OCEAN COUNTY – Residents seeking better care for animals have been vocal in the last several months about the need for new laws and more transparency in animal abuse cases.
In late November, a vigil for three dogs that died after being left abandoned in a Lacey Township residence drew more than 50 people to Lacey’s Gille Park. Those present called for stricter laws pertaining to cases of animal cruelty and neglect.
Those at that vigil wanted to learn more from the Prosecutor’s Office about what punishment was issued to the two youths involved. Ocean County Prosecutor Bradley Billhimer said that due to existing law and the fact that those responsible were juveniles, his office was not at liberty to provide details on that case.
Manahawkin resident Kathleen Ruskin is a volunteer at the Southern Ocean County Animal Shelter and is providing a voice for animals. She feels that some of them could find new homes if not for a current law that allows for those accused of animal neglect to retain ownership of their animals. They keep ownership even in cases where they have violated local laws that restrict the number of dogs in a household unless it is a kennel or shelter.
One recent example of this scenario involved Luke Peters, 49, and his wife Allison Peters, 42, of Bayville who were charged with 24 counts of animal neglect after a complaint led police to their Berkeley home on October 11. Inside, officers found 24 dogs living in deplorable conditions. The dogs were safely transported to the Southern Ocean County Shelter where they received medical care.
Berkeley Township Animal Control responded to the scene where the homeowners voluntarily surrendered their dogs due to the unsafe living conditions. Neighbors were concerned about the possibility of neglect and alerted police which led to the Peters’ arrest. The couple faced a municipal judge on December 11 and the dogs were released to the shelter.
The 24 dogs, who range in age and breed from a Pomeranian puppy to an older, larger, St. Bernard, were previously taken care of at the Northern (Jackson) and Southern (Manahawkin) Ocean County Animal Shelters.
The Ocean County Animal Facility which oversees the two shelters falls under the authority of the Ocean County Health Department. Jackson Animal Facility Manager Mary Alano said that while she could not speak in regards to any specific pending court case that county fees from a case involving sheltering animals are presented at the time the case is heard in court.
Ruskin was glad that the dogs could now be adopted and she wants to bring awareness to what happens to animals after they are seized by Animal Control officers.
“The best-case scenario is when the offenders immediately relinquish their rights to the dogs and the shelter begins the process of treating them medically, assessing them behaviorally and preparing them for adoption. The worst-case scenario is when the offenders do not release the dogs to the shelter and the dogs remain in limbo while the case winds its way slowly through the legal system,” Ruskin said.
Ruskin said in the Berkeley case it was costing the county around $340 a day to house and feed the dogs and that figure grew to around $20,000 which is a cost being picked up by Ocean County residents. The Peters may now have to reimburse the county.
“As long as the offenders refuse to give up their animals, the shelter is powerless to prepare them for the chance at a loving, caring home. In truth, they are held hostage,” Ruskin said.
“We are fortunate in Ocean County to have not one but two county shelters whose staff has stepped up many times to care for seized dogs that are caught in this state of limbo. The shelter staff and volunteers do an outstanding job of caring for these neglected and abused animals; however, no shelter is designed to be any animal’s permanent address. No shelter is a home and no shelter can mirror the individual attention, care and love provided in a home,” Ruskin said.
Ruskin noted that “some dogs linger at the shelter for months waiting for their offenders to release them. Most of the time, these dogs are very adoptable and would be adopted in no time if only their offenders would let them go. Young puppies who should be growing and developing in a home that provides them with proper training and socialization are deprived of all that a young puppy needs.”
“Large dogs of any age are confined to a kennel that cannot possibly meet their needs for exercise and mental stimulation despite the daily efforts of staff and volunteers. The staff and volunteers are doing the best they can within the shelter environment,” Ruskin added.
“Offenders do not seem to recognize the harm they are doing by holding these animals’ hostage. Perhaps they loved the dogs at one time and if they did, they need to love them enough to let them go. They need to release them and give them a chance to be loved by someone else. These dogs are victims and they deserve better,” Ruskin said.
There are two bills currently pending before the state legislature that if passed could change the way such situations are handled in the future. NJ A-781 establishes a process for recovering the cost of care of animals involved in animal cruelty violations while NJ A-4840, called Desmond’s Bill, provides for an advocate in criminal cases involving the welfare of a cat or dog.
“I believe that we need to raise public awareness of the plight of all dogs that find themselves victims of people who have let them down not once but twice,” Ruskin said.
As for the dogs seized during the raid on the Peters’ home, two were recently adopted while the remaining dogs are scheduled for spay/neuter surgeries and will be put up for adoption shortly thereafter. A few already have families waiting for them.