Well over 100 animal lovers from around the state flocked to the Bloomfield Board of Health meeting held Thursday evening at the Bloomfield Civic Center to show their support for Memphis, a pit bull deemed unadoptable by the Health Department due to concerns that he would endanger the public. After a long and contentious meeting, the Board decided to give Memphis more time to be rehabilitated before deciding on his fate.
Prior to the public comment period, members of the Board stated that their priority is the safety of the public and that all decisions pertaining to Memphis would be based on that fact.
Memphis, who came to the Bloomfield Animal Shelter as a stray in February, showed concerning behavior shortly after he arrived, according to Karen Lore, Director of the Bloomfield Health & Human Services Department, which oversees the shelter.
She explained during the meeting that the shelter sent Memphis to St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center in Madison for a professional evaluation to confirm the initial perceptions of his temperament. As a result of this evaluation, Memphis was deemed to be a problem dog and considered unadoptable due to signs of aggression or agitation around other dogs and hostile strangers.
The shelter management began looking for a trainer who could take Memphis and rehabilitate him so that he could pass the temperament evaluation and become adoptable.
Jeff Coltenback, a certified dog trainer who owns Paradise Pet in Bloomfield and operates a registered 501(c)(3) pit bull rescue, Pitty Rescue, Inc., offered to take Memphis after meeting him at the shelter. The township attorney drew up a contract that he signed, taking on full responsibility for Memphis during the training period.
However, after just eight days with the Coltenback family, the Health Department became aware that Coltenback was letting Memphis interact directly with other people, including children, and the township attorney advised that the dog should be returned to the shelter as he was “a danger to the public.”
According to Coltenback, once he was in his home, Memphis showed no signs of aggression or any concerning behavior whatsoever; in fact, he stated that Memphis behaved perfectly around people of all ages, other dogs, cats, rats and even birds.
Former volunteers who have worked with Memphis have also stated he never showed any aggression in their experience. One, Nellie Reynolds, was quoted on the Save the Bloomfield Shelter Facebook page. She said: “Memphis always displayed a calm, friendly and eager-to-please demeanor. He sat nicely for treats and took them gently from my hand. When Staff had him out on leash I was able to pet and even give him a gentle hug… We, as experienced dog handling volunteers, had no reservation about him.”
Once returned to the Bloomfield Animal Shelter from the Coltenback home, Memphis was sent to St. Hubert’s for another evaluation. In the meantime, the Coltenbacks had applied to adopt the dog, submitting an application with twelve letters of recommendation to the shelter.
On August 11, the Health Department announced via the “official” shelter Facebook page that Memphis had had his second evaluation and said it would be discussed at the August 16 Board of Health meeting, leaving the Coltenbacks and all of Memphis’ supporters wondering about the outcome.
The story, in the meantime, had gone viral on Facebook and other social media sites. A Facebook Causes petition was created, and by the time the Board of Health meeting took place, over 11,000 people from all over the world had signed the petition, and many had contacted Bloomfield officials pleading for Memphis to be allowed to go back home with Jeff Coltenback and his wife Diana.
The publicity attracted a standing-room-only crowd of supporters that included dog trainers, pit bull advocates and members of the rescue community, as well as people who have adopted or fostered shelter dogs. Members of the Prayers for Patrick group and The Patrick Miracle were represented, among others. The supporters came from Bloomfield, but also from Kearny, Parsippany, Sparta, and even farther away. One woman drove two hours each way to attend the meeting.
Jeff Coltenback was the first to speak during the public comment period. In an emotionally charged speech he showed pictures of Memphis with other dogs, with his father, and even with pet rats. He stated his willingness to sign any agreements necessary to allow his family to adopt Memphis. You can see and hear part of the speech in this video (courtesy of Geoff Gove). [There is a problem with the sound about halfway through]. At the completion of his speech, both he and many members of the audience were in tears.
For the next two hours, speaker after speaker urged the Board of Health to let Memphis go back to Jeff Coltenback, punctuated by applause from the audience. The speakers vouched for Coltenback’s expertise with the pit bull breed and emphasized his track record with rehabilitating dogs. Some pointed out that there is no assurance that any dog won’t bite and that Memphis should not be treated differently from all the other dogs at the shelter.
Others said that evaluating a shelter dog that is stressed and in a strange place is not a valid assessment and that the dog’s behavior at the Coltenbacks’ home was much more indicative of the true nature of the dog.
The creator of the Facebook petition spoke and presented a binder containing a printout of the signatures to the Board.
Many people stated their belief that Memphis’ breed played a part in him being singled out for different treatment from other dogs at the shelter.
Karen Lore and the Board of Health members commented more than once that the Bloomfield Animal Shelter does not discriminate against pit bulls and that the issue was not Memphis’ breed but his behavior.
One of the last speakers was Danise (Bonnie) Taboadela, a current volunteer who heads up the shelter Fundraising Committee. Taboadela presented a letter purportedly representing the opinion of the entire Fundraising Committee, but did not provide names or addresses of the other members. She also asked Karen Lore to read the letter, saying she had forgotten her glasses.
The letter supported sending Memphis to a sanctuary (Spirit Animal Sanctuary in upstate New York), which costs $5000. In the letter, it was suggested that the many people supporting Memphis could donate to the shelter for that purpose and easily raise the money to send Memphis there.
As Taboadela’s letter was read by Lore, members of the audience shouted out objections to sending Memphis away instead of allowing him to be adopted.
At the end of the comment period, Karen Lore summarized the history of the shelter’s experience with Memphis from the time he arrived, describing the concerns of the shelter manager, Kathleen Georgeovich, and other dog trainers and evaluators about his disposition.
She emphasized that the concerns centered around his behavior and not his breed, and that the shelter has adopted out many pit bulls and pit mixes. She said they had hoped that Memphis would do well on his second evaluation at St. Hubert’s, but unfortunately that was not the case, and he was still deemed unadoptable. She did not reveal any details of the results of the test.
Members of the Board discussed the fact that Bloomfield Animal Shelter very rarely puts down dogs, and in the few cases it has done so, it was only in the case of a dog with a bite history. Board member Joel Elkins asked Karen Lore if Memphis had ever bitten anyone in the seven months he had been at the shelter. She said no, he had not.
During the meeting members of the audience often shouted out comments or challenged statements being made by the members of the Board, Lore and Fitzpatrick, prompting Elkins to call for them to be silent or be removed from the meeting. There were members of the police force on hand.
During the discussion about Memphis, both Lore and Elkins alleged that Jeff Coltenback had violated the agreement he had signed with the Health Department not to endanger the public by letting children and others interact with Memphis, which Coltenback denies. He has explained elsewhere that “Part of my training with Memphis, like any dog I work with, included socialization. During this socialization training, he interacted with both adults and children — all by permission.”
Board president, James McLaughlin, and Elkins both stated they felt that Memphis had not had a long enough rehabilitation period and that he should be given another chance to undergo training. McLaughlin stated he thought the contract with Coltenback should be examined to see whether he did actually violate its terms.
Health Officer Mike Fitzpatrick suggested that a “diagnostic” evaluation be performed that pinpointed more specifically the areas that need improvement.
At the conclusion of the discussion, the Board decided to identify another trainer who would be willing to take Memphis and work with him until he or she felt he was ready to be evaluated. Joel Elkins said that suggestions of appropriate trainers would be welcome from the public.
Elkins also stated that once he is considered rehabilitated, Memphis should be evaluated by more than one evaluator, as there are differing opinions about the types of tests that are given and their accuracy. He also offered $2000 toward any expenses incurred for Memphis for his training, to applause from the audience.
The members of the Board agreed that although the dog is past the usual six-month time period that the shelter keeps its dogs, an exception should be made in Memphis’ case.
After the discussion on Memphis, most of the crowd dispersed, and the Board of Health was able to quickly move through the remainder of their agenda.
Although disappointed that he would not be getting Memphis back at this time, Jeff Coltenback posted on his Facebook wall today that his main priority is to save Memphis’ life: “For the record, as much as Diana and I want to adopt Memphis, our primary objective here is saving his life, as it has been from the very beginning. This has been accomplished so far. We love him and want him in our home. But, if it is decided that he can go to a safe place and live his life out in peace, we are ok with that too…”
In the meantime, Memphis continues to sit at Bloomfield Animal Shelter awaiting the next phase of his long journey.