A look at the county’s homeless animal problem

UNION COUNTY, NJ — The statistics are disturbing. A look at the 2015 state Animal Intake and Disposition survey for Union County reveals that the county’s homeless animal population needs to be addressed.

According to statistics, 1,121 cats and 726 dogs were impounded in 2015, yet only 740 cats and 339 dogs were adopted out. Another 242 dogs were redeemed, along with 21 cats. The most disturbing data, however, is the number of euthanized animals in the county, with 208 cats and 84 dogs killed in 2015 alone.

According to Rosa Joseph, of Best Friends Dogs and Animal Adoption, Inc., located in Cranford, instituting a Trap, Neuter, Return program — commonly known as TNR — is crucial in staving off an ever-increasing feral cat population.

Joseph told LocalSource that there are currently no TNR programs in Elizabeth or Union, but that she is part of an initiative to try and start this in Elizabeth. “TNR programs are cheaper,” said Joseph when asked about the cost of euthanizing these animals. “Every town should have a TNR program.”

TNR is implemented through humanely trapping an animal, transporting it to a veterinary clinic to be spayed or neutered and to oftentimes receive health checks and vaccinations, and then returning the animal to its colony habitat, where often residents care for and feed the animals.

Joseph said that rescue organizations pay for TNR out of their own pockets and through donations. “You have to do massive fundraising,’ said Joseph. “The city is not paying for this.”

But Joseph said that Union’s Health Department makes residents afraid to feed and care for feral cat populations. “Union is brutal,” said Joseph, who claims that the Department of Health goes after residents if they are caught feeding feral animals.

Union County seems woefully underprepared to take in and care for these animals, and there are surprisingly few shelters for a county with such a large population. In 2014, Linden’s shelter was closed due to bad conditions, and the county’s largest city, Elizabeth, has a shelter that is unable to accommodate more than a few dozen animals. Union has a shelter, but Joseph said that it is small as well. “Union and Elizabeth are small shelters,” said Joseph. “By law you’re supposed to hold a pet for seven days,” Joseph said. “They try to adopt them out, but if not, they are euthanized. There’s just no room.”

LocalSource reached out to all three SPCA offices listed for Union County, located in Linden, Colonia, and Rahway. The numbers were either disconnected or messages stating that “all circuits were busy” were communicated via recording.

Joseph praised Union’s animal shelter, stating that the shelter makes great efforts to get animals brought in adopted out by posting pictures of animals in need of adoption on websites and social media. “The shelters rely on rescue and adoption to save these animals,” said Joseph. “It’s not the fault of the shelters. They try like crazy. It’s society.”

Besides the need to find good homes for these animals, Joseph said that responsible pet ownership is key. “People need to neuter their pets,” she said.

Union Board of Health member Marconi Gapas told LocalSource that the township’s shelter does a great job trying to get pets adopted out. “We have a relatively small shelter compared to other municipalities,” said Gapas, who cites the township’s shelter as having 30 cat cages and 10 dog runs. “It would be very difficult if I didn’t have a committed staff.”

Gapas said that the shelter works with numerous animal rescue organizations in order to save the township’s animals, but that the residents need to step up, as well. “We want our residents to step up and we want responsible pet ownership,” said Gapas, noting that pet owners need to get their pets spayed or neutered.

Still, however, if animals do not get adopted out or rescued, they face euthanasia. “Some are euthanized,” said Joseph. “These are perfectly great cats and dogs. It’s horrible.”

Union Mayor Manuel Figueiredo told LocalSource in an email that the majority of government public health agencies throughout the state do not operate or manage TNR programs. “TNR programs are typically run by nongovernment groups funded privately,” said Figueiredo. “There are no government health departments that I am aware of that have budget line items for TNR.”

According to Figueiredo, euthanasia in shelters only occurs in extreme cases. “The Union Health Department does not euthanize cats on the sole basis that they are feral or for the sake of making space,” he said. “In the cases where cats or dogs were euthanized, the decision was based on suffering caused by severe illness and/or extreme aggression that posed a threat to the staff and public.

Based on a three year average, 2013 to 2015, 35 cats were euthanized per year, which reflects 22 percent of total cats received.”

Figueiredo said that the Animal Control Program is devoted to finding the best possible outcomes for Union’s animal population. “The Animal Control Program staff is highly dedicated to finding homes for the cats and dogs taken in. They promote adoptions, responsible pet ownership, and in cases where adoption is difficult, work with numerous rescue groups.”

Union veterinarian Dr. Karen Negrin, an expert on TNR programs who delivers presentations to municipalities throughout the state, said that there are two trains of thought when it comes to TNR programs, but that she believes that a TNR program can work in municipalities who are organized and have both elected officials and residents on board. “There is no permanent solution, but it reduces the number of animals out there,” Negrin told LocalSource. “Plus it provides some protection against rabies, which is better than no protection against it.”

Negrin cited a municipality in Union County that started killing out the cat population, and that the town experienced an increase in the rat population. “They saw an increase in rats, so that wasn’t working,” Negrin said.

Negrin, who is an animal control officer in another county, said that the flip side of the TNR program is that some believe that feral cats bring in wildlife such as bears, who feed on the cats. In addition, bird lovers say that cats contribute to killing out part of the bird population.

Negrin agrees that Union is vigorous is handing out tickets to residents who feed feral cats. According to Negrin, the state considers cats to be wildlife, which is in violation of the law, thus enabling the township to hand out tickets to residents.

Negrin said that municipalities who employ animal control officers to implement TNR have more positive results. “Everyone thinks that animal control kills animals, but that’s not true,” said Negrin.

Negrin also points out that cat colonies actually serve as a protective barrier to cats reproducing. “They don’t allow other cats into their colony,” said Negrin. “They protect their environment, which stops them from reproducing even more.”

According to Negrin, residents who call out municipalities and shelters for euthanizing animals need to step up and take action. “Why don’t you come out and adopt these animals?” said Negrin.

Negrin claims that she has had to deal with opposition from both sides of the issue. “A lot of the rescue groups hate me because they want me to be on their side, but there are two sides,” said Negrin. “You have to investigate both sides.”
The other side of the issue involves the municipalities. “A lot of municipalities don’t like me because I’m informed,” said Negrin. Negrin said that she has been trying to get a TNR program going in Union and has presented the
case for TNR. “I have a feeling that Union’s going to be a ‘no,’” said Negrin. “We have the same politicians in town, and they don’t change anything. They don’t want to change anything. You can’t get a word in edgewise. Most of the time they don’t want to change unless there is public pressure.”

Negrin said that the bottom line for implementing successful TNR programs in order to reduce the homeless animal crisis is to have everyone on the same page. “You have to make sure that neighbors and the municipality are on board.”

In 2014, Roselle Park became the first municipality in Union County to institute a TNR program.


One Response to "A look at the county’s homeless animal problem"

  1. jeff   August 24, 2016 at 12:08 pm

    Unless I missed it, what’s the difference between adopted and redeemed (what’s that even mean?)?

    Interesting idea to examine but percentages would go a long way to explain the numbers some more. According to the data presented, 2/3 of cats are adopted and less than 1 in 5 are euthanized. Almost half of dogs are adopted and 1 in 8 are euthanized.

    It’s a shame that any are euthanized but it’s reality. I am surprised the number is not higher and that there are as many adoptions as there. Maybe it’s just me.