LACEY – Three floating luminaries were seen in the sky on the night over Gille Park.
The luminaries were sent up in loving tribute to three dogs, Gizmo, Fred and Kobe, who died of neglect and to express the need for stronger efforts against animal cruelty.
Fifty-two people came out to the vigil held in the park, which included a candle lighting ceremony where photos of the dogs were seen.
Their deaths have united county residents who are concerned over a recent state measure which has transferred authority of certain animal cruelty cases to the office of the county prosecutor, protestors said.
Ocean County Prosecutor Bradley D. Billhimer and Lacey Township Police Chief Michael DiBella reported that Allissa DeStefano, 29, was arrested on three counts of animal cruelty which was discovered on Nov. 11. Township police responded to the residence for a report that dogs had possibly been abandoned and upon their arrival, discovered the remains of the dogs in the house.
Members of the Lacey Police Detective Bureau and the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office reported that DeStefano was responsible for the care of the dogs and had abandoned them, resulting in their deaths. DeStefano was processed at the Lacey Police Department and released on a summons pending a future court date.
Celine Montana, a former Lacey resident who now lives in Browns Mills, organized the vigil. She provided the candles and put up photographs of the three dogs that had been provided to her by DeStefano’s ex-husband.
“I do not know the woman (Allissa DeStefano) and I don’t know the ex-husband either but when this happened, I reached out to him asked for photos and he sent me these. He didn’t say much but he did say thank you for doing this,” she said. Montana established a social media page in tribute to the dogs.
Another former Lacey resident, Gina Brown, Whiting, came out for the vigil. “I think it’s sad. I used to work at animal shelters. Just because they are four-legged fur babies doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve love, respect and decency. I can’t figure out why someone would do this. Animals aren’t just a possession.”
“People need to see a more severe punishment for doing something like this. They were beautiful. There are many ways – be it Facebook or calling someone where people can reach out and say I can’t take care of them anymore, can you take them and find them a home,” Gus Mourtus of Toms River said.
Montana read a statement during the vigil, “Allissa DeStefano shut the door on Fred, Gizmo and Kobe abandoning them and leaving them all alone in the dark. Tonight, we are here to set them free and remember them. Loyalty, unconditional love, bravery, resilience and compassion – they were all these things and so much more. These traits are what draws us as humans to them.
“While there are no words that can be said to bring them back there are actions that can be made to invoke change. Change to how we see our beloved pets and family members. There is a popular phrase, no one person can change the world but one and one and one add up. All of you add up. You chose to come out and remember these three babies. You chose to stand up and use your voice for those who are voiceless,” Montana said.
..”To see this type of heartless treatment inflicted on beautiful dogs is deeply heartbreaking. It reminds me that the vulnerable or voiceless among us need to be protected. It is also so saddening to know that this tragic event could have been avoided. This vigil tonight may be the only silver lining to this tragedy- standing up for the voiceless and acknowledging those lost lives,” Jen Suwak, Toms River, said.
“It feels as though a sea-change is happening, in terms of compassion for the helpless or disadvantaged. I’m hopeful that we can band together to acknowledge that acts of cruelty involving the helpless will not be tolerated. Many of us are willing to mobilize to be that voice for the voiceless,” said Steve Abruzzesse, Toms River.
Attendees acknowledged that DeStefano deserves her day in court as the charges are allegations and she is innocent until proven guilty. Those present were concerned that if found guilty, a first-time offense could result in a minimal punishment.
“After her court case how do we move forward?” Montana asked. She said she is working on a way for shelters to give information to the state to put people on a ‘do not adopt’ list. “It will likely start small on Facebook to see where it goes but so many cases would have been stopped if it had been known that the individual had previous animal abuse. We protect our children from predators why not our pets too?” Montana added.
Attendees of the vigil had the opportunity to write messages about the need for stronger laws that will be presented to the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office. “This is to show that we were all here tonight and we aren’t going away and we want justice,” Montana said.
The vigil also noted another incident of animal cruelty in Lacey involving a raccoon who was clubbed to death by two teenage boys. No charges were pressed against the teens by the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office. On Dec. 6, a vigil was held outside the Prosecutor’s Office.
The vigil, sponsored by the Lacey Raccoon Task Force, was held in memory of the raccoon to promote the message that animal cruelty will not be tolerated.
On Nov. 18, President Donald Trump signed the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act which prohibits extreme acts of cruelty when they occur in interstate commerce or on federal property. It expands a 2010 law that targeted videos depicting the crushing or torturing of animals, but that did not prohibit the underlying conduct. Under the new law, the underlying acts of cruelty would be a federal crime.