Not long ago, the Associated Humane Societies Newark shelter euthanized four out of every 10 cats and dogs it took in.

But in a stunning turnaround, the shelter has found itself at the forefront of a trend that has seen a sharp decline in the number of animals euthanized, a decline that animal welfare advocates say has been accelerated by the pandemic.

In 2021, AHS Newark euthanized just 4.5%, or 145, of the 3,199 four-legged friends put down by owners or collared by animal control officers, below the state average of 6%. in accordance with New Jersey Department of Healthwhich collects data voluntarily reported by large shelters from each county.

Five years earlier, in 2016, before a scandal exposed “deplorable” conditions under previous management, the shelter’s euthanasia rate was 40.1% — more than double the state average — with 2,214 of 5,517 dogs seized and cats

“This place has really improved,” said Mary Hernandez, 30, of Newark, a cat caretaker who has worked at the shelter for four years. “The environment, you can really feel it.”

The percentage of animals euthanized at AHS Newark in 2021 includes 99 of 2,033 impounded cats and 46 of 1,173 surrendered dogs, according to state data. The state said the agency reunited 260 dogs and 106 cats with their owners and that residents adopted 335 dogs and 652 cats. The rest stayed at the shelter, were given to foster families or transferred to shelters with fewer animals.

By country in 2021, New Jersey shelters reported euthanizing 2,369 of the 41,326 dogs and cats impounded that year.

Associated Humane Societies CEO Jerry Rosenthal stands outside the Newark shelter, where the nonprofit is headquartered in an industrial area near Newark Liberty International Airport.Steve Strunsky | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

The numbers have continued to decline since the health department began publishing numbers in 1984, when there was a chance that animals entering the shelter would not make it out alive.

That year, stunning 82,566 dogs and cats – 51.2% of the 161,146 impounded animals were euthanized at Garden State shelters reporting their numbers. The method typically involves an injection similar to a fatal drug overdose that first renders the animal unconscious, said Newark shelter veterinarian Dr. Jade Lee, who decides on each euthanasia in consultation with Rosenthal and other staff.

National, 2019 New York Times survey of 20 major cities across the United States shows a similar decline.

Animal welfare advocates attribute the decline to a softening of public attitudes toward pets and homeless animals, spurred by media campaigns by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Humane Society of the United States, and other organizations.

This attitude has led to an increase in pet adoptions and “no-kill” policies that limit euthanasia to animals that are suffering or terminally ill.

“Some of the reasons for the decline may be items such as increased spaying and neutering to reduce dog and cat overpopulation,” health department spokeswoman Nancy Kearney said in an email. Increasing adoption rates and ensuring animal control and licensing to quickly reunite lost pets with their owners may also be factors, she said.

Animal welfare advocates say the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated a downward trend in euthanasia because telecommuting and education have made it easier to care for cats and dogs, and more opportunities for families to enjoy their pets.

“Adoptions have increased because of COVID,” said Harry Levine, president of the SPCA of New Jersey.

However, animal rights activists have warned that as the pandemic subsides, they are seeing an increase in the number of reservoirs.

Located in a three-story brick building in an industrial area near Newark Liberty International Airport, AHS Newark calls itself the oldest animal shelter in New Jerseysince 1906. The Newark shelter is one of three operated by the nonprofit Associated Humane Societies, and AHS Tinton Falls Shelter and Popcorn Park Animal Shelter, Lacey City Zoo and Sanctuary.

Discoveries in 2017 unsanitary conditions and animal cruelty at the Newark shelter led to the reassignment and subsequent resignation of the shelter’s elderly director, who had held the position for decades.

Activists express concern about the conditions of animals at the Newark shelter

Rosemarie’s Rescue Ranch President Susan Janet said she received this photo of Chippy, a Chihuahua mix, from an Associated Humane Societies employee in November 2020, and that Chippy looked just as emaciated when she picked him up shortly after.Courtesy Susan Janette

But even after the director’s departure, problems remained, including in November 2020 complaints that animals ill-treated and malnourished. AHS board president Bob Berenbach promised change would come, and the board hired Rosenthal, 67. lead all of AHS with the new title of CEO. The Newark shelter serves as the organization’s headquarters.

Nevertheless, criticism of the shelter continues. One animal advocate, who asked to remain anonymous to maintain a relationship with the shelter, said Rosenthal exploited the frail animals by using them in fundraising ads — even to the point of refusing to give them up for adoption. Rosenthal dismissed the claim as “false.”

Rosenthal, former president of the Monmouth County SPCA, is the permanent successor to the short-term executive directors appointed by the AHS board in on the wave of criticism. He attributed the turnaround to new hires brought in by higher wages, improved staff training and morale-boosting programs. He said he has also taken a hands-on approach to his leadership role and constantly emphasizes the importance of the shelter’s work to his 54 employees.

“We’re training staff more to give them a sense of what a forward-thinking animal welfare organization should be doing,” said Rosenthal, who called the change a “team effort.”

He said the shelter is awaiting city approvals for a $2 million renovation of the facility to improve the animals’ medical care, privacy and comfort, and enhance the visitor experience. The Newark shelter’s annual budget is $4 million, which includes Rosenthal’s salary of $150,000 and the salaries of other administrative staff at two other facilities.

Revenue comes primarily from donations, grants and fees, as well as contracts with 10 municipalities for shelter or animal control services. Rosenthal said the shelter’s finances have improved thanks to more aggressive fundraising efforts and a revised contract with the city of Newark, which contributes $1.3 million annually to shelter operations, up from $675,000 under the previous agreement.

Husky ends up at the AHS Newark shelter

This husky was about to be examined in the reception room of the AHS Newark shelter.Steve Strunsky | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

AHS also has agreements with shelters in areas with fewer strays. For example, Rosenthal said New England shelters, where the summer breeding season is much shorter and there are few cats available for adoption, took in 900 felines from Newark last year.

“Some shelters don’t have cats there,” he said. “It’s about supply and demand.”

Stuart Goldman a former special investigator with the SPCA of New Jersey who works as a consultant on legal and other issues related to animal welfare in the state. He said the shelter in Newark has “improved dramatically” in recent years.

“It’s gotten much better under Jerry, it’s become more transparent,” he said.

Eager to demonstrate that, Rosenthal invited NJ Advance Media to visit the shelter “any time” at the end of a recent phone interview. The next morning, he took a reporter around the facility, past cages with 250 cats and 142 dogs.

Many cats would make their way through the bars of their cages and meow for the attention of the startled stranger. A small yellow kitten was lying curled up in an incubator.

Like cats, small dogs were kept in cages. The larger dogs, about two-thirds of which were pit bulls, were housed in a pair of long corridors, each with a rectangular pen several feet wide and about six feet deep. A small opening at the back of each of them led to an open space.

There were quarantine rooms for infectious animals and a well-scrubbed infirmary with polished steel tables for examinations, operations and euthanasia.

It was impossible to know how they felt, but none of the animals appeared to be hurt. The building smelled of urine, but there were no puddles or piles of trash to be seen. were visible. Workers treated the animals in ways that ranged from careful respect to unbridled affection.

Kevin Fields, 65, of Newark, has worked at the shelter for 40 years. He said he can tell at a glance what kind of dog or cat will suit people who want to adopt, and often plays matchmaker. “You have to pick the right one,” he said, or the animal could end up back where it started, or worse.

Fields petted a 13-year-old poodle named Princess, who was missing her right eye when she was brought in. He said improved conditions and fewer euthanasias have made the shelter a better place for animals and workers like him.

“It makes a big difference to how I feel,” Fields said. “It’s humane.”

Tom Cerkle, Animal Control Officer at the AHS Newark Shelter

Tom Searle, an animal control officer, or ACO, at the AHS Newark shelter, with a female pit bull he caught in Uquiahic Park. “She was trying to tear me apart,” he said. Now I can walk her on a leash.Steve Strunsky | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

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Steve Strunsky can be reached at sstrunsky@njadvancemedia.com

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