Councilman makes push to hire dog shelter director

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The Riverhead Town Animal Shelter on Youngs Avenue in Calverton.

Management changes could be in store for the Riverhead Animal Shelter.

Town Councilman Jim Wooten on Thursday met with the head of a local nonprofit animal group, RSVP Inc., as well as Brookhaven Town’s animal shelter director and others to discuss ways to get the Youngs Avenue facility to operate more as a private shelter and adoption center — and less of a municipal pound.

The meeting came as ongoing efforts to privatize the facility have failed, and weeks after a pit bull male mix named Bruno was euthanized by an animal control officer, or ACO, despite efforts from shelter volunteers, other animal activists and Mr. Wooten to bide more time for the animal, which the ACO and a vet had deemed aggressive.

The towns shelter is run by the Riverhead Police Department.

“We basically discussed what some of the common problems are in municipal shelters,” Mr. Wooten said.  “Ours was not unlike many others in the past. The real obstacle with ours is the management structure. An ACO is not a shelter director, nor is the police department. The mind set is to discourage volunteers and get out of the adoption business.

“Well we all know that will never happen, so what is the next best thing? Appointing a shelter director to oversee the care and general operation of the shelter, coordinate with the volunteers, and networking to bring about awareness. The ACO and kennel attendants would answer to them, and they would be directly under the supervisor.”

Such an arrangement would remove the police department from any management functions, with animal control officers sticking strictly to animal control and law enforcement duties, but not operation of the shelter.

“This seems the best solution and one that Brookhaven has been doing,” Mr. Wooten said.

It was not immediately clear how a director position would be funded.

The director of the Brookhaven shelter, which is much larger than the Riverhead shelter, earned $91,661 in 2011, a Brookhaven spokesman said.

Police Chief David Hegermiller has said getting dogs adopted should not be the function of a town police department, although Thursday he noted that about 100 dogs were adopted from the shelter last year, with only about eight having been killed. He also said adopting out potentially dangerous dogs from the town shelter could make the town susceptible to lawsuits.

Sue Hansen of Rocky Point, who runs the RSVP (Responsible Solutions for Valued Pets) animal rescue group, has long complained of  management and other inadequacies at the shelter,  sent an email to supporters after Thursday’s meeting saying everyone in the meeting agreed a director “is key to a good shelter.”

Mr. Wooten said he will relay what happened at the meeting to the rest of the Town Board members for the group to discuss possible way to enact some of the proposed changes, which would also involve the town’s animal advisory committee in decisions on whether or not to euthanize a shelter dog.

The committee “is made up of local residences who understand the many different types and breeds of dogs,” Mr. Wooten said.

In an interview Friday, Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said he agreed hiring a director is a good idea, but he predicted the town would be hard pressed to make such a move after recently laying off about a dozen employees.

“But there are some other things that we’re looking at ,” he said. “One of the things is that, rather than taking these dogs in and keeping them for long periods of time, maybe some other shelters up west could take our dogs for a fee; maybe it’s easier to adopt a dog up-Island where the population is higher.”

He said Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller is currently searching for shelters that would accept dogs from Riverhead “if we send them a check.”

The supervisor said he recalled the shelter costing about $240,000 to operate last year, although the town has since eliminated the second animal control officer position, which will result in some savings. “But we’re going to spend even more money because we are going to get veterinary help for these dogs,” the supervisor said. “The Town Board has been sticking its head in the sand too long with the animal shelter and I’m not going to do that.”

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Read more in the Jan. 20 edition of the News-Review.