BY JOE TYRRELL
In the midst of devastation, recent storms have produced some heartwarming stories of rescued pets, such as Fluffy the lost Lavalette kitten reunited with her 5-year-old owner at a shelter following Hurricane Sandy.
Not many miles inland, though, not all the animal tales are happy.
In the Freehold area, some animal control officers have not been taking stray cats to shelter, but to be killed immediately, according to a past president of the Monmouth County Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Stuart Goldman has filed 25 municipal court complaints against Sharon Gaboff, Cherlann Ambrose and John Domic of Western Monmouth Animal Control for “procuring the needless killing of a living creature.” According to Goldman, in 2012, the three health officers “routinely” ignored a legal seven-day holding period for stray animals.
Local officials have responded that they are doing nothing wrong, and are being targeted by an overzealous activist with a grudge.
“We’re going to defend ourselves in court, and we’re confident these employees will prevail,” said Dave Richardson, who as Manalapan health officer oversees the regional group.
But the agency, which also serves Freehold, Freehold Township and Millstone, has initiated some policy changes. They appear to respond directly to key issues raised in Goldman’s complaints, scheduled for a Jan. 28 hearing.
A top current official of the Monmouth SPCA supports the animal control officers. Buddy Amato, chief of humane law enforcement for the group, said his own investigation found administrative problems, but “there was no animal cruelty.”
Amato said that based on his recommendations, Western Monmouth has stopped asking residents to attest to ownership of cats picked up by the officers, and will adhere to a seven-day holding period for all animals.
New Jersey’s state veterinarian, Dr. Colin Campbell, explained that when an “owner” surrenders a pet, a vet legally can choose to euthanize it immediately. Otherwise, a shelter must hold it for seven days.
While some animals trapped by animal control are too sickly or injured to survive seven days, Campbell said the holding period allows owners or prospective owners to locate them. Vets monitor them and can even treat them, he said.
“I’m not saying they abuse animals, I’m saying they didn’t follow the law in having these cats euthanized,” Goldman said.
The law is supposed to protect animals, but records he obtained have officers describing some cats only as “feral, euthanize.” Bills from a local veterinarian show they were killed immediately. The vet, Dr. Lawrence Weiner of Manalapan, declined comment.
Richardson acknowledged health officers did not keep complete records in some cases, and suggested the gaps created a worse impression for Goldman.
Amato said the problems were “not the kind where somebody should lose their job,” which would happen if the three officers are convicted. “I’ll be honest with you, their record-keeping was horrible,” he said.
His former friend Goldman has a “vendetta” against the officers since a 2009 incident when he unsuccessfully challenged the killings of several cats, Amato said. Goldman left them on a friend’s property in Freehold Township following the end of a relationship, according to Amato.
After Gaboff alerted him that the animals were being seized, Goldman said he objected. The cats had been relocated from the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina, and “everyone knew they were mine,” he said. Yet a municipal court judged refused to let him present his case, Goldman said.
Goldman subsequently started another sanctuary, Broken Promises in Howell, which also accepts farm animals here http://www.brokenpromisessanctuary.org/
Amato has a distinguished record of investigating animal cruelty in Monmouth, including many cases involving cats. He obtained a five-year sentence for a Cliffwood man who was adopting cats and then torturing them to death.
But “nobody missed” the cats euthanized last year, Amato said. “They were all feral cats, nobody came looking for them.”
While feral cats are sometimes described as living in “colonies,” Amato said, “that’s not a good word for them because ‘colony’ suggests order… and they’re a mess.”
“How would you like if it somebody started a cat colony in the woods next to your home, and they came on your property, defecating on your lawn, going through your trash?” he asked.
“If someone was looking for one of those cats, they wouldn’t have been able to find it,” Goldman said “None of them were taken to the shelter, they were just killed.”
While "feral" has come in to wide usage in recent decades, it remains a tricky term when applied to cats. Often the intent is to describe an animal descended from housecats and now living outdoors. But many housecats wander from their homes, or are abandoned by humans, making distinctions difficult.
“It’s hard to tell a feral cat from a stray cat by looking at them,” Campbell said. “We prefer the term ‘free roaming.’”
“In one of those cases cited by Dr. Goldman, the cat did turn out to be rabid,” Richardson said. “That’s what we do in our world, take action to protect human health and safety.”
“In most of these cases, there’s no indication the cats were sick or injured,” Goldman said, while others “had routine, easily treatable problems.”
“The policy is that there’s a holding period of seven days after an animal is captured, brought in, before anything is done to it, before it’s euthanized,” said Manalapan Mayor Susan Cohen. “We don’t just kill animals.”
But records indicate some did not get their seven days. On July 27, Ambrose picked up a “stray cat” that was “hanging around” a Manalapan home on July 27. Although describing the tabby as a “nice cat,” she reported it had ringworm and dermatitis. “Not Adoptable Euthanize” was the verdict.
Gaboff reported that s ‘sickly looking older cat” she brought in from Millstone on June 21 also had “runny eyes can’t walk well.” Though uninjured, it was “very, very thin” and was euthanized.
That description raised Goldman’s hackles.
“Yes, old cats tend to get skinny, but a cat doesn’t get old unless it’s been cared for somewhere,” he said. “That cat was almost certainly someone’s pet.”
Ambrose initially listed “three sick kittens” caught June 6 in Freehold Borough as “started toward amoxicillin” followed by an arrow toward “Helmetta,” the shelter location. But all that is crossed out.
Below is written “URI,” upper respiratory infection, for which amoxicillin is a common treatment, “plus ringworm,” which is infectious but not necessarily fatal. The next line reads “not fit for adoption,” and below that is a circled “euthanize.”
“Those aren’t her decisions to make,” Goldman said.
In an interview focused solely on proper procedures, Campbell said officers have considerable latitude in the field. For example, that common cat signal of displeasure, hissing, “can be interpreted as a threat to a human,” one legal justification for an officer to capture an animal, he said.
“The only way they could get into trouble… is if they somehow hid an animal during the seven days, so no one from the public could see it,” he said.
Campbell was speaking theoretically, but on Sept. 24, records show Gaboff brought a gray cat from Millstone to Town & Country Veterinary Services, with a notation on her form “neuro problems?”
On an evaluation checklist, a clinician rated the cat “normal” and wrote “Recommend observation 10d prior to adoption.” But an intake record obtained by Goldman showed the cat was not taken to the Helmetta shelter.
Instead, three days later, Gaboff brought it back to the vet. Weiner noted the cat had been “released to AC, brought back 9/27, said it was acting neurological and scratched a few people.”
This time, without an evaluation form, the cat was “euthanized, rabies prep.” But a notation on another form noted emergency rabies treatment had not been started on the exposed individual.
Even for animals taken to shelters, life can be short. Exact figures are elusive, by the Humane Society of the United States estimates that half the 6 million to 8 million cats and dogs dropped off annually at shelters are euthanized.
Still, attitudes have changed since the 1970s, when 12 million to 20 million were killed per year, according to the HSUS.
Millstone Mayor Nancy Greblja said the charges have troubled residents and township officials. Besides the question of humane treatment, she was “very surprised” to hear that “animals are being picked and are not being taken to the (shelter) facility that we pay for.”
“This is a farming community and we’re used to free-roaming cats,” Greblja said, noting she has three house cats, “a number of barn cats,” horses and dogs.
“I would be very upset if one of my animals wandered off the property, was picked up and euthanized without giving me the chance to look for it at the shelter,” she said.
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