The renamed "Assisi Center" on 480 Johnston Ave. in Jersey City has been beset with incidents both major and minor over the past several years. In the last year, the matter has evolved into a bitter hissing match, bringing into the fray several animal activist groups, who say that even though a new director took over, the shelter is still inadequate. Some of the groups would like to build their own shelter, especially since Assisi Center Director Tom Hart has refused to euthanize animals, which means that at times, the shelter has been too full to accept new animals who need homes.
The shelter serves Jersey City, Hoboken, Weehawken, West New York and Secaucus.
Passions have run high, but sorting out what is or is not happening is a matter that perhaps only a court can solve.
On Tuesday, shelter Executive Director Tom Hart will be defending himself against charges that the shelter failed to impound an animal for seven days (a requirement that allows owners to pick up a lost animal), failed to notify the city's animal control officer of a stray, and failed to keep proper animal records. A worker at the shelter, Hector Rosario, will also be facing charges that he prevented a city health official from entering an animal sick room during an inspection.
: And on May 3, Ed Pulver and Jack Shaw, the former heads of the shelter who still sit on the board, will be facing charges of "failing to provide proper veterinarian care" from May 4 to July 12.
That charge stemmed from another incident in which a dog was apparently beaten with a shovel by a shelter worker. What happened to the animal afterward has never been determined. Shelter officials have said that the dog was adopted out, but could not prove this.
Hart said last week that the violations that he will face are trumped up.
"This is one small incident of harassment," he said in a recent interview, "but it's part of one large holistic thing, using you, the media." Hart has in the past charged that groups like Liberty Humane Society were trying to shut his shelter down to get a new facility. He has retained Union-based attorney Susan Carlson-Manto.
A group called the Liberty Humane Society has been pushing to build what they call a "state of the art" facility on a site on Route 440.
Who let the dogs out? Who? Who?
According to reports, two Rottweilers were brought to the shelter on the weekend of Feb. 3 and disappeared sometime between then and Feb. 5. A shelter worker made a call to the city police's East District about the loss of the two dogs, according to a Feb. 5 report.
"The victim stated that she is already working with the East because it is a constant problem they are having," the police report reads.
Hart contends that the dogs were stolen. He says that animal control officer Joe Frank, who issued the violations 13 days later, knew that the animals had been stolen, hence, making the failure to hold for seven day charge meaningless.
Critics of the shelter have alleged that someone who owns a guard dog company and has access to the shelter might be the culprit, since Rottweilers can be used as guard dogs.
Frank responded to Tom Hart's comment by saying, "We base [the charges] on inspection. We go there, the dog is not there. We check the records, the records are not there. We have no evidence the dogs were stolen. There's no witness. I'm not saying they're lying, but there's no strong evidence."
A Jersey City police special investigation unit is now looking into the matter and other incidents. Det. Gertha Murrell said that some of the break-ins were "suspicious." As for possible suspects, she said: "I have a couple people, but can't say for sure."
Meanwhile, the city, which holds a contract with the shelter to take stray animals, has not paid fees it owes. Tom Gallagher, chief of staff to Mayor Bret Schundler, said the impasse is simple.
"The only reason we didn't pay them for past bills," he said, "was because they haven't gotten an animal shelter license. They have to pass state inspection." The city, however, continues to drop off animals at the shelter.
Frank said that inspections have shown that the shelter does not come up to proper code.
But Hart notes that the city has the power to grant the license, and he believes the city is holding up the matter intentionally. Gallagher dismissed those claims.
"I think the city needs to build a new state-of-the-art facility," he said. "I think the current facility ... its best days have come. It's outmoded and insufficient. I don't say I blame the SPCA."
Groups had cheered Hart when he came aboard last July. In the wake of the past incidents and violations, the city and other animal groups believed it was a good move. Hart is an animal lover and has made improvements. But some of the groups have lost faith.
Wendy Neu, president of Companion Animal Placement, a Hoboken-based animal welfare organization that had been pleased with Hart's ascendance last year, said recently, "You have to ask, 'Why is it Rotties? What is it with them?'"
New place, and maybe a deal
Meanwhile, as the Schundler administration winds down, a deal is in the works to lease a piece of land out to the Liberty Humane Society. Schundler had made a campaign promise to build a new shelter. The city will be using federal CDBG (community development block grant) money to perform environmental studies and clean-up on a spot on Route 440 near Hudson Mall.
Though Gallagher would not comment specifically, he would say: "It's fair to say that the administration is negotiating lease terms with Liberty Humane Society."
Though the details are not known, it is believed the city would lease the space to the Liberty Humane Society for a "nominal fee," perhaps a $1 a year. Liberty Humane Society President Norrice Raymaker said she is working on raising money and searching for grants to start the multimillion dollar operation.
A new lease would need City Council approval.
"We are definitely making progress," Raymaker said. "We are working in partnership with other organizations to get the shelter going."