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Banned Animal Shelter Volunteers File Lawsuit Against Town of Hempstead

Less than 24 hours after the public town hall meeting in Hempstead ended on Tuesday, Dec. 7, the three volunteers who have been banned from entering the Town of Hempstead Animal Shelter in Wantagh since late October, filed a lawsuit against the Town of Hempstead, Kate Murray, Bruce Hallbert, Jill Schuster, Patricia Horan, Vincent Napoli, Joanne Miranda, Russel Davis, and Ashley Sheridan.

In the lawsuit dated Wednesday, Dec. 8 Diane Madden of East Meadow, Lucille DeFina of Merrick, and Frances Lucivero-Pelletier of Levittown allege that they were banned from the shelter after making claims of animal abuse and neglect. They are seeking an unspecified compensation and to be restored to their volunteer duties at the shelter.

Collectively, the three women dedicated countless hours to the shelter over the past 13 years, facilitating adoptions, making rescue connections and even caring for some of the animals in their own homes and kennels.

Since this lawsuit filing, Steven Morelli, the named attorney representing the plaintiffs Madden, DeFina, and Lucivero-Pelletier, has not returned a call from the Tribune requesting comment. Similarly, Town Attorneys Susan Jacobs and Rick Amorini, were not able to be contacted for comment before press time.

The town hall meeting that preceded the lawsuit filing was the third consecutive public meeting largely attended by animal shelter volunteers, supporters and rescue workers from around the region in an attempt to bring their complaints and concerns to the officials of the town.  

During the public comment portion of the Tuesday, Dec. 7 meeting, approximately 12 shelter rescuers, including the three banned volunteers took to the microphone to address the town officials, each asking for some clarification about the ban. Each time, Supervisor Kate Murray, the town attorney, or one of the council members responded that they were unable to comment due to the pending investigation by District Attorney Kathleen Rice’s office.

Banned volunteer Frances Lucivero-Pelletier said, “I am asking you today to let me know what it is that I have done so wrong except love and care for the unwanted animals in our kennel, that has caused me to not be able to go into my shelter.” Murray simply responded, again, that the matter is under investigation.

Volunteer Diane Madden also took to the microphone and asked, “How can it be democratically fair that three animal loving taxpayers can be banned from the shelter without reason, yet there is reason enough to suspend the current staff?”

The Levittown Tribune received an official statement from the Town of Hempstead, via Supervisor Murray’s office on Thursday, Dec. 2 that states:

“The Town of Hempstead is conducting a complete review of policies and procedures at its animal shelter. The goal of the review is to provide optimal care to pets at the facility and find good homes for cats and dogs. A recent internal review has identified issues that call for further assessment and investigation. We have brought these matters to the attention of the District Attorney’s office and are working closely with that office. At the same time, the town’s animal shelter continues to offer adoption services and is working with dozens of animal rescue groups to facilitate the mission of the shelter.”

Spokesperson for District Attorney Kathleen Rice’s office, Chris Munzig declined to comment on the investigation being conducted by the DA’s office, as it is ongoing.

In a statement released on Monday, Nov. 15, Murray said, “We’re working hard to provide optimal care for cats and dogs at the town’s animal shelter. Many upgrades and enhancements have been initiated over the past several years, but we are looking ahead, armed with a progressive pet care agenda, to foster the best pet shelter experience possible for animals in the town’s care.”

According to Murray, in addition to the behaviorist, and a trap and release (TNR) program underway, forthcoming initiatives include: a corralled pet play area, an inter-municipal research project, and educational affiliation to promote higher learning internships.

While town officials cannot comment on the details the Town’s review, as well as the district attorney’s investigation that commenced at the town’s request, Murray indicated that the investigations are not the result of any reports of animal cruelty, neglect, abuse or mistreatment.

“I know that the town’s Progressive Pet Care Agenda will result in enhanced care and more adoptions at the animal shelter in Wantagh,” said Murray, in the Nov. 15 written statement. “As a person who cares deeply about animals, I am insistent that dogs and cats at our shelter receive the best care possible.”

Prior to the town hall meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 7, an animal behaviorist was selected to join the staff at the shelter. It was formally announced at the town hall meeting to hire Dr. Peter L. Borchelt, a certified applied animal behaviorist and consultant. Borchelt will determine whether certain animals, demonstrating anti-social traits are adoptable or could be adoptable after rehabilitative care.  

One volunteer asked of Murray and the council members, “This behaviorist that you are going to have accessing the dogs and cats, why don’t they access some of these volunteers that are in there abusing the animals, that are developing the behavior problems because of the way they are being treated in the shelter.”

While Borchelt was not present at the town hall meeting, three shelter staff members and volunteers had confirmed to the Tribune that they had met Borchelt and saw him taking an active role in the shelter.

A volunteer named Wendy also spoke at the meeting. She said, “I have a problem now with the Petfinder site [petfinder.com]; they [the shelter] were putting all of the dogs on, but dogs that are able to be rescued are no longer on the site; they’ve been taken off, so I’d like to know what’s being done to let rescues [rescue groups] know about these animals.”

Murray also explained at the town hall meeting that they have started a search to hire a shelter staff member to be the dedicated liaison between the shelter and the many rescue groups throughout the region, to help facilitate rescues and adoptions of the animals at the shelter.

As of press time, Petfinder.com had 77 adoptable dogs and cats listed at the Town of Hempstead Animal Shelter.

Murray said, “Pat Horan, the director of the shelter, about two weeks ago, invited all animal rescue groups, the 28 that we have on our registry to come on in and to continue a partnership with the shelter.”

A volunteer and rescue worker also asked Murray about the Town’s plans to reinstate the volunteers and the partnership. While no date is set, Murray said the volunteer program is being defined and will be active again soon.

Murray said, “We don’t want to do it too quickly and make mistakes; we want to make sure that we do it well, and have a full screening process, to make sure that everyone who is walking in has a good heart, and I know that includes many people in this room.”

At press time, no further details have been released regarding the lawsuit filed against the Town, or about District Attorney Rice’s investigation.

The next public town board meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 11 at 7 p.m. at the Nathan L.H. Bennett Pavilion at One Washington Street in Hempstead.