Township residents questioned Shamong's Township Committee on Tuesday night about why no action was taken sooner against resident Donna Roberts, who was charged with animal cruelty in November.
SHAMONG — It's been more than two weeks since Donna Roberts was chargedwith animal cruelty after officials rescued 161 living dogs and found 44 dead dogs on her township property on Oak Shade Road.
The issue, however, has remained at the top of some residents' minds as over 50 members of the public, including some nonresidents, attended the Township Committee meeting on Tuesday to voice concerns, thoughts of appreciation and a desire to make sure something like this never happens again.
"We heard dogs crying helplessly," said Denise Tollefson, who lives across the street from Roberts.
She and neighbor Tracy Burleson, who lives two houses down the street, said they would call each other on their way to work crying about the awful sounds coming from the house. That's why they said they began attending township meetings in the spring to try and get something changed.
"We couldn't sit by anymore," Burleson said.
The women credited Ernie Lazos and his wife, Bridget, for helping save the dogs.
Lazos, however, didn't want to take any of the credit.
"I didn't do anything, I really didn't," he said. "I just moved in."
Lazos said he and his wife thought they had found their dream home in the township, but shortly after they moved in, they began hearing dogs barking and crying from their neighbor's house. There was one dog in particular, Lazos said, he remembered crying out every time the couple was outside.
"I don't hear him anymore but I miss him," he said. "He was relentless."
Lazos and the fellow neighbors also became relentless as they filed noise complaints against Roberts in 2017 and then began coming to township meetings, which eventually led to an ordinance getting passed that called for inspections of properties with more than 15 dogs and required the property owners to meet certain standards, such as proper room and space for the animals.
Law enforcement officials credited the township for changing its ordinance earlier this year, which allowed them to begin their investigation into the property. It eventually led to a search of the property, removal of the dogs and charges against Roberts.
Mayor Michael Di Croce read a statement Tuesday night that was posted online that apologized to the residents about the "deplorable conditions."
"I am shocked and saddened by the findings and horrible situation recently discovered on the local property where dogs were being kept in deplorable conditions," he said. "I am very thankful for the actions of Dr. & Mrs. (Ernie) Lazos and the many other neighbors who had the courage and interest to see this process through. I personally apologize to all of our neighbors for this aberration."
Di Croce said that in the summer of 2017 there were noise complaints that were sent to the New Jersey State Police. Roberts appeared in municipal court for that and Di Croce said there was a settlement for those complaints.
"Most people think this would have solved the problem," he said.
Di Croce said there were more concerns and more complaints were made in November and December 2017, from Lazos, which began bringing people out to the township committee to work on the ordinance that was officially adopted last month, two weeks before the dogs were rescued.
Some residents, however, questioned township officials on why they didn't act sooner.
"Why did it take so long?" Michael O'Connor said. "I still don't understand it. Why wasn't anything done sooner?"
Di Croce said the township wanted to make sure to balance the rights of property owners with the concern over the animals' well being.
One message from everyone, however, was the desire to make sure this wouldn't happen again.
Lazos said he and his wife are still affected by the situation.
"We moved into a pretty horrific situation," he said. "We're still plagued by it."
New Jersey State Police arrested Roberts, 65, and charged her with animal cruelty in November. She was released pending a court date.
All but four living dogs were transported to local shelters after initial screenings and checks were done on the animals by the Burlington County Animal Shelter on the property. Out of the four that were in critical condition and had to be cared for, three are in the process of getting ready to be able to be adopted, Di Croce said, while one passed away.
The rescued living dogs went to the Burlington County Animal Shelter, Monmouth County SPCA, Cape May County Animal Shelter, St. Hubert's Animal Welfare, Atlantic County Canines, the Burlington County Animal Alliance and the Animal Welfare Association. The dogs that were sent to the county shelter have either all found permanent or temporary homes, county spokesman Jason Tosches said.
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