwing live puppies into an incinerator. Staff at another shelter were using dogs for dog fighting. Some shelters sell animals to research. Many shelters have been caught killing healthy animals before their hold periods had expired. There is a whole category of shelter complaints commonly referred to as "oops killing" where shelters kill animals that are owned and their owners want them back, or they kill animals that have rescues or adopters waiting to take them home. One shelter recently starved a dog to death. And, then, there are the shelters caught cooking the books (which is a whole other category of complaints) to make themselves look better. The steady stream of reports of serious problems in our nation's animal shelters is constant, chronic and dates back decades (we are really just linking to a few of the recent ones), which clearly shows, like the situation at the Associated Humane Societies in New Jersey, the problem is pervasive and systemic.

However, if you are an animal lover, you are not to blame if you have not heard much about this, because the big, national animal welfare organizations - those who profess to be the voice of animals and who take in many millions of dollars per year claiming to represent the field of animal sheltering - have, basically, been silent about it. Even more problematically: they are not only silent about these atrocities in the field of sheltering, they frequently attack those who have been calling it out. The ASPCA once infamously referred to No Kill advocates as "terrorists." HSUS has habitually fought No Kill for years. And, recently, a Regional Director for Best Friends (and his wife) were on our page attacking us because we lamented the fact that their own policies had been used to delay No Kill for 8 years in Baytown, Texas.

Speaking of Best Friends and New Jersey, we would be remiss if we did not point out that in the last legislative session a bill was introduced in the New Jersey State legislature which would have mandated more accountability and transparency from shelters there. Known as S3019, or more commonly as the Companion Animal Protection Act, the proposed legislation has been effective elsewhere in ending killing in animal shelters. Best Friends refused to support it and the bill died.

In other words: All of the national "sheltering" agencies have been virtually silent about ongoing, chronic and egregious atrocities in our nation's shelters, ignoring sources like the State of New Jersey. At the same time, they have resources with which to attack No Kill advocates. Fundamentally, that is why we say that reform of our nation's shelters requires reform of the entire field of animal sheltering... including the large, national organizations that have failed at their mission to be the voice for shelter animals. To solve this problem, we need you to do a couple of things: 1) Stop giving to the multi-million-dollar national organizations

2) Give to the local No Kill reform efforts in your own community

Furthermore, if you want to help the animals in New Jersey, contact these municipalities that contract AHS and demand immediate action: Belleville: (973) 450-3345

Carteret: (732) 541-3801

Clark: (732) 388-3600

Fanwood: (908)-322-8236, ext. 124;

Hillside:(973) 926-3000

Newark: (973) 733-6400;

Irvington: (973) 399-8111

Linden: (908) 474-8493;

Fairfield: (973) 882-2700;

Orange: (973) 266-4005

Plainfield: (908) 753-3000;

Roselle: (908) 956-5557;

Rahway: 732-827-2009;

Winfield Park: (908) 925-3850

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