Riverhead dog shelter left with one employee

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Riverhead Town’s animal control building on Youngs Avenue.

A little over a month ago, the Riverhead Town Animal Shelter was staffed by a full-time animal control officer, a part-time ACO, and a full-time and part-time kennel assistant.

But after the head of the shelter was mauled by a pit bull in October and two others resigned this past weekend, only a full-time kennel assistant remains working at the shelter as of Monday morning.

TIM GANNON PHOTO | Animal control officer Jessica Eibs-Stankaitis earlier this year with a dog from the Riverhead Town shelter.

Most town officials said they recognize the issues at the shelter and are working to quickly hire replacements to fill the vacant positions.

But some shelter volunteers and residents say the situation there is troubling, citing an incident where dogs were left alone in the kennel for 24 hours Thanksgiving night into the next day.

Sunday was the last day at work for part-time animal control officer Maureen Schneider, who has worked at the shelter for nearly two years. She left Riverhead Town Animal Shelter to accept a position as the head of Brookhaven’s animal shelter, a much larger operation, she said.

“I cried all the way here this morning, because I’m leaving my babies,” Ms. Schneider said Sunday afternoon.

Her sudden resignation is the second loss to the shelter in the past few days after a part-time kennel attendant quit the job Saturday. The departures come as the shelter is already short-staffed while head animal control officer Jessica Eibs-Stankaitis recovers from a mauling in late October.

On Oct. 26, Ms. Eibs-Stankaitis was walking a pit bull at the shelter about 3 p.m. when the dog attacked her, biting her face and latching onto her hip, Ms. Schneider said.

Ms. Schneider was working at the time of the attack and used a snare pole to pull the dog off Ms. Eibs-Stankaitis, who is on medical leave while she recovers. Town officials said she will be out on leave for at least the next two weeks.

The two resignations also happened little more than a week after the 14 dogs at the shelter were left in the kennel for 24 hours, volunteers and town officials said.

Ms. Schneider said she came in at 8 a.m. on Thanksgiving and worked at the shelter until 1 p.m., but because of short-staffing due to Ms. Eibs-Stankaitis’ injury, no one was able to come to the shelter to walk, feed or care for the dogs until Ms. Schneider’s next shift at 1 p.m. Thursday afternoon.

Ms. Schneider said she was sorry to leave the shelter for the Brookhaven job, though she was confident the town would fill the open positions at the shelter to prevent what happened from occurring again.

Town Councilman Jim Wooten, who serves as the liaison for the Town Board on animal control issues, said he was aware of the incident at the animal shelter over Thanksgiving, and said the situation was being handled.

He also denied rumors that two dogs were being euthanized at the shelter due to short-staffing. Mr. Wooten said the two dogs were deemed dangerous by both shelter workers and a veterinarian, as per town policy, and the dogs were planned to be put down long before the sudden resignations.

Though Mr. Wooten, Ms. Schneider and several volunteers at the shelter all confirmed dogs had been left in their kennels unsupervised two weeks ago, Police Chief David Hegermiller, who oversees the shelter, denied there had been a problem at the shelter over Thanksgiving, saying the dogs were cared for each day.

“Obviously, we haven’t let the dogs down yet and we’re not going to let the dogs down in the future,” Mr. Hegermiller said. “As far as I’m concerned, nothing happened.”

When asked whether the town was looking to hire part-time kennel attendants to help at the shelter during Ms. Eibs-Stankaitis’ absence, Mr. Hegermiller said: “I mean, obviously that makes sense,” adding the town was already in the process of looking for new hires.

Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter could not be reached for comment Sunday.

Mr. Wooten said the town has put out an advertisement for part-time kennel attendants and has received some replies already. Interviews will be conducted Monday, and the town could hire new kennel attendants as early as Tuesday, he said.

But Mr. Wooten argued that the town should also take more “radical” steps now that they are in the current situation. He advocated for privatizing the shelter, an idea discussed last year that would see the North Fork Animal Welfare League take over control of the shelter from the town’s police department.

But contract talks stalled, and town officials could not provide an update on the negotiations.

“I think now’s the time to hire a [shelter] director,” Mr. Wooten said. “We should strike while the iron is hot.”

Meanwhile, volunteers said the shelter’s dogs are paying the price for the town’s indecision.

“It’s just beyond despicable … and the ones who are suffering are the animals,” said Linda Mosca, a volunteer who works with the Responsible Solutions for Valued Pets, a Riverhead-based advocacy group that has clashed with town leaders for years over the animal shelter.

“Nothing changes because the town simply doesn’t care,” she said. “This has been going on, nobody stays, everybody leaves and nobody cares.”

Vince Taldone, who volunteers at the shelter, was not so quick to blame a specific person in town government. Instead, he said that while he believes Mr. Hegermiller shares some of the fault for the shelter’s shortcomings, the police chief is ultimately bound by the budget the Town Board sets.

“I don’t even know who to blame,” Mr. Taldone said.

Mr. Taldone said he is concerned that the full-time kennel attendant who remains at the shelter now will be overwhelmed with responsibilities and will not be able to care for the dogs adequately in the wake of the most recent resignations.

“How is [the attendant] going to do everything?” he asked. “If she gets two calls in the office, she’s stuck.”

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Correction: An earlier version of this story contained a typo that incorrectly stated the remaining employee at the shelter was a part-time kennel attendant. The worker is a full-time employee.