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NJSPCA Is History: Christie Signs Bill Shutting Down Rogue Agency

It will take more than a year to disband New Jersey Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, but to animal-rights activists and some lawmakers, it’s worth the wait

NJSPCA jeep

Legislation disbanding the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and transferring enforcement of the state’s animal-cruelty laws to county and local law enforcement was enacted into law today, ending decades of controversy about whether the organization was doing its job.

Gov. Chris Christie signed the bill, which was put forward after two scathing state Commission of Investigation (SCI) reports calling for its dissolution. The bill, spearheaded by former Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union) passed both the Senate and Assembly with almost unanimous support.

“A new day arrives for abused and abandoned animals in New Jersey as law enforcement will do what law enforcement knows best — enforce the laws, and county SPCAs will be free to do what they do best — provide for the care of abused and abandoned animals,” Lesniak said.

The bill, S-3558/A-5231, which abolishes the organization over a 13-month period, follows the latest SCI report that painted the NJSPCA as a dysfunctional organization that had failed to enforce the state’s animal-cruelty laws. (The NJSPCA is not in any way related to the national SPCA.) The report came on the heels of a two-part investigation by NJ Spotlight that detailed the organization’s questionable practices, which included failing to file tax returns and submitting to government oversight.

Long-overdue reform

Assemblyman Dan Benson (D-Hamilton Square), who sponsored the Assembly version of the bill, said he was extremely excited for what he called a long overdue reform and said it should speed up the process for dealing with animals that have been abused.

“NJSPCA never cared for animals directly. The county SPCA organizations that are still operational and the various nonprofits and shelters they work with will continue to care for animals as they did before,” he said.

The bill shifted enforcement of the state’s animal-cruelty laws to county prosecutors and humane law enforcement officers hired by each municipality. The whole structure would be under the attorney general’s supervision.

The NJSPCA strongly opposed the measure and tried to derail its passage last month by urging its members to contact legislators without revealing their affiliation to the organization. The NJSPCA said the tactic was necessary to protect its members, who had been threatened by animal rights activists. But several lawmakers say cloaking their identity may have hurt their cause.

The new bill requires each municipality to appoint a humane law enforcement officer (HLEO) to investigate and enforce state and local animal-cruelty laws and who could sign complaints where violations occur. The HLEO could be an animal-control officer, police officer, or anyone who undergoes humane law enforcement training. The HLEO would be allowed to carry a firearm, provided they have completed a firearms-training course approved by the Police Training Commission and that they update this certification each year.

Animal-cruelty task force

The bill requires each county prosecutor to create an animal-cruelty task force to enforce the state’s animal-cruelty laws. The task force would include at least one animal-cruelty prosecutor, whose job it would be to investigate and prosecute those who violate animal-cruelty statutes. The task force would also designate a county SPCA. While the bill dissolves the state SPCA, it leaves the existing county SPCAs intact, though they will no longer have any law enforcement powers. They will simply oversee animal welfare issues and shelters.

Collene Wronko, an animal-rights activist whose group, Reformers — Advocates for Animal Shelter Change in New Jersey — discovered the NJSPCA had not paid its taxes, filed yearly audits, or filed their charity registration with the division of Consumer Affairs for the past five years, applauded the group’s demise.

“We are thrilled that the governor has signed the bill and that the animals in the state of New Jersey will be protected by qualified law enforcement agencies and county charters of the SPCA, whose foremost function will be to care for unwanted and homeless animals,” Wronko said.

The bill was introduced in the wake of what was the second damning report the SCI has written about the agency in 17 years. The latest report, released in October and entitled “Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing: New Jersey’s SPCAs 17 Years Later,” found the nonprofit group fails to respond to animal-cruelty complaints in a timely manner, spends exorbitant sums on legal billings rather than on animal care, and remains a haven for “wannabe” cops — some of whom believe they can use police powers, like making traffic stops, that go beyond the enforcement of the animal-cruelty statutes. The commission called for the immediate repeal of statutes empowering the SPCA to enforce New Jersey’s animal-cruelty laws and said the job should be handled by local animal control officers, police, or health departments.

David Gaier, a former governor appointee to the NJSPCA’s board, said the organization’s so-called leadership showed its true colors in the eleventh hour with a cynical attempt to deceive the New Jersey Assembly. Luckily, it didn’t work, he said.

“Thanks to investigative coverage by NJ Spotlight and the efforts of Senator Ray Lesniak, New Jersey’s homeless and abused animals are much better off now that the Governor has signed the bill dissolving the NJSPCA as a law enforcement agency,” he said. “This band of wanna-be cops leaves a sad legacy of suffering animals, lost opportunity, and the enormous waste of millions of donor dollars.”

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 a State House reporter for the Asbury Park Press.

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