12/07/12 7:30am
12/07/2012 7:30 AM
BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Reko, a 5-year-old male American Staffordshire Terrier, when he was in the shelter in 2010.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Reko, an American Staffordshire Terrier, at the dog shelter in 2010. He was later sent to the Kent Animal Shelter for adoption.

Animal lovers. Animal activists. Cat ladies. Dog zealots. Nut-jobs.

Michael White

Call them what you want, but the people who have been condemning the town’s animal shelter are not going anywhere. This is a virtual sit-in, being waged with constant phone calls, letters and emails to the town’s elected and appointed leaders, as well as to the media.

You can also call these people bullies and ask why they’ve set up shop in Riverhead Town while demanding its taxpayers give up more of their hard-earned money to care for animals when other troubles warrant more attention. But dismissing the animal advocates won’t do any good. They’re activists, and this is their cause. Whether you deem it worthy or not.

And they can bring the heat. Just look what happened to the previous animal control officer/shelter head. He’s gone now, having resigned because he couldn’t take the constant criticism, second-guessing, name-calling and public humiliation.

But it wasn’t his fault. The town’s antiquated system of having dog catchers run the pound and answer to a police chief is what set him up to fail. It’s not the 1950s anymore and this dog pound needs to become an actual shelter — that’s basically the protestors’ demand — complete with properly trained and experienced management, an organized adoption mechanism and a community outreach program to help educate the next generation to properly care for pets, and thus prevent more abused dogs from ending up in shelters. Only then will the activists leave us all alone.

In a system of government controlled in large part by special interests, there are plenty of less worthy causes to cave to.

The pet industry is constantly evolving. (Remember when you could buy a puppy in the mall?) And today’s model shelter operation, described above, is just the latest piece of the puzzle, so to speak, as we strive as a country to treat animals more humanely. Simply put, how we treat animals is a reflection of our overall “goodness” as a society.

The philosopher might say positive treatment of animals is a good in and of itself, and thus begets more goodness, which benefits everyone.

Some have argued, through letters to the editor and our online comments section, that spending so much time and money on animal welfare is a waste because so many human beings are going hungry and homeless. Stop. Certainly a town and its people can strive to help human beings and animals alike. Some advocates prefer to help people, others are more suited to helping animals. In the end, that’s their call.

To me, the argument that we should forgo helping animals because some people are in need holds as much water as saying it’s wrong to build parks, or for someone to buy a Rolex or go skiing, when so many people are starving in this world. Many people value and care for animals. The town should strive to do the same to the best of its ability, as other towns have done. But doing so takes money, and it all boils down to priorities.

Simply put — judging by the dollar figures alone — Riverhead’s dog shelter is not a priority.

A News-Review special report in 2010, found that neighboring Southampton Town spends about $500,000 a year in taxpayer money to fund its shelter operations. Southold Town spends about $360,000, not including debt service on a fairly new building, and Riverhead spends about $200,000.

The inadequate funding here means problems keep arising, like a mauling and a sudden staff exodus that leaves the entire shelter to one part-time worker. That’s why the activists are constantly up in arms.

Both Southold and Southampton have enlisted nonprofit groups to run their shelters. Riverhead could do the same, but town Councilman James Wooten has said it will take about $300,000 to get a group like the North Fork Animal Welfare League, which runs Southold’s shelter, to take over Riverhead’s operation. The challenge is to come up with that extra cash, and during tough times.

Here’s my idea. As was mentioned in a recent News-Review editorial, the town has been swatting down proposals from hobbyist groups looking to use some space at town land in Calverton to do things like hold autocross competitions, fly model airplanes and operate a paragliding school — to name a few.

We’ve all seen with the car-storage operation at the former Grumman property that things can happen there, and quickly, without state interference. So let’s let some of these smaller groups rent space in Calverton, then earmark the proceeds for the shelter; $20,000 here and there can add up quickly.

One way or another, there’s no doubt the town must act to get its dog shelter problems under control.

If not for the activists, then because it’s simply the right and decent thing to do.

Michael White is the News-Review editor. He can be reached at (631) 298-3200, ext. 152 or at mwhite@timesreview.com.

07/27/12 11:00am
07/27/2012 11:00 AM

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Director Karen Testa holds a snapping turtle that came to the center with a broken jaw. Dental acrylic is holding its broken bones in place as they heal.

Shells shattered, jaws crushed, legs and paws mangled. Karen Testa and the volunteers at Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons, which opened in Jamesport in May, see it all. And, Ms. Testa freely admits, it is physically and emotionally exhausting.

They do it because nobody else does, she says.

And it never gets any better.

MICHAEL WHITE

“I foresee doom in their future, because of the pollution in the water and all the development,” Ms. Testa told me last week, not the slightest hint of exaggeration in her voice. “We had to euthanize 20 turtles in just over two months. And these are just the ones that people find. Could you imagine the ones that they don’t find? They die a slow, horrible death off in the woods. Or they drown at the bottom of the bay.”

Most turtles are injured by cars, boat propellers, tractors or  industrial lawn mowers.

If they’re fortunate enough to be found, they end up in Jamesport.

Housed in a two-story 1929 colonial that sits on a full acre, the rescue operation is currently home to about 70 turtles, 30 of which are recovering from surgeries on the building’s second floor, which is complete with an ICU, nursery and operating tables.

Ms. Testa and her two principal volunteers, Ryan Ortiz of Orient and Beth Groff of Jamesport, are available by phone 24 hours a day for emergencies. If someone can’t bring a turtle to the rescue center, the volunteers will go to the turtle, no matter where it is on Long Island or the city.

“We’ll go somewhere just to move a turtle; say a snapper turtle is on a golf course and people don’t know what to do,” said Ms. Testa, the owner of Suffolk-based K Testa Real Estate who, not surprisingly, doesn’t spend much time selling homes nowadays.

It would be easy for anyone to imagine these animals dying out in the woods after seeing the turtles being nursed back to health in Jamesport. Some have their jaws wired shut, others have their shells stapled together. Many are missing limbs. Some have deformed shells or ear abscesses due to water pollution or mis-care or malnutrition.

Just days before my visit, volunteers had to tube-feed a two-inch baby diamondback terrapin after a woman stepped on it in her garden in Sag Harbor.
“Could you believe that?” Ms. Testa added, thrilled that the little one has been doing fine lately.

The Turtle Rescue is the kind of place that’s depressing, in a way, especially seeing the more skittish turtles and wondering what they might have been through. But it also makes you proud of mankind, just knowing there are people willing to give so much to care for these venerable yet vulnerable creatures.

Not only Ms. Testa and the volunteers, but people like Sal Caliguri of Sal’s Auto Body in St. James, which purchased and donated the one-acre property. And Dr. Robert Pisciotta of North Fork Animal Hospital in Southold, a resident vet who works pro bono in his spare time to care for the turtles.

When I asked Ms. Testa just what it was about turtles that sparked such passion in her and the others, she explained that turtles “are the underdog; they need the most help.”

And many of them shouldn’t ever have been born. Red-eared sliders, for one, are farmed specifically for the many pet stores across the state, country and overseas, where anyone could buy a juvenile for just a few bucks.

These turtles aren’t indigenous to New York but instead, Ms. Testa said, get dumped by people “after junior’s been occupied for a month.”

The dozen or so sliders at the shelter will be there their entire lives, as they can’t legally be released into local woods and waters.

“Many of them will outlive me,” Ms. Testa said.

In the wild, red-eared sliders live for about 50 years. Not in someone’s house; that’s a commitment no person can keep.

But Ms. Testa said she’s too busy to lobby in Albany to outlaw the sale of turtles, because she’s at the center all day. In some of her downtime, she hands out informational cards to local landscapers, urging them to look out for turtles and, if they hit one with a mower, to call Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons.

“Tortuga, tortuga,” she’ll tell those who don’t speak English.

A man from East Islip called the center about the time I arrived last Thursday. He had found a terrapin in distress at a marina there. It was probably injured by a boat. The rescue staff told him to take it to a local animal hospital, which he did. A vet had to put it down, the staff later learned.

“Well, that’s one less turtle suffering,” said Ms. Testa.

If you spot a turtle that appears to be in distress, call Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons at 631-603-4959, 516-729-7894 or 631-779-3737. Visit http://turtlerescueofthehamptons.org/ to find out more information about the center, or how to donate or volunteer.

Michael White is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at mwhite@timesreview.com.

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