BY JOE TYRRELL
The New Jersey law requiring a seven-day holding period before stray animals can be killed “is not clear,” and a private citizen cannot pursue an animal-cruelty case, a municipal court judge has ruled.
The sweeping decision by Judge George Cieri in Manalapan exculpated four Monmouth County health and animal control officers in the “cat death warrant” case. The officers picked up stray cats and sent them to a local veterinary office where they were killed immediately.
While the local ruling is not binding in other towns, both sides predicted it would be widely applied around the state.
“This is a victory for public officials,” said defense attorney Richard Lomurro, who represented Freehold Township health officer Julie Kramer.
“This means that if your dog gets out, your cat gets out, the dogcatcher in your town can kill them without a second thought,” said Stuart Goldman, a former head of the Monmouth County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Cieri said he sympathized with Goldman, who brought the case himself after the Monmouth SPCA declined to intervene. But Goldman instead should have gone to court to get the SPCA or other authorities to act, the judge said.
“There is a conflict between what I feel in my heart and what I know in my head,” he said.
The procedural point might be moot if Cieri’s other major finding is upheld on appeal. But the prosecution said neither law nor the facts of the case support his conclusions.
The judge zeroed in on one paragraph in state animal welfare law, N.J.S.A 4:19-15.6, which says animal control officers can impound any stray animal reported or observed “to be ill, injured, or creating a threat to public health, safety, or welfare, or otherwise interfering with the enjoyment of property.”
An earlier passage notes impounded animals are “thereafter to be adopted or euthanized,” and Cieri argued the combination gives animal control officers wide discretion to decide when to kill them.
“The judge is clearly wrong on that,” said James Nelson Butler, appointed to prosecute the case on behalf of Goldman. But Butler said he would need permission from the county prosecutor to file an appeal, and the ruling could hinder Goldman’s ability to do so on his own.
The decision took one line of the law out of context, while ignoring other provisions including the seven-day holding period, Goldman contended. During the trial, all parties agreed that the seven days are intended to allow owners to retrieve stray pets as well as monitoring others for potential health problems such as rabies.
The veterinarian, Dr. Lawrence Weiner, testified that instead of observing the seven days, he gave the two dozen or so cats cited by Goldman a cursory visual inspection, then killed them while the health officers waited.
While he has other clients expressly sign off before he euthanizes their pets, Weiner said the officers used a special form that does not spell this out but signals they want animals killed. The vet agreed with Cieri that he viewed this as a “death warrant.”
“The judge himself said that during the trial, yet today he said there’s not enough evidence that the officers knew what was happening,” Goldman said.
Before the trial, Chief Buddy Amato of the Monmouth SPCA termed the killings a paperwork issue, saying, "Nobody missed those cats." But he added that the animal control office had begun observing the seven-day period.
Animal rights advocates in the courtroom said they now fear Western Monmouth will immediately use the ruling to increase animal killings, especially of community cats. They cited a complaint from the new manager at the Pinebrook Care Center, a nursing home and adult day care, which could lead to the removal of a colony of cats cared for by years for employees.
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