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N.J. puts animal-rights reformers on the prowl
Activists dominate panel aimed at preventing cruelty
Tuesday, February 11, 2003
BY BRIAN T. MURRAY
Star-Ledger Staff

A new breed of reformers in the animal-rights movement dominates the 30-member Animal Welfare Task Force created by Gov. James E. McGreevey.

The task force was formed by executive order in July to "prevent cruelty to New Jersey's animals and address the burgeoning population of homeless animals." In putting together the panel, the administration also tapped proponents of a controversial practice by which stray cats are trapped, neutered and then released back into communities.

The group has been given a year to recommend reforms in the state's system of animal control, shelters and prosecution of animal-cruelty laws.

"There are reformers on this task force because the governor is looking for real reform. He's not looking to tinker around the edges," said Micah Rasmussen, a spokesman for McGreevey. "When it comes to the welfare of animals, these are the type of people you want."

That includes Sharon McGreevey, the governor's sister, who has been "a committed animal-rights activist for many years," Rasmussen said.

The task force, whose members were announced on Friday, is dominated by animal-rights activists. Among them are Nina Austenberg of the Humane Society of the United States, Terry Fritzges of the New Jersey Animal Rights Alliance and Linda Ditmars of the Committee to Abolish Sports Hunting.

Also named were Lisa B. Weisberg of the New York-based American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, who has campaigned to improve the lives of carriage horses in Central Park, and Sherry Ramsey, a former assistant Monmouth County prosecutor who has taken on animal abuse cases.

Like task force member Lara F. Heimann of Princeton Junction, Ramsey has called for reforming what activists call "factory farms" -- intense livestock-producing operations in New Jersey.

"It really does look like a group of reformers -- people with a more empathetic view of animals," said Gwyn Sondike of Short Hills, a task force member and animal-rights activist.

Sondike, a friend of Sharon McGreevey's, operates a cat shelter in a home she bought in Somerset County three years ago.

The house shelters animals that were taken from a kennel Sondike and other activists shut down on abuse charges.

She said the makeup of the new task force represents varying viewpoints regarding animal control methods, but that the members seem to share a common concern for improving the system.

"These appear to be people who would like to see an emphasis on getting strays adopted rather than destroyed. The current state of animal control in New Jersey is like garbage disposal, and that needs to be changed," Sondike said.

McGreevey has wanted to reform the state's system of shelters, animal control operations and cruelty laws since the State Commission of Investigation released a report nearly two years ago that was highly critical of the New Jersey Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

The SPCA, a confederacy of state and local officers who historically have been responsible for prosecuting animal abuse cases, suffers from mismanagement, theft and a failure to perform cruelty investigations, the commission found.

Some SPCA agents said the findings did not pertain to their operations, while others said the SCI report failed to take into account some reforms that had already been implemented.

McGreevey also has expressed concern about the apparent lack of uniform standards -- at least in practice -- in how feral and stray animals are handled or sheltered when they are picked up from the streets.

Still, he has made room on his task force for two SPCA officers, most notably Stu Goldman of the Monmouth County SPCA.

Animal-rights activists describe Goldman as a juggernaut in the movement to prevent animal cruelty. He has charged animal control officers, shelters and even police officers who he believes have been abusive to animals.

Goldman has a pending case against Marlboro Township's former animal control officer and, in a separate case, has charged a shelter worker in Tinton Falls with needlessly euthanizing stray cats.

"The big problem in New Jersey is that we have laws on the books that are not being enforced," Goldman said. "I go after cases that others won't. I'm no fanatic. I just enforce existing state laws."

McGreevey also named to the task force several current and former administration officials who have been sympathetic to the animal-rights cause. They include Dante DiPirro, a legal policy adviser to the Department of Environmental Protection; deputy Attorney General Cheryl Maccaroni; McGreevey's former chief counsel Paul Levinsohn; governor's counsel Judith Lieberman; Faye E. Sorhage of the state Department of Health and Senior Services; and senior deputy Attorney General B. Stephan Finkel.

Union County Sheriff Ralph Froehlich was also named to the task force.

"There weren't many nice things the SCI report had to say about the SPCA, but one of the most important things the SCI did say is that every county should establish a county animal shelter -- and that's something I think can be done," Froehlich said.

He said he would hope to model each shelter after the one operated in Atlantic City by the Humane Society of Atlantic County, a private organization. The shelter director Steven Dash, who is also on the new task force, is a proponent of forgoing euthanazing stray cats in favor of trapping, neutering and releasing them -- a controversial program that has been met with skepticism in other parts of the state.

"Our experience is that when you pull in 500 wild cats and euthanize them, there are 500 more taking their place. But neuter and vaccinate them, and release them, and they become a stable population and new cats do not come in," Dash said. "In our case in Atlantic City, it has been very effective."

The governor's task force will consider such innovations when it meet. But its first task will be to get organized.

"Thirty people is a large group, but I believe with the right leadership, we can come up with a package of recommendations for the governor. With the current budget situation, we're going to have to be innovative," Austenberg said.


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