Liberty Humane Society is under scrutiny once again.
A group of volunteers who care for Jersey City’s stray and feral cats say that the Bergen-Lafayette animal shelter has banned individuals from using services for purported violations of unwritten “guidelines” and that the organization often fails to adequately respond when asked to assist with colonies of feral cats, having cowed volunteers many of whom are fearful of losing access to its programs, into silence.
In a city with hundreds of stray, often feral cats, Liberty Humane Society provides an essential service: a low-cost spay and neuter program. However, despite being Jersey City’s animal rescue and control vendor, the organization is being accused of banning volunteers and therefore turning stray cats away.
It happened to Heights resident Elizabeth Cook, a volunteer cat trapper who used LHS’ low-cost neuter and spay services.
Cook is as voluble as she is dedicated to the task of finding homes for and caring for cats. “In 2020, I trapped 97 cats. I really wanted to make 100,” she says. That year, she says she spent $4,000 of her own money on the cause.
One day a young woman from the shelter called her to tell her she was no longer welcome in the program. Astounded by this, she asked for a reason. Cook said was told, “You didn’t follow protocol.”
Having no idea what the person was referring to, Cook said she asked the woman to elaborate and was told, “You’re working with other people.” This didn’t clarify anything for Cook. She had been teaching others how to rescue cats for years and had never before been reprimanded by the shelter for doing so, she said.
Cook called and sent emails to LHS’s director, Kim Saunders, but got no response. “She ghosted me … I was dumbfounded,” Cook said.
A former LHS volunteer who also trapped cats on her own time, Pat Taylor, had an equally distressing experience when she brought cats to LHS for adoption.
Taylor started volunteering at LHS in 2003, regularly running adoption events around Hudson County for them, work that included filling out the forms, collecting fees, and remitting the payments to LHS.
After rescuing some kittens and a mother cat who were unwanted after the holidays in 2014, she said she worked on getting them “rehomed.”
Kim Saunders, the new director of operations at LHS, invited her to bring the cats to the shelter’s next adoption event. With only two carriers, Taylor was unable to bring in the entire cat family, so instead she brought in two other cats she’d been fostering. She told Saunders she would return afterward to take back home any of the cats that did not get adopted, she said.
Neither of Taylor’s two cats did get adopted that day, but when Taylor returned to pick them up, she said she was told the cats now belonged to LHS. Grateful to have kept the cat family at home, Taylor left, but it was not the end of the saga.
“[Saunders] started sending me emails, harassing me to bring the mama and kittens in,” she said. Saunders banned her from LHS, and Taylor has had no contact with the group since.
While not a trained volunteer, Jersey City resident “Denise” also soured on LHS.
Having noticed a cat living in her back yard for days, she called them to come get it so the animal could be fixed. She was told the organization no longer traps cats itself but that they would give her a trap which she could use to do so. They would call her back shortly to make those arrangements. Meantime, they gave her an appointment for the cat’s surgery in a few weeks.
Denise waited two weeks but never got the follow-up call from LHS, so she never trapped the cat. When she called the shelter roughly one week before the scheduled surgery, she said was told, “If you cancel, you can never make another appointment here.”
Ultimately, she was able to trap the cat and get it neutered elsewhere, paying out of her own pocket. She called LHS to see if they could find a home for it. No, they said, they were closed due to the pandemic. A local group called Pad Paws ultimately did get it adopted.
Denise’s experience aligns with another volunteer of LHS who said, “They’re not great at solving the feral cat issues on the ground. They don’t do a lot of trapping compared to the volunteers.”
“They keep a strict chokehold on people because we’re all afraid of being banned,” said the volunteer who asked to remain anonymous.
According to Carol McNichol, Companion Animal Trust’s founder and president, CAT first became aware of problems with Liberty Humane three years ago when residents called the group to say, “We found a cat, Liberty won’t take it” or “We found a sick kitten, and Liberty won’t take it.”
After these calls became more frequent, McNichol joined forces with these other leaders to bring their concerns to Stacey Flanagan, executive director of Health and Human Services for Jersey City. But “The Jersey City Cat Coalition,” as they dubbed themselves, quickly became disillusioned by the facts on the ground.
Cook told the Times about a previous problem she’d had with LHS.
Several years earlier, she said, she contacted the group’s own rescue arm, the Animal Response Team, to report concern over seven cats living with an apparent hoarder in Bayonne. Cook says she expected LHS to remove the cats, spay or neuter them, and find them new homes. Instead, she was reportedly told all the cats would be euthanized, “except for maybe one.”
Cook felt she had no choice but to handle the situation on her own. “I dealt with the woman who was hoarding, I raised money, I got all the cats to see a veterinarian, I got their shots updated, I got them into foster homes, and I found them homes. This is something animal control should be responsible for.”
LHS launched the Animal Response Team in 2017 when it received half the calls to rescue animals that it does today, according to Liberty Humane’s website.
In October 2020, a cadre of local animal welfare groups told the Jersey Journal that many area residents had given up calling the city’s animal control phone number because they had found LHS to be unresponsive.
In response to these allegations, Irene Borngraeber, executive director of LHS since 2013, was matter of fact. Liberty Humane had indeed banned two volunteers, she said.
Taylor, on the other hand, puts the number at around ten.
Borngraeber explained that they had brought in too many cats at once, thereby violating the best practices referred to in the spay/neuter application. The shelter also frowns on applications reporting 10 more cats in one place since this large number could be unhealthful for the animals, she added.
“It is incredibly unfortunate when we need to part ways with somebody who is trying to do good work, but there are ground rules for the industry and a liability standpoint,” Borngraeber said.
However, neither the application nor the best practices expressly limit the number of cats someone may bring in simultaneously for treatment.
As for the work ART does, Borngraeber admits that, while they have a dedicated call center and a fully staffed team during the day, only three employees are in the field at a time, and in the evenings that number drops to one.
Response time for calls is 25-35 minutes on average, she said, though callers could wait substantially longer if the team is dealing with an emergency.
To some degree, Jersey City may share some of the blame. The state Department of Health says, “Municipalities considering managed cat colonies are encouraged to develop standards through ordinance or their regulatory authority to insure these recommendations are developed in a manner that provides an organized community program with proper accountability and oversight by the Health Officer.”
Yet, it appears the city has neither developed standards nor passed ordinances on the subject, instead giving unfettered authority to LHS.
Jersey City renewed its five-year contract with LHS in 2021.
“The city doesn’t have any control over Liberty Humane. They’re not employees, they’re just an independent contractor,” said McNichol. She believes that the city has let LHS run with little oversight, leading the group to use “very aggressive and intimidating” tactics against the volunteers.
Cook believes the problem at LHS lies with current management. “I think LHS is amazing,” she said wistfully. “I’m really good friends with the founder.”
However, the founder of which she speaks, Norrice Raymaker, stepped away from LHS several years ago.
Correction: This article originally included “Since concerns about LHS were first published in 2020, LHS Bayonne and Newark have dropped their contracts with the organization.” According to LHS Executive Director Irene Borngraeber, LHS never had a contract with Newark and only provided advice and consulting for a brief period. LHS lost the Bayonne contract to another vendor who offered the services at a lower price.