WEST NEW YORK, N.J. - A motley pack of seven dogs slept near two gigantic heaters in the cavernous boiler room of a block-long blue building one recent cold evening. Night was falling on the West New York dog pound, better known as the Department of Public Works garage.
The garage, where police cars, trucks and street-cleaning machines come and go at all hours, was never intended as an animal shelter. But months ago the town's health department resorted to housing stray dogs there because the shelter in Jersey City, run by the Hudson County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, was full after abruptly adopting a "no kill" policy last year. "We have no place to put our dogs anymore," said Vincent Revelli, the health officer for West New York.
In New Jersey, state law gives the responsibility of animal control to local governments and requires that stray dogs be held for seven days before they are either put up for adoption or killed. The state also chartered the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to investigate animal cruelty. In Hudson County, those two functions were combined for decades as cities and towns, like Jersey City, Bayonne, West New York, Weehawken, Hoboken and Secaucus contracted with the society to hold dogs, and then kill the ones that were not adopted.
Private groups back off
For more than a century, local governments in many states have paid humane groups to handle the problem of stray dogs. But as animal advocates discouraged the killing of healthy but unwanted dogs, private groups began rejecting the role of executioner, often complaining that the fees they collected did not cover their costs and that euthanasia was not solving the problem.
In 1995, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which is not associated with the Hudson County group, gave up animal control in New York City and a city-financed nonprofit organization, the Center for Animal Care and Control, was created to handle the job.
"Humane groups are saying we've subsidized this for many, many, many years, when statutorily this should be the responsibility of the city and county governments," said Martha Armstrong, senior vice president for companion animal and equine protection at the Humane Society of the United States.
The life of a stray dog is not a carefree one. Strays face many perils, including starvation, bad weather, car accidents and attacks by other animals or abuse at the hands of people, said Dr. James Serpell, director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania's school of veterinary medicine. At the same time, residents can be endangered by strays, which may bite unwitting children, contract rabies or spread afflictions such as fleas and ringworm.
The streets of Hudson County, a 47 square-mile area that is home to 600,000 people, have long been particularly mean for stray dogs, and the animal control system encounters one crisis after another. Until 2000, about 3,000 dogs a year were taken to the SPCA in Jersey City, animal advocates estimate. There, according to a report released in April by the State Commission of Investigation, the dogs faced a filthy environment, acts of severe cruelty and an ignominious death as bodies piled up helter-skelter.
Even as the state was preparing its report, the society appointed a new unpaid executive director, Tom Hart, a self-avowed animal lover and former member of the City Council in Jersey City. He renamed the shelter after St. Francis of Assisi, had it scrubbed and halted the killing of healthy animals. "Killing animals has become a convenience to people," Hart said. "Euthanasia is merely killing."
Lots of pit bulls
With a capacity of about 100 animals, the shelter quickly became overcrowded - often with pit bulls or pit bull mixes - and began turning dogs away. Although critics acknowledged the improvements at the shelter, there was a new wave of criticism.
"Euthanasia is a more humane option if it's a choice between a peaceful, painless death and being kicked around on the street, set on fire or being warehoused in some no-kill shelter," said Daphna Nachminovitch, a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "It's about quality of life, not just quantity of life."
Rescue groups in Hudson County and humane organizations in neighboring counties were overwhelmed by unwanted dogs after the SPCA's policy change.
"You know who's getting bombarded?" said Roseann Trezza, assistant director of the Associated Humane Societies in Newark. "We are." She said the SPCA was just shifting the problem to Newark. "We have our own problems here," she said.
In West New York, a solution has been elusive. "We tried desperately to do something with the humane society in Newark, and the Bergen County shelter is overloaded," said Revelli, the health officer.
"By law, after seven days we could have the dogs put to sleep," he added. "That's not going to be our game."