Director: Montclair Animal Shelter 'in the best place it's been' a year after fire
To mark a year since a fire severely damaged the Montclair Township Animal Shelter,
its acting director, Liz Morgan, thought about lighting a candle – an electronic one – but
then felt a candle was more appropriate when remembering someone’s death.
Fortunately, the shelter did not lose any pets or humans in the fire that tore through the rear of the shelter on North Willow Street last year.
Instead, Morgan determined a moment of silence and gratitude was a better way to commemorate the anniversary, as Morgan has so much appreciation to express to the shelter volunteers and staff, township and community for helping the shelter recover in the days, weeks, and months following the blaze.
Without them, “we’d not been able to pull this last year off,” Morgan said on Monday, exactly a year to the day of the fire.
“It really takes a village, and everyone steps up,” she observed.
The shelter serves Nutley and Verona in addition to Montclair.
Morgan, who was working at the shelter when the fire broke out, called that Sunday last April a “weird day,” with unusually high winds. “As it was happening, this was every shelter’s worst nightmare come true,” said Morgan, who also lost her car to the fire.
Aside from frightening moments, Morgan remembers not only the efforts to rescue all the animals, but also the community’s support. In the immediate aftermath, people were lined up around the street corner with cat carriers, she recalled. Shelter volunteers and members of the community offered to take animals home with them.
“Even in that crisis, the animals were first,” she affirmed.
The cause of the fire was never determined. Damage from the heat, smoke and water used to extinguish the flames is still visible in many parts of the building, and the fire has limited some of the shelter’s capabilities. But overall, Morgan, who has been acting director since June, is happy with where the shelter has come.
“We’ve done an incredible job,” said Morgan, noting the accolades the facility has received from the public on social media. “I think the shelter is in the best place it’s been in for the community and the animals it’s served.”
The second-floor area, where the cat rooms, Morgan's office and staff lounge are located, have been mostly redone, with new coats of paint. The rooms were filled with soot and sustained water damage from the firefighting efforts, Morgan said.
A long, rectangular room to the right of the shelter entrance, which served as a community room before, is being used temporarily to house dogs, as the back kennel area awaits reconstruction. According to Morgan, only seven of the shelter’s 26 kennels are in use right now.
Morgan said the construction on the new kennels should begin in about two weeks. Volunteers who have fostered dogs in the meantime have been a “godsend,” acknowledged Morgan, who said most of the shelter volunteers also ended up adopting animals after the fire.
There are also a number of safety-related upgrades that have to be done that weren’t required when the shelter was built and now are, Morgan noted.
Morgan said the challenge right now is finding space. Still, the shelter has continued to aid homeless, neglected, and needy animals. Last year, 243 cats and 163 dogs were adopted from the Montclair Township Animal Shelter.
The shelter has helped a group of 13 felines recover from physical ailments and food deprivation after they were rescued from a home in Nutley in September, and they’ve come a long way since, Morgan said. Seven cats are still being cared for at the shelter, while the rest have been adopted, Morgan said.
The shelter was able to adopt out five more dogs in 2016 than in 2015 even with fewer kennels, due to help from other resources and shelters, including those in Bloomfield and Clifton and the Bergen County Animal Shelter, Morgan said.
Three dogs and 23 cats were euthanized due to illness last year. The live release rate, or number of animals leaving the shelter alive, for 2016 was 98 percent for dogs and 91 percent for cats. The shelter did not – and does not, Morgan noted – euthanize because of space constraints.
Noting the case of a black bear roaming around Montclair last year, Morgan said the shelter still continues to honor its animal control contracts with the township, Nutley and Verona, and the response time for calls is less than 15 minutes on average.
The shelter transferred or rescued 55 “wildlife” animals last year and released 58.
Morgan acknowledged Montclair as a town that supports animals, especially through fundraising endeavors.
The Friends of the Montclair Township Animal Shelter organization has assisted the shelter through its recovery. It has provided funds for extraordinary medical expenses of animals who come into the shelter post-fire, offset the cost of adoption fees, replaced supplies and items lost to the fire that aren’t covered by the township’s budget or insurance, and coordinated grants and both monetary and in-kind donations, according to Karen Sacks, FOMTAS president.
“We look forward to providing further support once all repairs are made and the building is fully operational,” Sacks stated to The Montclair Times.
As of last month, the township had paid just over $50,000 for shelter repairs, and submitted the bills to its insurer, according to Montclair Communications Director Katya Wowk.
Morgan said she’s looking forward to the kennel repairs being complete and welcoming the community back in full. She hopes to start a reading program with children and animals as well as kitten yoga, and expand a dog-obedience program.
There are a number of junior volunteers interested in helping and Morgan wants to get the once-thriving volunteer program up and running again. Right now, volunteers must be 16 years of age or older.
The number of weekly volunteer hours decreased from about 4,000 to about 500, due to space limitations following the fire, Morgan said. Volunteers come in during the mornings to socialize with the animals and clean the facility, and then leave when the shelter opens to the public.
She also hopes to fill more staff positions once the shelter becomes fully operational again.
Morgan expressed an appreciation for the township as well, which oversees the shelter through the Department of Health and Human Services. “Anything I’ve asked, they’ve given me," said Morgan, adding, “They enable us to do the best we possibly can for animals.”
“We are enormously lucky to have found Liz who has worked tirelessly to keep shelter operations running smoothly despite the limitations of the building,” Sacks, of FOTMAS, said in an email. “Somehow Liz and her team managed to adopt out more animals in 2016, the year of the fire, than the shelter did in 2015 and those numbers are on par with similarly sized shelters operating at full capacity. And, most animals are in the shelter for just a short time before being adopted out and while they are there, they are given the best of care.”
During a council meeting in September, Township Manager Timothy Stafford said he was looking into whether outsourcing the shelter’s management to a third party was a better option than having the Health Department in charge.
Morgan said municipal government had not discussed the issue with her.
Second Ward Township Councilperson Robin Schlager said Monday the council has not heard from Stafford about his investigation into privatizing the shelter. Schlager said she hoped to hear from the manager soon, noting that “time is of the essence.” She expressed concern that the warmer weather could lead to more feral animals out and about, possibly being harmed or reproducing.
Schlager said the solution for the shelter is one that should serve the best interest of the animals and also make the most sense, financially, for the town.