Activists: Riverhead Town not committed to privatizing dog shelter

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | Animal activists and other dog owners outside Town Hall.

Negotiations between Riverhead Town and a nonprofit group — aimed at privatizing the town’s oft-criticized animal shelter — have broken down, animal activists said at a press conference outside Riverhead Town Hall, where they also hurled fresh allegations of dog mistreatment at the town Friday morning.

The town has been in talks with the North Fork Animal Welfare League, which runs the Southold Town animal shelter, since November. But the town’s offer to the group is too low, the activists charged.

That has them questioning the town’s dedication to fixing the shelter. They’re urging the town to raise its offer.

Former shelter volunteer and outspoken critic of the shelter Sue Hansen said the town is offering $220,000 to NFAWL to run the shelter. Town officials would not confirm that number and the NFAWL director in Southold could not be immediately reached for comment.

“[Supervisor] Sean Walter and [Councilman] Jim Wooten grandstand and claim to support privatization, but … you have to question their commitment to improving conditions at the shelter and making this a reality,” Ms. Hansen said.

No town officials attended the press conference. Mr. Wooten, who has previously spoken in support of privatization efforts, was in Florida.

Mr. Walter would not comment on the matter, saying he did not wish to discuss ongoing negotiations.

Councilman John Dunleavy, who said he was not invited to the event, said that the town made an offer that fits within its current budget and that would not raise taxes for Riverhead residents.

“We are offering what we’re paying today,” Mr. Dunleavy said. “If we give them half a million dollars, we have to increase taxes to raise the half a million dollars.” He added the Town Board was currently deadlocked over the issue.

The town spent approximately $184,000 on the shelter in 2011, according to town budget reports. Comparatively, the Southold shelter currently operated by the NFAWL is run through town contract money and donations.

The Southold operation was financed using $197,309 from the town and $179,000 from NFAWL donors in 2010, the latest figures, found in a town contract, immediately available.

“You need three [town board] votes for something,” Mr. Dunleavy added. “If you can’t get three votes you’re not moving no place.”

At the press event, animal activists and other dog owners leveled a slew of allegations against the town’s shelter operations, some dating back two years while others allegedly happened within the past month.

Gina Rizzo, a certified dog trainer and who has volunteered at the town animal shelter every Saturday since October 2010, said dogs that are “very adoptable and workable” are being put into positions where they regress into wild creatures due to lack of socialization.

“Dogs were domesticated to be with people,” she said. “The minute that I walk away, the majority of the staff that’s there doesn’t work with the dogs … If you don’t have time to pet a dog, how can you adopt a dog out?”

In response, town animal control officer Jessica Eibs-Stankaitis said in an interview Friday afternoon at the shelter that allegations of neglect are not true.

She said that while the shelter dogs don’t spend much time with other dogs due to safety concerns, dogs that are trained to stay in crates are often brought into the shelter’s office and allowed to walk around.

Ms. Eibs-Stankaitis, who took over as ACO in early February after embattled former town ACO Lou Coronesi resigned last year amidst claims of mismanagement, said she couldn’t comment on what happened at the shelter before her tenure began.

Ms. Rizzo cited two recent incidents involving shelter dogs that she said demonstrate the shelter’s failed policies towards animals. The first involved Elvis, a Pharaoh hound-pit bull mix she said was placed into a back kennel for months on end without proper exercise. The dog eventually became so agitated that it broke its own tail, which had to be amputated, she charged.

But at the shelter, Ms. Eibs-Stankaitis said the dog was not placed into any back area, and was exercised regularly. On Friday afternoon the dog was seen in a fenced large outdoor pen that Ms. Eibs-Stankaitis said the shelter uses to exercise dogs on a rotation.

She didn’t deny that Elvis injured his tail, but said that it was an accident caused when the dog became too excited and hit his tail against a concrete wall, causing nerve damage. The shelter took the dog to a nearby animal hospital to have its tail amputated.

Ms. Eibs-Stankaitis said the incident is not uncommon at shelters with concrete walls, and added that another dog, Preston, injured himself in a similar way years ago.

Ms. Rizzo also brought up Kelly, a German Shepard mix up for adoption at the shelter. She said the dog had found a prospective owner, and that just before Kelly was adopted, the dog was spayed. When the dog returned from the spaying, Ms. Rizzo said something seemed wrong. Last month, three weeks after the operation, Ms. Rizzo and the dog’s potential adoptee took Kelly for a walk at the shelter. Kelly was found dead in her kennel the next day.

“I’m not a medical doctor, I don’t pretend to know a lot of the medical stuff about dogs, but I could tell by being with her that something was off a little bit,” Ms. Rizzo said.

But Ms. Eibs-Stankaitis said there was no signs before Kelly’s death that anything was wrong. The dog was taken to be spayed at Kent Animal Shelter, which does spays and neuterings for all town shelter dogs. Kelly was then taken to an emergency vet for an overnight stay to be monitored, and vets there found no evidence of medical complications from the surgery.

Ten days after she was spayed, Kelly was taken back to the animal hospital to have her stitches removed, Ms. Eibs-Stankaitis continued. Further tests showed no signs of distress. Ms. Eibs-Stankaitis also said that no attendant or volunteer, including Ms. Rizzo, ever mentioned that the dog didn’t seem right. Each dog has a sheet where volunteers or staff are required to note anything that seems unusual about a dog. Kelly’s sheet was clean until the day she died, she said.

Despite their disagreements, both town shelter officials and animal groups at the news conference agreed that the shelter was woefully understaffed.

The town employs two full-time workers at the shelter during weekdays, and three part-time workers over weekends to care for about 20 dogs. Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller, who oversees the animal shelter, said that while a new facility would be ideal, more staff was a higher priority. But due to budgetary constraints, the shelter is forced to operate within the town’s limits to avoid raising taxes, he said.

“If the sky was the limit, you’d have 1,400 animal control officers up there,” Mr. Hegermiller said. “Right now it’s a bare bones [staff].”

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