Ten years ago, the State Commission of Investigation reported the state’s animal-welfare laws were completely inadequate, and the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which is tasked with enforcing those laws, was running unchecked.

Since then, laws have been changed and the SPCA has been reorganized.

“We’ve taken a very different approach than we have had the last 142 years,” said Frank Rizzo, superintendent of the NJSPCA, an organization established by statute in 1868. The quasi-public organization leads most cruelty investigations in New Jersey.

Yet much work remains to be done.

Earlier this year, the Humane Society of the United States ranked New Jersey second on a list of states with the most animal-cruelty laws. Only California has more laws protecting animals. But law-enforcement officers say animal cruelty remains a serious problem throughout the state, while legislators say New Jersey’s cruelty statutes are nebulous, neither well-defined nor well-known.

State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, is one legislator pushing to modernize those laws. Van Drew is a primary sponsor of three bills in the Legislature aimed at improving animal welfare. One bill would mandate the spaying and neutering of animals leaving shelters, another would revise animal-fighting laws and increase penalties, and the third would clarify the definition of “minimum care.”

Van Drew said his goal is to completely revise the state’s Title IV laws governing animal cruelty to improve on a system that has nonprofit agents, traditional law enforcement and judges who may be unfamiliar with animal-welfare regulations working together.

“It’s a very segmented, difficult, cumbersome way of dealing with the statutes and the appropriate punishment,” he said.

SPCA officers say such an effort is long overdue, and while the SCI report from 2000 made people more aware of the issue, not enough was done immediately afterward to fix it.

Meanwhile, SPCA officers say abuse and abandonment are as common as ever, especially in the economic downturn.

The most outrageous cases make headlines: 48 cats left to die in a Barnegat Township home; 45 fighting roosters found at a Mullica Township compound; and a dog dragged behind a car in Vineland.

But tens of thousands more cases are often overlooked. And it is largely left to the SPCA — a group whose funding comes from mainly donations and partially from fines assessed — to deal with the problem.

“We put a lot of light on things that aren’t good out there,” Rizzo said.

‘Archaic’ and ‘absurd’

New Jersey’s system of using the SPCA for its cruelty enforcement is not unique in the U.S., but the SCI report called it “archaic” and “absurd” and recommended its abolition.

Instead, the Legislature imposed stricter oversight and guidelines on the organization five years after the report. Now, the Office of the Attorney General oversees the SPCA. Officers go through background checks by the State Police and receive training through a program the state Police Training Commission established in August.

The organization also created an online system for reporting violations that several counties are starting to use and established formal policies and guidelines for the state and county chapters.

What alarmed SCI investigators, however, were the opportunities for abuse by SPCA officers in their law-enforcement capacities. In many cases, largely untrained agents were shown to go beyond their legislated powers, while others completely neglected their duties, the SCI report showed in 2000.

Kathy Riley, spokeswoman for the SCI, said while improvements to the SPCA have been welcomed, those issues remain.

“It’s a shame the reorganization didn’t address them,” she said.

Today, SPCA officers carry guns, secure search warrants from the county Prosecutor’s Office and make arrests like any other police officer in the state.

SPCA spokesman Matt Stanton said the group has worked to end abuse of law-enforcement power. When individual county chapters have not complied with the state organization’s increased measures, the state has sued to stop their operations.

“A lot of those counties were completely out of control,” he said.

At the county level

Cape May County’s SPCA operated a shelter the SCI called “deplorable” in Lower Township, while its president admitted to stealing $84,000 from the group. The leader of Ocean County’s SPCA also was accused of abusing his group’s finances, but died before the report’s release.

Today, the state handles cases in those counties, with help from the Cumberland County and Atlantic County SPCA chapters.

Nancy Beall has been president of the Atlantic County SPCA since 1990. The chapter gets little funding and has just a handful of employees and volunteers.

She estimates her group responds to about 1,300 calls a year — often to the same locations multiple times — but she did not have exact numbers because she does not have computers to record the data.

The SCI report referred to Beall as “highly aggressive, to the point of being accused of employing intimidation tactics, in urging owners to spay or neuter their pets,” a description Beall wears like a badge of honor.

“That’s a no-brainer,” said Beall, who praised Van Drew’s pending legislation to do just that. “That should have always been. Maybe we wouldn’t have this stupid overpopulation that we’ve got.”

Increased penalties

As a response to the SCI report’s criticism, the state also increased penalties for cruelty, increasing them to a third-degree offense. Fines can be a maximum of $1,000, and a violator can spend as long as six months in jail.

The longest jail sentence Beall ever heard for an animal abuser was after an incident in 1991. That year on Aug. 31, her birthday, she received a phone call from an Egg Harbor Township woman who said she heard something very bad happen at her McKee City neighbor’s house the night before.

Beall said the neighbor, Lawrence J. Donnelly, would later tell a judge he was drunk when his dog defecated on his carpet. He reacted by wrapping the dog’s leash around a tree in his backyard, shooting an arrow through its eye and then bludgeoning it to death with a hammer for more than an hour.

“I’ve seen bad cases, but this was absolutely heartbreaking,” she said. “And he didn’t even care.”

Beall charged Donnelly with general cruelty. Municipal Court Judge Robert H. Switzer imposed a $250 fine, 150 hours of community service and 90 days in jail, but he all but two days of jail time would be suspended if Donnelly completed his community service.

“I know animal cruelty isn’t really important to some people,” Beall said, “but if you got just one week in jail, you might remember you abused that animal.”

One chapter’s struggles

Beverly Greco, executive director of the Cumberland County SPCA, operates one of the most active groups in the state.

She organizes enforcement efforts in addition to running the 15,300-square-foot shelter the chapter owns on North Delsea Drive in Vineland. So far this year, the Cumberland County SPCA has responded to more than 500 cruelty cases, nearly 100 of which resulted in violations.

The shelter accepted 1,669 dogs in 2009, and 2,809 cats. More than 700 of those dogs were adopted, while 477 were euthanized. Nearly 500 cats were adopted, while about 1,950 were given lethal injections.

Many of the animals are strays brought in by animal control officers with whom the chapter has contracts. Others were surrendered by their owners because they could no longer take care of them.

Still others were rescued from cruelty situations. Greco has adopted two dogs, one sheepdog surrendered by its elderly owner and a poodle rescued from a cruelty case.

The group had more than  $1 million in revenue in 2008, its most recently available financial reporting form shows, and $2.4 million in assets. It receives most of its money through donations, government contracts for its shelter services and half of all the fines assessed.

But Greco said the chapter still struggles to deal with a problem that has only seemingly grown worse. The Cumberland chapter has been overrun with abandoned animals in recent years as the state’s poorest county is hit hard by the recession, and agents call some of the cruelty cases see appalling.

When asked if she thinks the SPCA has improved dramatically in the past decade, she hesitated briefly. She said it has, but it could be better.

“Is this the best setup? Definitely not,” said Greco. “We work with the system we were handed.”

Contact Lee Procida:

609-457-8707