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Are Guns and Police Cars the Best Way to Prevent Cruelty to Animals in NJ?

For the NJSPCA, the answer seems to be in the affirmative. But there are other, equally troubling, aspects of this group, which essentially operates without oversight

NJSPCA police car

This is the second story in a two-part series investigating the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Follow this link to read the first story in the series.

On an unusually warm day in January 2014, armed agents from the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals showed up at the Hunterdon County Humane Animal Shelter with two officers from the New Jersey State Police, reportedly handcuffed the shelter’s 84-year-old director, patted her down, and then left her handcuffed in a cell in a local police station for several hours on charges of animal cruelty.

NJSPCA officers charged Theresa “Tee” Carlson with 18 counts of animal cruelty related to the care of nine cats that died five months earlier, despite providing little evidence actually linking her to the cats’ death, according to her attorney in a brief filed with the court. Four of the nine cats had only been at the shelter a day or two, and most of them died after being moved to another facility, again, according to her attorney’s filing. Carlson claims the NJSPCA has always had its eyes on her Hunterdon shelter and local SPCA operation — and its $5 million in assets — and that her arrest was an attempt to take possession of those assets.

Indeed, the NJSPCA had filed papers to take over the shelter the day before her arrest. It is now in receivership, and the whereabouts of all its assets are unclear. Carlson has hired Victor Rotolo, a lawyer from Lebanon, who has filed suit against the NJSPCA to try to get her funds back and her operation up and running again.

As for the cruelty charges, they were ultimately dismissed, as part of a settlement with the Hunterdon County Prosecutor's Office.

To be clear, the NJSPCA has no relationship to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, though people often confuse the two.

Accused of strong-arm tactics

The Hunterdon incident is just one of many in which the NJSPCA has been accused of strong-arm tactics in its enforcement of animal laws. Critics point to other examples of overzealous enforcement, such as ticketing people for not having a doghouse for their dog in their own backyard, threatening to write tickets for those who drive with dogs that are not strapped in seatbelts, and overcharging on infractions. The organization has also been accused of being unnecessarily rough on subordinate county SPCAs, using threats and power of arrest to bend members to its will.

Presenting the NJSPCA’s Case

NJSPCA shatkin
NJSPCA president Steve Shatkin

The NJSPCA’s president, Steve Shatkin, takes issue with these complaints, saying the organization follows the letter of the law as it relates to the enforcement of Title IV, New Jersey’s animal cruelty statues. The failure to provide proper shelter is animal cruelty in New Jersey.  He says when they receive complaints alleging improper shelter, for instance, they will work with owners to educate them and will only issue a warning, explaining remedial actions that need to be taken. They then visit the site at a later date to make sure the owner has complied. Only in egregious cases or if the owner fails to enact those remedial measures will they charge the owner with animal cruelty, Shatkin said.

“That is not overzealous. That is the NJSPCA doing the job it is mandated to do,” he said, noting that proper shelter is required if a dog owner leaves an animal outside unattended for an extended time or overnight. “That is the law. We enforce the law. The only people who tend to complain about us enforcing the law are those who get caught breaking the law.” 

He added that fines for violations of Title IV are not determined by NJSPCA, but by the New Jersey Legislature. The exact fine imposed on an individual is ultimately up to the judge, not the NJSPCA.

As for being rough on county SPCA’s, Shatkin said that under the SPCA Act of 2006, the NJSPCA, as the parent organization, has an obligation to ensure that subordinate SPCA county chapters are following the guidelines applicable to all county charters. 

“The SPCA Act of 2006 provides very specific requirements governing the relationship and reporting requirements between the NJSPCA and county SPCAs. It is our job to follow those requirements,” Shatkin said, adding, “The NJSPCA does not impose any requirements on county charters that the NJSPCA does not impose upon itself.”

As for the Carlson case, he said the Hunterdon County SPCA charter was revoked by the NJSPCA for failure to perform its core law enforcement function. The NJSPCA continues to cover Hunterdon County in terms of animal cruelty law enforcement. A limited amount of funds are being held in an escrow account, pending the reconstitution of an SPCA in Hunterdon County, Shatkin said.

“The location of additional funds is a question better directed to the Hunterdon County Humane Animal Shelter and/or former leadership of the Hunterdon County SPCA,” Shatkin said. “The former president of the revoked charter continues to file frivolous lawsuits against the NJSPCA, which only serves as a distraction to our core function of fighting animal cruelty.”

Other activists are not buying it.

Cruelty to elderly woman

“You handcuff an 84-year old woman and have her sit in one of their ‘police cars’ for four hours?” questions Nancy Beall, president of the Atlantic County SPCA for the past 26 years. Beall points out that there was no evidence of cruelty, other than the treatment of an elderly woman. “The problem is, the shelter and the Hunterdon County SPCA has about $10 million in its accounts, and the NJSPCA has always been after Hunterdon’s money.” Neither Carlson nor her attorney returned calls for comment, but Carlson’s attorney has supported that claim in court documents.

The NJSPCA has long been criticized for being a private group with law enforcement powers, like permission to carry guns and arrest people. Yet the NJSPCA has little practical oversight, although it is nominally answerable to the state attorney general’s office.

The agency is a private organization created in 1868 to deal with, as the name suggests, issues of animal cruelty. While it has no shelter or means of holding animals, it answers calls and can order animals be seized, though they rely on local animal control officers and shelters for assistance. Its income is derived from donations, criminal fines, and civil penalties, which often range from $250 to $1,000.

Some New Jersey counties have subordinate NJSPCA chapters, such as Atlantic, Bergen, Burlington, Cumberland, Middlesex, Monmouth, Somerset, Passaic, and Union, which largely operate independently, but they must obtain a charter from the state organization. The NJSPCA can revoke that charter under certain conditions, as it has done in several instances over the years, including with Hunterdon.

‘Gun club mentality’

The NJSPCA has been the subject of two state investigations in the past 17 years. The State Commission of Investigation, which issued a report in 2000, said the organization had a “gun club mentality” and described its members as “cop wannabes.” It listed various abuses, such as agents writing summonses in order to generate revenue — not just for the agency but for themselves, as well. It also called the NJSPCA’s power to carry weapons “the most disturbing area of unbridled authority,” because officers can have guns “without being subject to governmental oversight or to the most stringent government requirements governing legitimate law enforcement officers.” (Not all NJSPCA investigators carry guns. The agency differentiates between “officers” and “agents.” Officers are authorized to carry guns and are trained at the state police academy in the use of firearms.)

NJSPCA patch

The report further noted that agency volunteers drive black and white cars equipped with red lights and sirens, making them look like police cars, and their badges and business cards are similar to those used by the New Jersey State Police. But despite the SCI’s damning report, few reforms came.

Partly in response to the SCI report, Gov. James McGreevey convened an animal-welfare task force, which issued a report in November 2004 that was equally critical, calling for animal-cruelty complaints to be treated like any other criminal complaint and to be handled by a professional law enforcement agency.

But neither recommendation was heeded. Critics of the agency say the group spends a significant portion of its money on lobbyists, namely, MBI GluckShaw, a well-connected Trenton lobbying firm, to fend off any legislative attempts to rein them in. Matt Stanton, who works at MBI GluckShaw, sits on the NJSPCA’s board.

“They have a huge lobbying force, so when there is any kind of bill that affects them, you will see the hearing rooms filled up with uniformed agents and officers, both county and state,” said Nancy Halpern, an attorney with the law firm Fox Rothschild. She said she used to work with the NJSPCA regularly in her former capacity as a veterinarian for the state Division of Animal Health, which is overseen by the Department of Agriculture.

Too many tickets

NJSPCA jeep

Excessive fines are a continual charge against the agency. When the NJSPCA or a local police officer writes a ticket for animal cruelty, the money collected goes to the NJSPCA. If a town animal investigator is responsible for the ticket, half of the money still goes to the NJSPCA.

NJSPCA critics point to this fact as the reason behind the organization writing hundreds of tickets that are eventually dismissed. Shatkin disagrees with this notion.

“The NJSPCA responds to approximately 5,000 cases of cruelty complaints every year — at no cost to the taxpayers of the State of New Jersey — that are called in by other police departments and the general public. Education through enforcement is how we protect those without a voice,” Shatkin said. “I have never heard any complaint that the NJSPCA writes too many summonses. In fact, we hear the opposite from most critics. The only ones who complain about summonses are those who receive them.”

Filing reports

The NJSPCA must file quarterly reports with the attorney general’s office, detailing its law enforcement activities, such as how many summonses were written, how many convictions they had, and how many cases were dismissed. The reports do show a pattern of high summons issuance, with a low conviction rate and a high dismissal, which critics attribute to poor investigation, inappropriate summonses issued, or an attempt to intimidate by overcharging for violations.

For 2012, for instance, it issued  528 summonses — amounting to $59,131 in fines — but it had only 128 convictions that year, and 225 cases dismissed. For 2013, 399 summonses were issued — amounting to $59,834 in fines — but there were only 109 convictions that year, while 128 cases were dismissed.

Figures for the next two years are spotty, with summonses for the first quarter of 2014 — the only figures available from that year — amounting to 116, and yet there were only 18 convictions and 17 cases were dismissed. From July to December 31, 2015, 427 summonses were issued, but there were only 128 convictions and 153 cases dismissed. And from January to September 30, 2016, 585 summonses were issued, but there were only 106 convictions, and 91 cases were dismissed.

“If the summonses don’t result in convictions, that’s the fault of the municipal and county prosecutors who take the cases after NJSPCA responds,” said Shatkin. “The reality is, the NJSPCA has little or no control over how individual prosecutors advance cases involving animal cruelty.”

Walter Mychalchyk, who heads up the Middlesex County SPCA, said he rarely writes a summons that does not result in a conviction. In fact it’s somewhat unusual, he said.

“The (NJSPCA) came into our county (to fine people) for the money,” Mychalchyk said, noting that unlike the NJSPCA, when his local SPCA officers write a ticket, the fine money goes to the county SPCA. “So they’re encouraging their officers to write summonses (to support their budget)” he said, an effort that works at cross-purposes with its own affiliates.

Collene Wronko, an animal activist from Spotswood, said the problem with the organization is not so much the officers, but the board of directors, who she accused of using the organization for personal gain and then closing ranks to avoid scrutiny.

Accountable to attorney general

After the incident with Tee Carlson, Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Somerset) and Assemblyman John DiMaio (R-Somerset) sponsored bills in the Assembly and Senate — along with Assembly members Scott Rumana (R-PassaicWayne) and Jack Ciattarelli (R-Somerset) as co-sponsors — that required the NJSPCA be accountable to the attorney general’s office. County societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals would be accountable to county prosecutors. But despite being introduced in two different sessions, the bill never went anywhere.

A draft of a new bill that calls for the elimination of SPCAs as enforcers of the animal cruelty laws and instead places that function with local governmental entities was sent to Assemblyman Ciattarelli with the hopes that he would sponsor it, but his chief of staff said the assemblyman has not yet read it.

Carrying guns

The fact that some officials in the organization carry guns is another sticking point with critics. The NJSPCA calls itself a law enforcement agency and according to the statutes, which were updated in 2006, humane law enforcement officers may possess, carry, or use firearms while enforcing the laws and ordinances enacted for the protection of animals, provided they have satisfactorily completed a firearms training course. Twice a year, they must “requalify” to use the firearm, or it can be taken away.

But critics question why they even need guns and bulletproof vests. They are not protecting the general public, don’t typically deal with anything dangerous, and don’t seize animals without the help of local officials.

Wronko described the agency as being made up of retired police officers and those want-to-be cops.

“They wanted the badge and the shield, and now they’ve got it. They want you to call them lieutenant and chief,” she said “but I won’t do that.”

Adequate training?

Others question the thoroughness of their training when it comes to animal care. Attorney Halpern describes the NJSPCA as sometimes overzealous in its enforcement and often lacking in knowledge of how to treat livestock animals, despite its statewide jurisdiction. Halpern said she received so many complaints from horse owners about treatment and unnecessary tests being performed that she, the state Department of Agriculture, and the NJSPCA worked to come up with humane standards of care for animals that fell under the state board’s purview.

“Unfortunately, they participated in that process and then totally ignored the standards that were adopted,” Halpern said, adding, “It just became clearer and clearer that while many of the agents that work at the NJSPCA and even the county SPCAs are well-meaning individuals, they are not adequately trained, certainly in livestock issues. They know very little about how to treat and handle livestock.”

Acrimonious relations

The NJSPCA’s relationship with many of its county chapters is contentious. For instance, Hunterdon’s SPCA is not the only county society to accuse the state chapter of harassment in order to seize its assets. In 2002, the president of the NJSPCA filed suit against the Passaic County SPCA. That prompted six other county SPCAs to join Passaic’s court case alleging the state organization did not have the authority to supervise ongoing activities at the county level. It also claimed that the state organization had wrongfully revoked the certificate of authority of the Passaic SPCA.

The NJSPCA had also attempted to revoke the charters of other county SPCAs in that period, several of which were considered to be well-managed and in good financial shape. The Hunterdon SPCA, whose assets were largely raised by Carlson and her husband, was among the county organizations that joined the suit.

In the papers filed by Rotolo in Carlson’s case, the history of the enmity between the organizations was also raised. In 2004, the NJSPCA wrote Carlson a letter questioning the Hunterdon SPCA’s decision not to investigate the alleged shooting of a dog by former Nets basketball star Jayson Williams, who was on trial for shooting his chauffeur. Carlson said the prosecutor’s office was already handling the matter. Her refusal to pursue charges prompted the NJSPCA to revoke the county SPCA’s certificate of authority and demand that it turn over its files, records, vehicles, and funds to the NJSPCA, Rotolo wrote. When the chapter refused, its charter was revoked by the NJSPCA. To protect the county SPCA’s assets, Carlson bifurcated the operation, moving the assets into a separate nonprofit corporation, the Hunterdon County Humane Animal Shelter, which was supposed to be out of the NJSPCA’s purview. The revocation was subsequently overturned by the courts.

“Desperate for cash to support its financial flailing private organization, the NJSPCA renewed its efforts to steal the assets of the Hunterdon County SPCA and the shelter,” Rotolo wrote. He alleges the NJSPCA then filed an order to show cause, in order to be appointed receiver, and waged a negative media campaign to undermine the shelter’s credibility. It then revoked the county SPCA’s charter — only this time it added a new twist: It arrested its 84-year-old owner. The arrest served as a critical trigger because at that point, under state statute, the NJSPCA could petition the Chancery Division of the Superior Court to remove the operator of the shelter and install a receiver.

“The NJSPCA “sought an arrest warrant rather than issuing a summons for one reason only: to meet the statutory predicate for receivership,” Rotolo wrote.

The NJSPCA said it revoked the Hunterdon County SPCA charter for failure to perform its core law enforcement function. And it said the arrest of Carlson was necessary because they did not believe she would appear on a summons; that she was a danger to herself, others, or property; and that her address was unknown. Rotolo said she could easily be found at the shelter, where she has been every workday for 25 years.

Rotolo claimed in court papers that the NJSPCA withdrew more than $200,000 from the county shelter’s $428,000 bank account. But as noted earlier, the NJSPCA says a limited amount of funds are being held in an escrow account, pending the reconstitution of the Hunterdon County SPCA.

“The location of additional funds is a question better directed to the Hunterdon County Humane Animal Shelter and/or former leadership of the Hunterdon County SPCA,” Shatkin said.

Caren Chesler is a freelance writer, based in Ocean Grove, whose work has appeared in various general-interest and business publications, including The New York Times. She also served as State House reporter for the Asbury Park Press.

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