Animals suffering in isolation or kept in cages 24/7 for years, inadequate ventilation, illegally high temperatures and incompetent management are among the concerns Montclair Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (MAWAC) have voiced about the township-run Montclair Animal Shelter, to municipal and shelter officials for almost a year.
At a meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 5, and previously at a July meeting, committee members say their concerns, and a list of recommendations for town officials and animal shelter staff, have largely been ignored. One exception is the creation of a volunteer coordinator.
“We have animals in our shelter for three years and longer and there is suffering going on,” said Kay Sherwood, chair of the Montclair Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (MAWAC).
“It’s unacceptable for the wheels of government to turn slowly, particularly with the case of animal welfare,” Montclair veterinarian Nancy Katz, vice-chair of the committee, has said. “When a shelter cannot meet its needs, animals’ lives are in danger.”
Township Manager Marc Dashield has recently met multiple times with the committee, and has worked with them on devising a plan to rectify the situation. “I want what you want,” Dashield said at a meeting with the committee last Wednesday, Aug. 6.
However, the plan won’t be ready for the Township Council to review until September.
“We have animals in our shelter for three years and longer and there is suffering going on,” Sherwood told the crowd Tuesday night, noting there are now 58 cats and 27 dogs at the facility on 77 N. Willow Street.
“There are cats in cages who are depressed, dogs stressed out and hard to adopt because they are so stressed out. Strategic planning is not the answer to what is needed here.”
Committee members also say they don’t trust that anything substantive will change unless shelter manager Melissa Neiss is replaced.
“I don’t believe any plan can be executed without a competent shelter director,” says Katz, who adds she is grateful that Dashield is on board and working with the committee to make changes.
ASPCA Report Critical of Shelter
At Tuesday night’s public meeting of the MAWAC, a crowd of about 25 — many expressing outrage at how the shelter is being run — heard excerpts of a report read by committee chair Sherwood and prepared by a staffer from the ASPCA who visited the shelter July 2, at the request of the MAWAC. The report, shared with Dashield, (who was not at the meeting
at the request of Sherwood because a town council meeting was being held at the same time.) includes:
*Inconsistent animal identification. “You can’t find out who is in there, where they came from and how long they have been there,” she says.
* A building with ceiling leaks, missing doorknobs, and a temperature of 92 degrees in the dog runs due to ineffective air conditioning. Of the heat, says Sherwood: “It is not only inhumane but it’s illegal. That’s an animal cruelty violation.”
* Cat cages stacked in front of the dog runs. “If you had your choice you wouldn’t have your cat cages stacked in front of the dog runs and every time the door is opened, the dogs bark and leads to stress and unhealthy conditions in the cats,” Sherwood says.
Other conditions include dog runs open to the weather year-round; no separation of air circulation between healthy animals and sick ones in quarantine; a dirty building; dirty litter boxes and not enough litter boxes for the cats; no enrichment activities for the dogs and few for the cats; lack of behavioral assessment of the animals.
“None of these things are any different than the things we have been talking about for quite some time,” Sherwood says.
The ASPCA staffer also observed a rabbit cage on top of a cat cage. “You’re not supposed to put prey (the rabbit) and predators (the cat) on top of each other,” says Sherwood. “It’s a sad confirmation of what we see when we go to the shelter.”
Some residents at Tuesday night’s meeting called for Montclair residents to contact Mayor Robert Jackson and other council members to express their outrage and “keep the pressure on” municipal officials to do something quickly.
“When are people going to be held accountable for what we are paying them to do?” said Karen Shinevar, a Montclair resident and almost daily shelter volunteer. “This is Montclair, New Jersey. This supports our values. Fix the shelter.”
Resident Nancy Willis put together a two-page proposal to spearhead changes in the volunteer program, one that has lost many members due to what she describes as inhospitable attitude towards them from staffers.
“My fear is that Melissa [Niess] won’t greenlight it and these are viable things to do,” Willis said. (Niess is not allowed to comment to reporters, and although a member of the MAWAC committee, she has been asked by Dashield not to attend MAWAC meetings.)
Sue Portuese, the director of the Montclair Health and Human Services Department, under which the shelter lies, attended Tuesday night’s meeting. Portuese assured Willis that “Melissa isn’t going to squash any ideas you have.”
Portuese did add that she can’t evaluate Niess because no town employees receive evaluations. It is a policy instituted by a prior town manager, municipal officials told Baristanet.
Marie-Christine Lochot, a longtime Montclair resident, spoke about her experience of adopting a cat that turned out to be sick with giardia, herpes in an eye and other ailments. She says she called the shelter to tell them to treat the other cats, and that her friend contacted the health department, under which the shelter falls.
A few days later, her phone rang on a Sunday morning. “It was Melissa Neiss screaming at me because we called the health department and we were going to jeopardize the shelter,” Lochot told the crowd. “I told her the health department should know and I asked her ‘Why are you so afraid?’ And I thought it was completely inappropriate to call me.”
During Tuesday night’s meeting, residents offered their services to volunteer to help, including Keith Ballantine, a contractor and owner of Montclair-based KB Electric. Last Wednesday, according to MAWAC member and shelter volunteer John Sieck, Ballantine visited the shelter with Sieck and volunteer Jerry Blasi, viewed the runs open to the elements, and said he will work with Sieck in arranging architectural and contracting services to close off the walls before winter’s arrival, Sieck told Baristanet.
Other areas in need of immediate repair are pieces of metal hanging down in the dog runs that cut and scratch the pups when they go back and forth between indoors and outdoors, a staffer told this reporter in June after I inquired about why a dog named Tiger had fresh cuts on his head and neck.
Dashield told Baristanet he welcomes volunteers to help with improvements to the building and other areas in need, particularly since the town is cash-strapped. In addition, $39,000 is promised for some building repairs, Dashield said.
At the end of last Tuesday night’s meeting, MAWAC ended with a discussion on if the township should even be in the sheltering business at all.
“The town has been responsible for the shelter for more than five years now, and the conditions have declined,” Sherwood says. “The people responsible for the shelter have proven over five-plus years that they are not up to the job and it’s time for a new team.”
In an email sent to Baristanet following the July MAWAC meeting, Portuese writes:
“The Township of Montclair is committed to making the Montclair Township Animal Shelter the best it can be. The health and welfare of the animals in our care is our top priority. During the past year I worked with the Animal Welfare Advisory Committee, heard their concerns and ideas, and provided insight as to what have been some of the greatest challenges we face at the Shelter. Moving forward, I am in the process of determining the best ways to proceed, working with other departments and trying to obtain the necessary funding to improve our operations.
The concerns and complaints I have heard, both since being involved in the Committee, and resulting from today’s meeting, will be investigated more carefully and addressed so that we can work toward fulfilling those expectations.”
Readers interested in more information on the MAWAC can contact Kay Sherwood at [email protected]