By Tina Pappas
for Montclair Local
After the state dismantled the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals placing animal cruelty investigations into the hands of county and local police, Montclair has named Michele Shiber, Julie Hamer and Ryan Urbano as certified animal control officers. Shiber and Elizabeth Bibber-Morgan will also be trained as municipal humane law enforcement officers (HLEO).
All four are already employed by the town and will have to go undergo state-mandated training for their new titles, which will not come with salary increases.
The not-for-profit NJSPCA, established in 1868, was granted police power to investigate animal abuse in New Jersey. Its creation was supposed to free up local police in order to focus on solving other crimes, while saving taxpayer money.
After years of complaints, the attorney’s general office investigated the group releasing a report last year entitled “Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing: New Jersey’s SPCA 17 Years Later.” The report alleged incidents weren’t investigated for weeks, abuse of power by animal control officers and mismanagement of funds. In January, Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation to dismantle the agency over a 13-month period.
Now each municipality will be required to appoint a humane law enforcement officer to investigate and enforce animal-cruelty laws, and in the case of violations, to sign complaints. The officer can be a police officer, an animal-control officer or anyone who undergoes humane law enforcement training. The law also allows officers to carry firearms upon completion of a firearms-training course by the state police if the municipalities choose to arm their animal officers.
Each county will also create an animal-cruelty task force with an animal-cruelty prosecutor. The prosecutor will also investigate animal-cruelty charges and prosecute those who violate the laws. The task force will designate a county SPCA where employees will oversee animal welfare issues and the shelters.
Bibber-Morgan, the current director of the Montclair Animal Shelter, said the only difference in Montclair will be the additional training for all animal and humane officers.
Shiber, who is the top animal control officer, will continue her duties during animal cruelty investigations and working with prosecutors to bring forth summonses, but with a change in her title. The rest of the appointees will also continue their duties with the added training.
“They will investigate any allegations of animal cruelty,” she said. “All animal control officers will now be required to be trained and certified.
“We already have staff to cover the new requirements, unlike other towns which may see some changes. Michele will be doing the same thing, but instead of being an Animal Control Officer-Animal Cruelty Investigator (ACO-ACI), she will now be known as a municipal humane law enforcement officer,” said Bibber-Morgan.
The NJSPCA never investigated animal cruelty allegations in Montclair because the township already did its own investigations, she said. The training will be the only difference.
“Our chief of police might require even some extended training,” she said.
In terms of costs to cover the state-mandated training, Bibber-Morgan said the overall costs are still being worked out. Shiber has already attended two scheduled training sessions and another is planned for next month.
“There is definitely more of a training criteria and I’m anxious to see if the state will subsidizing the training,” she said. “We don’t know just yet.”
Reformers—Advocates for Animal Shelter Change is the organization that provided State Sen. Raymond Lesniak with information triggering the NJSPCA investigation. Lesniak authored the bill that was signed into law earlier this year.
Organization founder Colleen Wronko claims the NJSPCA brings in nearly $750,000 a year with less than $26,000 going towards the animals. Wronko is suing the NJSPCA for failure to answer her OPRA (Open Public Records Act) request for the NJSPCA financials. The agency also lost its non-profit status due to not filing their taxes with the IRS, she said.
Wronko said the new legislation does not require HLEOs to carry guns, and that decision will up to each municipality to decide.
Two recent incidents of animal cruelty investigated by the Montclair animal officers made headlines. In March, a local resident was charged with animal cruelty after he allegedly swung a dog on a leash into a tree. Last July, a dog was thrown from a car during an alleged road rage incident. Both incidents were recorded by witnesses and posted on social media and are still in the courts.