The Bloomfield Board of Health announced at last night’s meeting that they had made a decision about the placement of the dog, Memphis, after a closed-session discussion with their attorney; but did not disclose the results due to the pending lawsuit that has been filed against the town and the Health Department by Jeff Coltenback and The Lexus Project. At shortly before 5 p.m. on Friday, Coltenback announced on his Facebook page, without elaboration, that they would be going to court on October 5, 2012.
Memphis had been in the Coltenbacks’ care for 8 days for training before the Health Department forced them to return the dog after claiming Coltenback had violated the terms of his contract by exposing Memphis to children.
Coltenback denies he violated the contract, and said that the children who patted Memphis were never in any danger, as he had control of the dog at all times and Memphis was showing no signs of concerning behavior. The Coltenbacks own the Paradise Pet store in Bloomfield and are both professional trainers.
At last evening’s meeting, after all of the attendees, who numbered about 150, had filed in to the courtroom on the second floor of the Bloomfield Law Enforcement Building and been seated, Board President McLaughlin announced they would go into closed session to discuss the lawsuit with their attorney, Ronald J. Ricci, prior to the public comment period.
Members of the public spoke at length during last night’s comment period despite not knowing the outcome of the Board’s decision. The public comment period was divided into two segments in order to allow the Board to get through their agenda.
Memphis’ fate was not the only subject they addressed. Many members of the public questioned the credentials of Acting Director Karen Lore and other members of the Health Department staff.
- Mary DeLorenzo of Belleville pointed out that the Bloomfield Animal Shelter had had 3 managers within a year, and the current manager’s website indicates that she has, “at tops,” 2 years of hands-on experience based on her statement that she had been in a corporate job up until 2 years ago.
- Kristin Kucsma, an economist and animal advocate who had also spoken at Monday’s council meeting, said that her research had shown that Acting Director of Health & Human Services, Karen Lore, did not have the necessary credentials to be in charge of the shelter, as she had no experience as an animal behaviorist, or with running either a shelter, a business or a non-profit organization. She also stated, regarding decisions that had been made and the handling of the Memphis situation, that “One of the things that has been incredibly obvious… is a lack of leadership.”
Others questioned recent policies at the shelter, including:
- The reduced hours that the shelter is now open to the public, which changed from 1-4 p.m. 365 days of the year, to only 2 hours a day (12 to 2 p.m.) Monday through Saturday, with the shelter closed on Sundays and holidays.
- A new requirement for visitors to the shelter to not only show their driver’s licenses but to also allow the shelter to photocopy them.
There were also allegations of abuse suffered by Memphis at the hands of shelter employees.
- It was reported that a volunteer had complained earlier in 2012 that an employee had allegedly lifted Memphis up by his collar and thrown him into his cage on more than one occasion.
- Pat Gilleran presented 77 pages of information pertaining to alleged abuse to the Board.
Gilleran also questioned why the Trap, Neuter and Release (TNR) program for feral cats is “on hiatus,” and why the foster program for dogs was no longer in effect.
The Board was asked whether they had received a letter from Councilman Michael Venezia, who had said he was going to submit a letter to be read at the meeting. No one was aware of any letter having been received, although Lore said she had not checked her email that day. Pat Gilleran asked whether they had received a letter she had submitted to the township administrator regarding unethical practices by the Health Department. The administrator had said she would turn it over to the Health Department; however, none of the Board members nor Karen Lore said they had seen it.
Some members of the public questioned why they received no responses to their questions sent via email.
The Board was also questioned about recent accusations that a dog and several cats had been put down. When asked point-blank whether a specific dog, Theo, had been “murdered,” Health Officer Mike Fitzpatrick said the dog was alive and well.
Brenda McAndrews, the mother of the children who had interacted with Memphis, spoke tearfully about her family’s experience with Memphis. She said she and her family had adopted Becca, another dog from the Bloomfield Animal Shelter who had dog aggression issues. They were at Coltenback’s pet store to get Becca treats and to talk to him about boarding Becca. While there, she said they made the acquaintance of Memphis, who had been quietly sittng behind a gate.
McAndrews stated Memphis had been friendly not only to her, but to her two children, even her son who she said tended to be “hyper.” Memphis did not react even when the boy came running in crying after being stung by a yellowjacket. She stated that Jeff asked if she’d mind if he took pictures of Memphis with her children and she said she was very willing to do so and was in no way coerced. She also said she would never put her children in harm’s way and at no time did Memphis ever react in any way other than “being happy.”
Some speakers questioned why Memphis was being held to a higher standard of behavior than any of the other shelter dogs.
- Joe DelGuidice said that shelter dogs aren’t expected to be perfect when they first come into their adoptive home. He also stated, “A dog should have training throughout his lifetime,” and added that the owner should make the connection and get the response he wants from his pet. DelGuidice said that he had adopted a dog-aggressive dog from the shelter 6 years ago and training him out of his issues “was not an overnight process.” He also pointed out that when there were still in-house shelter volunteers,the adoption committee made sure the dogs were matched properly with the right household for their personalities, something that is much less likely to happen without the volunteers, who were dismissed from the shelter earlier this year.
After the first segment of public comment, Karen Lore delivered her Director’s Report. She began by discussing the October 13 public meeting where the new “Open Paw” program will be presented to the public (location to be announced).
Open Paw is a training system that is being implemented in shelters throughout the country to encourage better behavior among shelter animals. The shelter will be having the Open Paw trainers in town for 3 days in October, during which time they will have a public meeting explaining the program, and training sessions for volunteers and staff members.
Lore also stated that the Health Department’s new quality of life inspections are going well. She said that in response to complaints, 1500 re-inspections had been conducted.
She then went on to address many of the accusations made by the public. She explained it was impossible to reply to every email she has received since the Memphis controversy began; in fact, she admitted sometimes she does not even open them at all.
Lore also said, in response to accusations of wasting taxpayers’ money on Memphis’ evaluation, that Jim Crosby’s evaluation was paid for out of the Neighbor-to-Neighbor-Network’s Animal Support Fund, which ordinarily pays for medical and other services for the animals at the shelter.
Lore denied the accusations of abuse and neglect at the shelter, saying that Bloomfield Animal Shelter had been designated one of the top 5 shelters in New Jersey. She cited remarks by Jim Crosby, the animal behaviorist who evaluated Memphis most recently, in which he said the animals at the shelter are well-cared-for. She said the shelter is not “in decline,” saying this “is not true on any level.” She said that state officials had inspected the shelter and found it to be clean and well-run.
She said to her knowledge, the TNR program was still in place, although it is sometimes difficult to recruit volunteers for the program.
She said much information that had been posted on the internet is false, but did not specify exactly which information she was referring to.
Lore explained that the shortened hours for the public to visit the shelter were due to unspecified threats the shelter and management had been receiving. She said they had to have a police officer on site and due to cost constraints had to shorten the visiting hours. She also stated that the additional requirements for visitors to show ID and have copies of their licenses taken were implemented as a result of the threats.
Board of Health member Joel Elkins questioned Health Officer Mike Fitzpatrick regarding the requirement for visitors to not only show ID but to also let the shelter copy their personal information. Fitzpatrick said New Jersey law required that visitors show ID; however, the copying of the ID was not part of the law. Fitzpatrick said the copies were discarded at the end of each day.
Elkins instructed him to stop the practice of copying the identification and instead let visitors sign in and have the shelter worker document that the ID they show is consistent with the information on the sign-in sheet.
Coltenback and his supporters waited all day Friday for word to come about the decision made by the Board of Health.
Although details are not yet known, Coltenback stated they will be going to Essex County Superior Court on Friday, October 5, 2012. The Lexus Project lawsuit contends that the shelter is not acting in Memphis’ best interests. If Bloomfield loses the suit, it may cost the town $1 million.