KIYC: What’s next for the NJSPCA after being stripped of authority?

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Change is coming for animal welfare in New Jersey. After 150 years as the state’s “animal police,” the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is one signature away from being eliminated, and lawmakers and critics of the embattled nonprofit are already focusing on what will replace it.

Legislation to strip law enforcement power from the NJSPCA is now in the hands of Gov. Chris Christie, who has promised to sign it, according to the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D – Elizabeth). Monday, the New Jersey Assembly passed the bill unanimously. The bill previously cleared the state Senate, also by a unanimous vote.

The Lesniak legislation calls for the NJSPCA to be phased out over a six-month period. County prosecutors would assume responsibility for animal welfare law enforcement and would oversee the county SPCAs, which would remain in existence. Shelters, which have always been operated at the county SPCA level, would be unaffected. Lesniak says NJSPCA volunteers are welcome to be involved in the new system, and those with “legitimate law enforcement backgrounds” could even be hired by prosecutors as animal control officers. That has some longtime NJSCPA critics concerned.

David Gaier, a former NJSPCA trustee who resigned after complaining about the group’s secrecy and financial practices, says, “This NJSPCA leadership failed. They lined their own pockets. I can’t understand how any of them would be allowed to remain in any position.”

Lesniak says Gaier and other animal reformers have nothing to fear. “The prosecutors’ offices will only accept real professionals to work with them,” he says. “There are some real professionals there and those would be the ones chosen.”

The NJSPCA bill is the final piece of legislation to be written by Lesniak, who retired Monday after 40 years in public office. He credits its passage to a yearlong Kane In Your Corner investigation, which exposed numerous issues, including animal cruelty cases apparently sitting uninvestigated, and no-bid contracts between the NJSPCA and companies owned by its board of trustees.

“I want to thank you for your investigative work, which really got this ball rolling,” Lesniak told News 12 New Jersey’s Walt Kane. 

The NJSPCA was also the subject of a scathing report from the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation in October. But Lesniak says the final blow to the group’s chances was self-inflicted. As Lesniak’s bill advanced through the legislature, an NJSPCA trustee, Phil Amato, emailed more than 50 of the group’s law enforcement officers, instructing them to use assumed names and anonymous email addresses to lobby lawmakers against it. The animal welfare group, “Reformers NJ,” obtained a copy of the email and gave it to Kane In Your Corner, which verified its authenticity and reported it publicly last week.  

NJSPCA President Steve Shatkin later said Amato was just concerned that officers might face unspecified “retaliation”, but Lesniak says by writing the email, the NJSPCA “made the case for its own demise.”

“That’s why we got the unanimous vote, which I never expected,” he says.

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