Era of SPCA cops may end in N.J.–might be good news for animals
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2001:
TRENTON, N.J.–“The time has come to repeal the government
authority vested in Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to
Animals, and place the function of enforcing cruelty laws within the
government’s stratified hierarchy of law enforcement,” the New
Jersey State Commission of Investigation reported on April 25 to five
state and federal law enforcement agencies and numerous state
The 170-page Commission of Investigation report was bad news
for many of the 18 chartered SPCAs in New Jersey, but may be good
news for animals, recommending that the state should pursue a trend
toward professionalizing and standardizing humane law enforcement
which has already been implemented by legislation and mandatory
training programs in California, Pennsylvania, and New York.
“The Commission found the SPCAs at both the statewide and
county level have been subverted to the point where in many instances
they are incapable of fulfilling their primary statutory mission–the
effective and reliable enforcement of animal cruelty laws,” the
Commission summarized. “The issue is no longer whether or how to fix
this errant group of self-appointed, self-directed and uncontrolled
entities, but whether to eliminate the archaic system entirely.”
When the New Jersey SPCA was chartered, in 1868, and became
model for the 17 other SPCAs in New Jersey, it like the other
pioneering SPCAs in the U.S. was essentially deputized by the state
legislature to act as a constabulary for animals. States that gave
SPCAs specific law enforcement authority did so on almost the same
basis that it was given to towns. As SPCA boards were then always
elected by membership, it was presumed that they would be governed
much like villages, whose governance was then mainly by town meeting.
Over the years, however, public apathy allowed SPCAs to
replace membership governance with self-perpetuating boards, typical
of other nonprofit institutions. This increased institutional
stability, but at cost of public oversight and involvement–and
created quasi-private police forces, accountable only to boards
which might make themselves accountable to no one.
The New Jersey Commission of Investigation found that “SPCA
officials [in Bergen, Burlington, Cape May, Hudson, Ocean, and
Warren Counties] diverted substantial funds and property meant for
animal welfare to personal use. Monetary bequests left by deceased
individuals to benefit animals were used instead to pay for firearms,
ammunition, vehicles, and other items unrelated to animal welfare.
County SPCA organizations, some of which operate in paramilitary
fashion, have become havens for gun-carrying ‘wannabe’ police
officers motivated by personal gain. These individuals operate
without proper training or adequate oversight,” especially in Bergen
County, the Commission said, under the recently ended law
administration division regime of brothers Jason and Todd Peters.
The Peters brothers reportedly spent about 20% of the 1999 Bergen
County SPCA budget on equipment and activities pertaining to the use
Jason Peters is now affiliated with the New Jersey SPCA.
Bergen County SPCA spokesperson Bob Nesoff indicated to Paulo Lima
and Nicole Gaudiano of the Bergen Record that Jason Peters may be
criminally charged in connection with some of the Commission of
Investigation findings, which Nesoff indicated had developed out of
the Bergen County SPCA’s own housecleaning.
“Municipalities should be mandated to place the enforcement
function with their animal control officers,” the Commission
recommended. This would reintegrate anti-cruelty enforcement with
the rest of municipal law enforcement–and would effectively
disenfranchise the Bergen County SPCA and others which have no
programs other than law enforcement.
“There is nothing in place that will take our place,”
objected Morris County SPCA president Barbara Kaufman.
Added Nesoff, “I think that would be an atrocity, and I
think animal rights people and people who are concerned about animals
would raise such a ruckus that they would have to reconsider.”
Currently, explained Bergen Record staff writer Paulo Lima,
“Only SPCA officers have the authority to investigate animal cruelty
complaints, file charges, and prepare cases for prosecution,” but
a 1997 law “opened the way for local animal control officers to begin
handling cruelty cases.”
The first New Jersey state Animal Cruelty Investigator
Training Course concluded on April 2.
The Commission of Investigation also hit SPCA neglect of
animals. At the Hudson County SPCA, the Commission reported,
“while shelter officials skimmed patron fees and sold dog food for
personal profit, animals languished in overcrowded, poorly
ventilated enclosures without adequate food, water, or veterinary
The Commission referred to the tenure of former Hudson County
SPCA board member Ed Pulver and executive director Jack Shaw, who
was replaced on August 1, 2000 by Thomas Hart. Pulver and Shaw were
charged with criminal mismanagement. Hart subsequently renamed the
shelter the “Assisi Center,” turned it into a no-kill facility, and
refused to accept animals from the Jersey City Animal Control Office
pending receipt of $400,000 for services rendered without payment
since 1994. Jersey City has been under court order to pay up since
The Commission of Investigation report was released just a
week after a survey of municipal health departments by the Animal
Welfare Federation, of Bloomfield, New Jersey, discovered that
about 15% did not realize that they have a legal duty to license and
inspect the animal shelters in their county.
A decade ago New Jersey was often said to have the best
animal protection network in the nation. New Jersey in 1983 started
the first statewide low-cost neutering program in the U.S., funded
by dog license sales. Seventeen other states copied it. The value
of the program was affirmed in 1991 when then-Tufts University
graduate student Anne Marie Manning surveyed all 118 shelters then
operating in New Jersey, and found that they were collectively
killing fewer than half as many animals per 1,000 state residents
(9.4) than the U.S. norm. Money was diverted from the neutering
program to rabies control in the late 1980s, but the program was
rejuvenated in 1994 when New Jersey became the first state to
subsidize neutering through the sale of special license plates.
New Jersey continues to make rapid gains against pet
overpopulation. As of 1998, the statewide killing rate at the 103
shelters still operating after several municipal consolidations had
fallen to just 6.6 dogs and cats killed per 1,000 humans. But
progress nationally has accelerated. Although New Jersey is still
well below the current national average of 16.6, it is no longer
improving faster than the U.S. as a whole.
New Jersey has not gone backward. Rather, the U.S. has
caught up to the New Jersey standard–and as just controlling dog and
cat numbers becomes less an issue, public expectations of shelters
in other aspects of humane work have rapidly risen. Animal-related
law enforcement practices that the public considered adequate in
1990, when the major public expectation was that the owners of stray
dogs would be modestly fined, are now seen as woefully inadequate.
Now, 31 states permit prosecution of severe cruelty as a felony,
and even in the states which do not, anti-cruelty officers are
expected to know how to build a successful court case.
New Jersey, like many sunbelt states, Indiana, and the
states of the Pacific Northwest, has undergone rapid economic and
demographic transition. Still called “The Garden State,” as
longtime leading purveyor of produce to New York City and
Philadelphia, New Jersey now could be called “The Bedroom State.”
No state has more residents who commute to out-of-state jobs. Parts
of New Jersey that remained rural as recently as 1985 are now densely
urban–but often still have elected officials, bylaws, and
institutions reflecting rural attitudes, including the view that
animals are commodities.
The cultural conflicts are encapsuled in the biographies of
two men whose names surfaced elsewhere on the same days in several of
the New Jersey newspapers that reported the findings of the
Commission of Investigation.
Frank Balun, 76, died from cancer on April 17 at his home
in Hillside, New Jersey. He flew 34 missions in World War II as a
B-25 tail gunner in the Pacific theatre. Shot down over the
Philippines and presumed dead, Balun and another gunner survived
more than a month in the jungle before stumbling into an air base.
Despite his wartime experience, Balun had little stomach for
killing animals who raided his garden. Instead, he live-trapped
them and called an animal control agency or humane society to do the
One morning in 1994 Balun live-trapped a large rat who was
eating his tomatoes. He called the Associated Humane Societies of
New Jersey. Due to other emergencies, the pickup vehicle did not
arrive until late afternoon. Meanwhile, the rat was caged in hot
sun. Balun called other agencies. When no one else could take the
rat sooner, Balun tried–ineptly, he admitted–to kill the caged
rat with a stick.
Associated Humane Societies executive director Lee Bernstein
recommended that Balun be prosecuted for cruelty. Beating trapped
animals to death with sticks may be routine for fur trappers, he
told media, but has never been considered acceptable by humane
Operating four dog-and-cat shelters, plus the Popcorn Park
Zoo sanctuary for exotic species, Associated Humane is the biggest
and generally best-regarded humane society in New Jersey.
Bernstein, in charge for 30 years, and his top assistant, Rosann
Trezza, heading the Newark shelter for 31 years, have survived any
number of conflicts and controversies, including outspoken clashes
with other large humane organizations, because over their tenure no
other New Jersey humane societies have grown faster, done more work
in a public manner, or been more willing to take on anyone on behalf
Politically, however, Bernstein made a disastrous call on
Balun–a war hero, homeowner, taxpayer, father, and senior
citizen with a childlike voice. The animal was a rat, the most
despised of mammals. The incident occurred in an election year,
when Republican wise-users sought to capture Congress, state
legislatures, and the governorship of New Jersey on a theme of
“bureaucracy run amok.”
An allegedly overzealous humane society was an easy target,
even after the Union County district attorney refused to charge
Balun. Republican Christine Todd Whitman, now heading the
Environmental Protection Agency, was elected governor that year, and
repaid Balun by signing a bill which exempted wild rats and mice from
coverage by the state humane laws.
Ironically, the Commission of Investigation report was a
strong vindication of how Associated Humane thinks SPCAs should
operate: almost every charge the Commission made echoed complaints
faxed to ANIMAL PEOPLE since 1992 by Trezza.
Robert R. Blease, DVM, was mentioned in New Jersey
newspapers because his Franklin Township shelter, Common Sense for
Animals, took in a pit bull terrier who fatally mauled a Yorkshire
terrier while running at large.
Blease, a veterinarian since 1967, formerly sold drugs to
veal farmers by mail. USDA records indicate that he was disciplined
four times between 1980 and 1991 for improperly mixing and relabeling
pharmaceuticals, and was convicted of related offenses three times
in federal court.
Blaming his troubles on animal rights opposition to crating
veal calves, Blease formed Common Sense for Animals in 1990 as an
anti-animal rights group. Over time, however, it metamorphized
into a no-kill shelter, sharing space with his private veterinary
practice–and attracted animal rights activist volunteers and donors
with no knowledge of his history.
If Blease saw in no-kill sheltering just another way to make
money, he has been remarkably low-key about fundraising. If his
activities and values have evolved with the community, his story may
reflect the changes evident throughout New Jersey–and, perhaps,