Sunday, Oct. 21, was a golden, warm fall day. Longtime Jersey City resident Pam Hepburn took her black Lab, Duke, on his usual walk. They live in Hamilton Park and love to venture into the vestigial fields at the base of the deep ravine behind Christ Hospital. The dregs of our industrial past share space with ubiquitous weeds, aspens, and other flora, as well as human castoffs: food wrappers, beer cans, and plastic bottles squashed flat in the dirt. On this trip, Pam and Duke are accompanied by out-of-town friends Annebet Muceus and Keith Cunningham. The group takes a winding route that leads them across abandoned railroad tracks and past the mammoth graffiti-sprayed stanchions that support the Jersey Turnpike. The roadway above curves gracefully—a huge geometry of concrete and steel. The sound of cars rumbling overhead is white noise.
You can also get there from 17th Street west of Monmouth. There’s an entrance near where the new gas pipeline will be located. Beyond it is an unpaved roadbed, its two rutted tire grooves still visible. Next to it is a metal fence with long whorls of razor wire, its blades sparkling in the late-afternoon sun.
For the most part, razor wire is illegal in Jersey City. Aside from the state law prohibiting the wearing of bullet-proof vests to commit a murder, city ordinances that ban the use of razor wire are probably among our state’s least-known prohibitions. In fact, if you are on the lookout for razor wire, you can see it just about everywhere. Great looping coils of it sit atop a huge fence on the left as you enter Liberty State Park, just after the turnpike bridge. It looks to be brand new, bright silver, with no apparent rusting.
On this October afternoon, Duke races ahead. It is not unusual for him to find enticing wildlife out there, like a woodchuck, opossum, or field mouse. But what he actually finds is a bale of razor wire hidden in the underbrush. The more he tries to disentangle himself, the more the spiked blades dig into his flesh. His human friends hear his cries and race to his side. Keith and Annebet—who had worked as an emergency tech in a hospital—stay with Duke and try to stanch the blood, which is gushing from his femoral artery, while Pam runs to get her car. She remembers kids who are skateboarding on a concrete platform asking her if she needs help.
Pam, Annabet, and Keith rush Duke to the Animal Medical Center at 510 East 62nd St. in New York City, generally considered the finest animal hospital in the area, especially for trauma care. Speeding up FDR Drive, they can clearly see the Animal Medical Center up ahead on the left. There is no place to park, so Keith stays with the car, while Pam and Annabet go inside with Duke.
The next day, Pam runs into Jersey City Fire Department Fire Inspector Dennis Nuber, who also lives in Hamilton Park. They often chat when Pam is in the park with Duke. Nuber remarks on how “happy” Duke always seems. On this Monday morning, Nuber notices that Pam is “emotional.” She tells him about the razor-wire incident and he offers to drive her to the site. Nuber calls the Jersey City Incinerator Authority. JCIA Inspector Gerald McCann gets a call from his dispatcher to go to the site. Nuber and McCann put yellow tape around the razor wire, and by the next day, garbage trucks have arrived to remove the wire that is on the ground. Jersey City Fire Department Inspector Matt Barrett is also at the scene. He issues a summons to the owner of the property. The debris and wire need to be removed by Dec. 15.
Daniel (Danny) Gans is a fixture in Hoboken. Owner of Hoboken Brownstone Company, he is a developer, well-known for preserving our area’s historic urban aesthetic. He is also a Hoboken booster who loves the waterfront and has worked to promote Hoboken Cove, the boathouse, kayaking, and stand-up paddling on the Hudson. A few years ago, Gans honored his father’s memory by promoting a book the elder Gans had written about his escape from Nazi Germany.
Gans is also the owner of the property where Duke met up with the razor wire. Property owners typically use razor wire to keep intruders from trespassing or stealing goods. For example, parking-lot owners sometimes use it to deter car thieves. In this case, McCann says, “There was nothing to protect. The only thing to steal from the property is broken-up concrete and garbage. There was nothing to take.”
The razor-wire law is designed to protect the public. “Razor wire is hazardous,” McCann says. “Some kid could climb up on the fence and cut a wrist.” In fact, the razor wire at the entrance to Liberty State Park is right near an old concrete foundation where boys skateboard. The area where Duke was walking was also popular with young people. “It definitely could have been a kid,” McCann says. “The wire was on the ground, in the open, kids could be playing back there.” On that Monday afternoon, homeless people who take shelter in the old railroad tunnel were cutting across the lot, according to Nuber. Barrett, McCann, and Nuber all report that Gans, who was not aware that the razor wire was on his property, has been very cooperative and responsive.
Tuesday afternoon, Dec. 4, is another warm, sunny late-fall day. I go back to the site to see if the razor wire has been removed. Except for a couple of short strands hanging from the fence, it seems to be gone. On Friday, Dec. 14, I meet Matt Barrett at the site. He’s there to see if the razor wire has been removed from the property. Barrett says that he and his wife have three German shepherds, who are like their kids, so he is very sensitive to anything that might be dangerous to animals. You can tell immediately that the place has been cleaned up. The debris and the razor wire are gone, except for the two short strands that I had spotted 10 days earlier. I call Danny Gans to tell him that Barrett says the site has passed inspection. “I take care of things,” Gans says, adding that he does not have the reputation of someone who would ignore a hazard like razor wire, once he is made aware of it.
Barrett puts in a call to Jerry McCann to make sure that the remaining strands of wire will be removed as well.
Jerry McCann served two non-consecutive terms as mayor of Jersey City, starting in 1981. Currently, in addition to his job as JCIA inspector, he also coaches varsity track at St. Peter’s Prep. McCann loves driving around town, looking for scofflaws who illegally dump garbage. A CPA by trade, he tells me he can’t stand working in offices. When I meet him, I happen to be in the warehouse district doing an interview. He’s way off in the Heights somewhere, but says he will be there in “15.” He’s about 10 minutes late because he stopped on the way to issue a summons to an errant trash disposer. He’s wearing his St. Peter’s Prep hoodie and is armed with “Article V—Zoning and Design Standards.” On page 149 of the 162-page document, he’s indicated a passage with an orange highlighter: “Fencing Not Recommended. (b) … high chainlink fencing topped with knife wire.” Does “not recommended” mean illegal? I ask. Yes, he says, illegal. Dennis Nuber says, “Razor wire and barbed wire are illegal in Jersey City unless you get some type of approval or permission to install it, based on need, such as a record number of break-ins.” On February 27, the City Council unanimously adopted an ordinance to prohibit barbed wire fencing citywide.
Full disclosure: I’ve known Duke for most of his life. In a species known for eye contact, Duke is a master of the art. He fixes his tea-colored eyes on you as if he were trying not only to understand what you are saying, but also what you are thinking. But he can also be a handful. He’s strong, and sometimes loves you to death by climbing on your lap and wrapping his paws around your neck.
Annebet Muceus, a dog owner and dog lover herself, feels the same way about Duke that I do. She picks up the story when they all arrive at the Animal Medical Center:
“They met us at the door with a gurney. They put Dukie on it and rushed upstairs, whisking him into pre-op. They applied pressure bandages and talked to us about what needed to be done. A petite woman came out to tell us that he’d suffered a lot of wounds. He was on IV fluids and had lost a lot of blood, so he was given a transfusion and was on pain management. They were waiting for a surgeon and needed to find out if he was bleeding internally or if any organs had been violated. The wounds were not superficial. If he was really in trouble, they said they might have to amputate the hind leg. Pam was horrified at this, but I told her that lots of dogs have managed on three legs. An amputation would cost upwards of 12 grand. The cashier had already told us the cost so far would be $7,000. Pam put down a large down payment of a couple of grand. We sat in the waiting room and then another trauma doctor came out. She was very compassionate and understood that when you’re under a lot of stress, it is hard to make decisions. She explained that sometimes in these situations, a dog will go into cardiac arrest, which can be managed better during surgery than before.
“They told us to go home, and they would keep us in the loop,” Annebet continues. “We’d driven about three blocks when we got a call from the hospital. Duke was going into surgery, and we hadn’t seen him yet. We went back. He was on a table covered with air-filled warmers. Pam gave him a hug. She said that his ears were cold and that was not a good sign. We left, and when we got back to Pam’s I suggested we have dinner at the restaurant on the corner. We were just ordering when the phone rang again. It was the hospital. Pam asked me to go outside with her. Duke had gone into cardiac arrest and was not responding well at all. They told us it was not a promising scenario. They were doing the best for him, but he was sliding down hill quicker than expected. … We had to think of Duke.”
When Annebet tells me this story, I get the impression that Pam is so agitated that she doesn’t quite understand what Annebet is telling her. Annebet’s gentle reminder that “we had to think of Duke” ends with, “and let him go.”
Duke died at about 7:30 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012.
He was three.—JCM