Not long ago, the Associated Humane Societies Newark shelter was euthanizing four out of every 10 cats and dogs it took in.
But in a striking turnaround, the shelter is at the forefront of a trend that’s seen a dramatic reduction in the number of animals put to sleep, a decline animal welfare advocates say has been accelerated by the pandemic.
In 2021, AHS Newark euthanized just 4.5%, or 145, of the 3,199 four-legged friends dropped off by owners or collared by animal control officers, below the state average of 6 %, according to the New Jersey Department of Health, which compiles data reported voluntarily by major shelters from each county.
Five years earlier, in 2016, before a scandal exposed “deplorable” conditions under previous leadership, the shelter’s euthanization rate was 40.1% — more than twice the statewide average — with 2,214 of the 5,517 impounded dogs and cats put down.
“This place has really turned out for the better,” said Mary Hernandez, 30, of Newark, a cat supervisor who has worked for four years at the shelter. “The environment, you can actually feel it.”
According to the state, the percentage of animals euthanized at AHS Newark in 2021 includes 99 of 2,033 cats impounded and 46 of 1,173 dogs taken in. The state reported that the agency reunited 260 dogs and 106 cats with their owners and that residents adopted 335 dogs and 652 cats. The rest remained in the shelter, were placed in foster care, or relocated to shelters with fewer animals.
Statewide in 2021, New Jersey shelters reported euthanizing 2,369 of the 41,326 dogs and cats impounded that year.
The figures continued a downward trend since the health department began publishing the numbers in 1984 when the odds were that animals that entered a shelter wouldn’t make it out alive.
That year, a staggering 82,566 dogs and cats – 51.2% of the 161,146 animals impounded – were euthanized in Garden State shelters reporting their numbers. The method is typically via an injection akin to a fatal drug overdose that first renders the animal unconscious, said the Newark shelter’s veterinarian, Dr. Jade Lea, who decides on each euthanization in consultation with the shelter’s leadership.
Nationally, a 2019 New York Times survey of 20 large cities across the United States suggested a similar decline.
Animal welfare advocates attribute the decline to softening public attitudes toward pets and strays, encouraged by media campaigns by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Humane Society of the United States and other organizations.
Those attitudes have resulted in increased pet adoptions and “no-kill” policies that limit euthanizations to animals that are suffering or terminally ill.
“Some of the reasons for a decline may be items such as increasing spaying and neutering to reduce overpopulation in dogs and cats,” state health department spokesperson Nancy Kearney said in an email. She said increasing adoption rates and ensuring that animal control and licensing were in place to reunite lost pets with their owners quickly could also be factors.
Animal welfare advocates say the Coronavirus pandemic accelerated the downward trend in euthanizations because remote working and learning made caring for cats and dogs easier while increasing opportunities for families to enjoy their pets.
“Adoptions have gone through the roof because of COVID,” said Harry Levin, the New Jersey SPCA’s president.
Still, animal welfare activists cautioned that they’d seen an uptick in impoundments as the pandemic wanes.
Housed in a three-story brick building in an industrial area near Newark Liberty International Airport, AHS Newark bills itself as the oldest animal shelter in New Jersey, dating back to 1906. The Newark shelter is one of three that the non-profit Associated Humane Societies operates, along with the AHS Tinton Falls Shelter and the Popcorn Park Animal Refuge, a zoo and shelter in Lacey Township.
Revelations in 2017 of unsanitary conditions and cruel treatment of animals at the Newark shelter led to the reassignment and then retirement of the shelter’s elderly director, who had held the position for several decades.
But even after the director’s departure, problems persisted, including November 2020 complaints that animals were mistreated and undernourished. AHS’s board president, Bob Baerenbach, pledged that changes were coming, and the board hired a veteran animal welfare executive, Jerry Rosenthal, to lead all of AHS with the new title of CEO. The Newark shelter serves as the organization’s headquarters.
Still, some criticism of the shelter continues. One animal activist, who asked for anonymity to maintain relations with the shelter, said that Rosenthal exploited frail animals by using them in fundraising ads — even to the point of refusing to turn them over for foster care. Rosenthal dismissed the claim as “false.”
Rosenthal, 67, a former Monmouth County SPCA president, is the permanent successor of short-term executive directors the AHS board installed in the wake of the criticism. He attributed the turnaround to new hires attracted by increased pay, improved staff training, and morale-boosting incentive programs. He said he’s also taken a hands-on approach to his leadership role and constantly emphasizes the importance of the shelter’s work to its 54 employees.
“We’ve been training the staff more, in terms of having them understand what a forward-thinking animal welfare organization should be doing,” said Rosenthal, who called the changes a “team effort.”
He said the shelter is awaiting city permits for a $2 million overhaul of space to improve the animals’ medical care, privacy and comfort and enhance visitors’ experiences. The Newark shelter has a $4 million annual budget, which includes Rosenthal’s $150,000 salary and those of other administrative staffers for its two other facilities.
Revenues come mainly from donations, grants and fees, and contracts with 10 municipalities for shelter or animal control services. Rosenthal said the shelter’s finances have improved through more aggressive fundraising efforts and a revised contract with the City of Newark, which contributes $1.3 million annually to the shelter’s operation, up from $675,000 under its previous agreement.
AHS has also entered into agreements with shelters in areas with fewer strays. For example, Rosenthal said New England shelters, where the summer breeding season is much shorter and there are few cats available for adoption, took 900 felines from Newark over the past year.
“Some of the shelters there don’t have cats,” he said. “It’s about supply and demand.”
Stuart Goldman is a former special investigator for the New Jersey SPCA who works as a consultant on legal and other issues related to animal welfare around the state. He said the Newark shelter had “improved dramatically” in recent years.
“It got much better under Jerry, much more transparent,” he said.
Eager to demonstrate that, Rosenthal invited NJ Advance Media to tour the shelter “any time” at the end of a recent phone interview. The following morning, he walked a reporter through the facility, past the cages of the 250 cats and 142 dogs.
Many of the cats reached through the bars of their cages and meowed for attention from a smitten stranger. A tiny yellow kitten lay curled up in an incubator.
Like the cats, small dogs were housed in cages. Larger dogs, about two-thirds of them pit bulls, were housed in a pair of long corridors, each with a rectangular pen a few feet wide by about six feet deep. A small opening at the back of each one led to an outdoor space.
There were quarantine rooms for contagious animals and a well-scrubbed infirmary with polished steel tables for examinations, operations and euthanizations.
It was impossible to know how they felt, but none of the animals appeared to be in distress. The building smelled of urine, but no visible puddles or piles of waste. were visible. Workers handled the animals in a manner that ranged from careful respect to unbridled affection.
Kevin Fields, 65, of Newark, has worked in the shelter for 40 years. He said he could tell at a glance what kind of dog or cat would suit people coming in to adopt, and he often plays matchmaker. “You’ve got to choose the right one,” he said, or the animal could end up where it started, or worse.
Fields patted a 13-year-old poodle mix named Princess, who was missing her right eye when she was brought in. He said the improved conditions and the decline in euthanizations made the shelter a better place for the animals and workers like him.
“It makes a big difference in the way I feel,” said Fields. “It’s humane.”
Nobody knows Jersey better than N.J.com. Sign up to get breaking news alerts straight to your inbox.
Steve Strunsky may be reached at [email protected]