Helping the Homeless Pet Population in South Jersey

Editor’s Note: For the next four weeks, The Sun looks into the state of homeless pets in South Jersey and what is being done to find homes — and futures — for thousands of animals. This article is part one of the Sun’s four-week series.

By MIKE MONOSTRA and KRISTEN DOWD

The Sun

Shiver, 13, was rescued by a man just before a big snowstorm in January and brought to the Animal Welfare Association in Voorhees.

As the skies turned slate grey and the temperatures began to dip below freezing, someone placed a small, shivering dog in a box behind a local hardware store and walked away.

Underweight, dehydrated and riddled with mammary tumors, the six-pound miniature pinscher mix could barely see through her crusted-over eyes. Severe dental disease left her mouth sore and rotting. At 13 years old, she could no longer depend on the kneecaps in her hind legs.

With a massive snowstorm fewer than 24 hours away, the dog curled up in the box, waiting for rescue, which luckily for her came in the form of a good Samaritan who happened behind the hardware store.

Picking up the box and placing it in the warmth of his car, the man brought the little dog to the Animal Welfare Association in Voorhees, where she was dubbed Shiver, fed a filling meal and given another chance at life.

Climate changing for homeless animals, pet industry

Shiver is just one of the 6 million to 8 million animals shelters bring in across the United States on an annual basis, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Only about 4 million are adopted each year, leaving many of these animals’ futures in doubt.

The good news for Shiver and other shelter animals is more people are adopting from shelters and animal rescues. According to the American Pet Products Association’s 2015–16 National Pet Owners Survey, 37 percent of people who acquire a dog got it from a shelter or rescue, up 2 percent from 2012–13. Forty-six percent of cats were acquired from a shelter or rescue in 2015–16, up from 43 percent from three years ago. Shelters and rescues are the top source for Americans looking to acquire a dog or cat today, just ahead of breeders and acquiring animals from a friend or relative.

The increase is reflective of the “adopt, don’t shop” movement many animal advocates have preached over the past few years. Puppy and kitten stores, common sights in places such as shopping malls in decades past, are no longer places where people acquire pets.

In the APPA’s 2015–16 survey, only 4 percent of people who acquired a dog and 2 percent of people who acquired a cat purchased it at a pet store. In New Jersey, the number of pet stores selling animals is now down to approximately 30 to 35 locations, with many of them in North Jersey. Locally, there are no puppy or kitten stores remaining in Camden County and only one left in Burlington County.

Lawmakers go after puppy mill stores

Animal advocates have been battling pet stores for many years. The argument from advocates is these stores are selling animals coming from puppy and kitten mills — commercial breeding facilities where cats and dogs are bred at high rates and in substandard conditions.

In New Jersey, government officials have taken action against the pet stores selling mill animals, which has had a real effect on how people acquire pets.

“Studies have shown that there are extraordinary medical problems attached to puppy mill animals because of inbreeding and disease that is inherent in that type of operation,” said Camden County Freeholder Jeff Nash, whose county was one of the first in New Jersey to take action against stores selling animals from mills. “The consumer is saddled with heartbreak and extraordinary veterinary expenses.”

Janice Fisher, puppy mill awareness coordinator for an advocacy group named Friends of Animals United New Jersey, was a key player in getting a pet store disclosure bill signed into law in New Jersey in 2015. Fisher brought the idea of a disclosure bill to legislators after purchasing an ill puppy from a store seven years ago. She said the legislation was essential to getting pet stores to be honest about where their animals were coming from.

“They were hiding something,” Fisher said. “They didn’t want people to know where their puppies are coming from.”

The disclosure bill, signed into law by Gov. Christie in February 2015, required all pet stores in New Jersey to give details on where each animal came from and prevent stores from obtaining animals from non-reputable breeders who weren’t caring for the animals properly.

The disclosure bill only worked to a certain extent, though. Fisher said many of the pet stores were unwilling to comply with the law and didn’t feel the state would crack down on them.

However, just a few months after the disclosure law took effect, a stricter piece of legislation began to appear. In the summer of 2015, Cherry Hill resident and animal activist Alan Braslow began working with government officials across South Jersey to ban pet stores that sold animals obtained from puppy and kitten mills. The impetus came after the opening of a pet store named Pat’s Puppies in Cherry Hill. Braslow and other activists were protesting the store’s operation, claiming it was selling dogs coming from puppy mills. The group wanted to make consumers aware of the issue.

“Some people go to puppy stores not knowing that they’re puppy mill dogs,” Braslow said.

Braslow reached out to Nash to see if Camden County could take action. Shortly after, in September 2015, Camden County Freeholders passed Norman’s Law, preventing pet stores from selling dogs and cats from commercial breeding facilities. Many municipalities in Camden County later followed suit, including Cherry Hill and Voorhees.

Pat’s Puppies changed its business model shortly after Norman’s Law passed. Braslow teamed up with owner Pat Youmans to transform to store into P&T’s Puppy Love Adoption Center, a nonprofit offering rescue puppies for adoption.

In less than a year, 25 municipalities and five counties in New Jersey have passed legislation prohibiting the sale of commercially bred dogs and cats, and a bill extending the ban statewide could be on the Legislature’s floor later this year.

All of this legislation has further promoted a message Fisher and other animal activists want the public to know about acquiring pets.

“It’s adopt or buy from a reputable breeder,” Fisher said. “Those are the two choices.”

Spotlight put on adopting at local shelters and rescues

Statistics show Americans have taken the “adopt, don’t shop” message to heart. With Americans gravitating toward adopting pets, a greater focus has been placed on the efforts of area shelters and rescues.

While the focus of Norman’s Law was to attack the puppy mill industry, Nash said one effect it did have is it gave the county an opportunity to promote adoptions at local shelters.

“It does bring awareness to (the shelters’) issues,” he said.

In New Jersey, townships and municipalities within a county must have an agreement with a facility to take in strays and abandoned animals. The Camden County Animal Shelter and Voorhees Animal Orphanage are the two open admission facilities for Camden County, meaning they service these municipal contracts.

“So essentially, at the end of the day, I don’t have a choice about what comes in,” said Vicki Rowland, executive director of the Camden County Animal Shelter. “We have to take these animals into our facility.”

The CCAS has 18 municipal contracts, with approximately 2,000 animals a year coming from Camden alone. According to Rowland, statistically, underdeveloped areas such as Camden have higher pet populations, with more than 80 percent of the animals unaltered.

The Camden County Animal Shelter is operated through a nonprofit called the Animal Welfare Society of Camden County.

“That’s our nonprofit. We’re a vendor running the Camden County Animal Shelter,” Rowland said. “There’s pros and cons to it all, but at the end of the day, we’re still a nonprofit organization making ends meet. We’re financially set — we’re not operating in deficits — but we do rely on fundraising … That’s a constant.”

Along with Animal Welfare Association, Animal Adoption Center, Voorhees Animal Orphanage and Independent Animal Control, the CCAS is part of the Animal Alliance of Camden County. The agencies formed the alliance in 2011 to help improve the services it provides to animals and communities.

“We’re all great minds thinking alike, and we’re just trying to pull our resources together to make a better difference,” Rowland said.

The directors in the alliance meet once a month and strategize programs they want to work on collaboratively. One program from last year was the monthly pet food pantry.

Members of the alliance also share the same animal management database, too. With a backend portal linking lost and found sections together, animals are being located and returned to owners faster than before.

Camden County officials also support and work with the alliance.

“We work with all of them to offer in-kind services and marketing for them,” Nash said.

Burlington County operates differently than Camden County. For example, Burlington County does not have an alliance of shelters or rescues like Camden County. However, the Burlington County Animal Shelter still maintains strong working relationships with other groups and the Friends of the Burlington County Animal Shelter.

“We meet with them on a regular basis to brainstorm what more we can be doing,” said Eric Arpert, public information officer for Burlington County. “Anything we can do to increase adoptions or better serve the animals we are housing.”

When shelters operate at capacity, it can have a trickle-down effect to other shelters and rescues in the area. Right now, the Burlington County Animal Shelter is not operating at capacity, in large part due to administrative efforts and collaborations with rescue groups and other partners. Arpert said when the shelter does reach capacity, it presents challenges, including a higher risk for disease, stress to shelter staff and an increased cost to care for the animals.

“When we’re all operating at capacity level, it limits our ability to network with other shelters,” Arpert said.

It takes a village to make shelters go

With her many ailments and advanced age, the shelter environment was not an ideal place for Shiver. Luckily, one of the Animal Welfare Association’s senior foster homes stepped up to give Shiver a place to rehabilitate before she is put up for adoption.

“We have a fantastic, large network of foster homes,” AWA shelter manager Nanci Keklak said. “We sent Shiver into foster care to recoup, get some weight on her, and help her eye condition improve.”

Foster families are just one of the elements to help animal shelters run smoothly. Shelters depend on these families, as well as volunteers, donations and more.

Rowland said while the CCAS could always use more volunteers and foster families, it has a good system in place for those already on board. She also said there’s no comparison to an individual choosing to volunteer at a public or private organization.

“It’s really the volunteer’s decision on where they want to spend their time and where they find that the need is,” Rowland said. “Our volunteers step up. They take ownership … They’re a good group.”

The CCAS does well with donations. Creating a specific, tangible need for donations is helpful, according to Rowland, whether it is for medication for animals or building a new cattery space, like the CCAS recently was able to do because of generous donations.

“You have to create that need in order for them to give. People want to give for a reason. They want to give for a purpose,” Rowland said, “and if they can see what that impact is, they’re going to give. And they want to give — you just have to be able to guide them in directing the need.”

Arpert said BCAS has an active and large volunteer group, but is also looking for more people to join. The shelter is also very welcoming of new donations.

“We’re always looking for more,” Arpert said. “If anybody wants to donate, come by the shelter … By and large we’ll accept any donation, whether it be monetary, dog food, toys — whatever it is, we’ll find a use for it.”