Changes in Riverhead Town’s shelter euthanasia policy discussed

Changes may be in store for both management of the Riverhead Animal Shelter and the town’s policy on euthanizing animals. One change might be the hiring of a shelter director, according to Town Councilman Jim Wooten, to take over management duties from the town’s animal control officer and the police department.

“The real obstacle” with the town shelter “is the management structure,” Mr. Wooten said last week. “An ACO is not a shelter director, nor is the police department. Their mindset is to discourage volunteers and get out of the adoption business.”

He said appointing a shelter director to oversee care and the general operation of the shelter, coordinate with the volunteers and network “to bring about awareness” would improve the operation. “The ACO and kennel attendants would answer to the director, and the director would be directly under the supervisor,” he said.

Such an arrangement would remove the police department from any management function, 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 facility, earned $91,661 in 2011, a Brookhaven spokesman said.

Mr. Wooten met last Thursday with the head of the local nonprofit animal rescue group RSVP (Responsible Solutions for Valued Pets) Inc., the director of Brookhaven Town’s animal shelter and others to discuss ways to get the Youngs Avenue facility operating more as a private shelter and adoption center — and less as a municipal pound. The meeting came as ongoing efforts to privatize the Riverhead facility have failed.

It also followed weeks of controversy after Bruno, a male pit bull mix, was euthanized at the shelter by an ACO despite the efforts of shelter volunteers, animal activists and Mr. Wooten to buy more time for the animal, which the ACO and a vet had deemed aggressive.

As the management question was pondered last week, the animal advisory committee was working on another front, developing a proposal to change the town’s policy for euthanizing dogs.

Currently, euthanization is carried out when the ACO makes a determination that a dog is dangerous and a veterinarian agrees. If there is disagreement, an animal behaviorist is consulted to break the tie.

Under the proposed change, which is still in draft form, if the ACO deems a dog dangerous, he or she will complete an evaluation form and submit it to the animal shelter supervisor, which is currently the police chief. A copy also would be sent to the animal shelter advisory committee chairperson, currently Noreen Lecann of Riverhead, and the committee’s Town Board liaison, currently Mr. Wooten. A meeting of the advisory committee would be scheduled to determine the dog’s fate. The ACO and veterinarian would no longer be involved in the decision, Mr. Wooten said.

The committee’s determinations could include veterinarian review, evaluation by a behaviorist, training, exercise, rescue group adoption or sending the dog to an animal sanctuary, Mr. Wooten said. The proposed policy also states that no animal will be euthanized at the request of its owner.

Mr. Wooten said he plans to submit a draft of the proposal to the Town Board this week.

On the management question, Police Chief David Hegermiller has said that finding people to adopt dogs should not be the function of a town police department, although he noted Thursday that about 100 dogs had been 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 expose the town to lawsuits.

Sue Hansen of Rocky Point, a member of RSVP who has long complained of management and other problems at the shelter, sent an e-mail to supporters after Thursday’s meeting with Mr. Wooten, saying everyone in attendance agreed a director “is key to a good shelter.”

Mr. Wooten said he would relay what happened at the meeting to the rest of the Town Board. He said the board would involve the town’s animal shelter advisory committee in any talks. The animal shelter advisory committee “is made up of local residents 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 Chief 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.”

[email protected]

Looking to comment on this article? Send us a letter to the editor instead.