TOMS RIVER – A tiny eight-year-old pup named Gunner slipped his collar within minutes of his adoption from the Toms River Animal Facility in December of 2020. His story comes with a happy ending, unlike some of the many animals rescued during the pandemic.
Local resident Hilary Cohen found herself with more time at home due to the enactment of lockdowns and COVID-19 restrictions. A pet lover since her childhood, Cohen decided to set up an appointment at the municipal animal shelter with intentions of providing a forever home.
“I used to travel a lot for work, and I was not around enough for a pet,” shared Cohen. “I was living with my mother during the pandemic. I knew that even if I had to go somewhere, someone would always be around.”
Cohen actually grew up with big dogs and refers to Gunner as a real tough little guy, who weighs all of sixteen pounds. Not everyone looks to rescue older dogs, which gave Cohen even more reason to give Gunner a home. After signing the adoption papers, Cohen headed to her aunt’s house to introduce her new companion.
“Five minutes after I adopted him, Gunner slipped his collar and was on the loose,” Cohen said. “He was running around for six days, and it seemed like everybody in Toms River was looking for this dog.”
Volunteers from the Toms River Animal Facility alerted the public they needed help in locating Gunner. They suspected the pup was extremely frightened and would run from anyone other than someone from the shelter.
Ultimately, Cohen and Gunner were reunited on what just so happened to be Gunner’s birthday. The two are now inseparable, although that’s not to say it’s been an easy transition and shows the true meaning of unconditional love.
Gunner spent the first five years of his life in a hoarding situation, where he hid buried within couch cushions. An elderly woman subsequently adopted Gunner and brought him back to the shelter when she moved.
“As far as I am concerned, Gunner is the best dog in the world,” boasted Cohen. “My family is terrified of him. He’s very aggressive when it comes to protecting our house and me. He bites and lunges, and as cute as he is, he’s a little bit scary.”
No doubt Gunner’s past trauma created issues akin to those experienced by abused or abandoned children. Cohen set Gunner up with dog training and agreed with his vet to put him on a regime of doggie Prozac. Now that Cohen’s back to work, she also uses the services of Crystal Ann Hendricks, a pet setter, who works as a kennel attendant at the Toms River Animal Facility.
“Of the three trainers I had work with Gunner, one told me I should bring him back to the shelter,” Cohen admitted. “Another told me that 95 percent of people would have returned him.”
“To me, an animal is part of your family, like it or not,” continued Cohen. “That’s not happening.”
Cohen’s attitude may well be the exception as confirmed by observations made at the shelter.
Hendricks started at the local animal shelter as a volunteer before she secured her position as a part time kennel attendant.
“I started as a volunteer when COVID first hit,” Hendricks said. “The facility then stopped volunteers as we weren’t allowed in the building. I started my job there in August of last year.”
“We definitely have been on a roller coaster ride, starting with an influx of adoptions,” continued Hendricks. “Everyone was out of work; they had time and wanted the pets.”
At one point, the shelter only had five or six dogs available for adoption. The number has already increased to an average of 16-18 dogs as people return or abandon animals rescued during the pandemic.
“We just started finding loose, stray and dumped dogs,” Hendricks shared. “A lot of people came in and had to surrender their dogs because they returned to work and didn’t want them to sit in the house for fifteen hours alone.”
The Toms River Animal Facility stands out as unique in many ways. First, they are one of only four in the state that is run by a municipality.
The building not only provides shelter for cats and dogs, but also to other animals, such as bunnies. If a squirrel gets hurt in Toms River, local authorities transport it here to give it help.
“We also don’t euthanize animals without a medical reason,” said Hendricks. “For example, we recently put down a small cockapoo who was in severe renal failure.”
Some of the animals that wind up in the shelter are surrendered because of their physical maladies. Not all owners are upfront with the facility and admit that their pets are suffering from a disease. It may be that they are embarrassed that they cannot afford medical treatment.
Hendricks says she cries happy tears each and every time an animal leaves with hopes for a “furever” home.
“We sent a pit bull home today that was with us for just over eight months,” Hendricks shared. “Graham had a meet and greet the day before and his owners were eager to take him home.”
Those interested in adopting an animal should contact the shelter to set up an appointment by calling 732-341-1000 ext. 8450. The facility is located at 235 Oak Avenue and is open from 1pm to 4 pm daily.