44 dead dogs in freezers: NJ neighbors complained for months
SHAMONG — Authorities this week found 44 dead dogs wrapped in plastic and stored in freezers in a woman's home, where 161 other dogs were living in deplorable conditions.
But months earlier, neighbors had been sounding the alarm about the animal activity on the property of 65-year-old Donna Roberts. Enough so that the governing body adopted a new law that paved the way for inspectors to come to her home and make the grisly discovery.
Roberts, 65, was arrested Wednesday after police found the animals in conditions the State Police described as "deplorable and inhumane." Four dogs were determined to be in critical condition and taken to an emergency veterinary clinic.
The remaining dogs are being taken to animal shelters around the state, including the Monmouth County SPCA, Cape May County Animal Shelter, St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center, Atlantic County Canines, the Burlington County Animal Alliance and the Animal Welfare Association.
Erine Lazos, a neighbor who said he bought the house next to Roberts about a year ago, got the ball rolling on the ordinance that led to Wednesday's arrests.
"I don't know if I feel better today or worse. Knowing that something was going on becomes a lot worse when you actually see it. My wife has not stopped crying since she has been seeing the stuff that's coming out of that house," Lazos said.
Lazos, a doctor with a practice in Voorhees, at first didn't think much of the barking that he heard coming from Roberts' yard.
But as the weather got colder and the trees between the properties shed their leaves last year, the animal noises got louder and things didn't look right, he said.
Lazos said he went to Township Administrator Susan Onorato to discuss his concerns. Lazos said Onorato suggested putting up trees on the property line to block out the noise.
"Really? Put up some trees after the stuff you saw coming out of there yesterday? Trees are going to block that?" Lazos said this week.
His concern increased when he woke up early one morning in late December and said he saw dozens of puppies crying outside Roberts' home. He took a voice recording to an animal welfare shelter. He was referred to several agencies including the Burlington County SPCA, which was in the process of disbanding at the time.
Lazos also filed a noise complaint against Roberts. Roberts and Lazos got into an argument at the township office after she told him that she had 73 licensed dogs, many of which had not been neutered.
Lazos said he began his own investigation into Roberts.
"This isn't just a noise issue anymore. It goes a lot deeper," he recalls thinking.
A chance meeting with another neighbor and the Shamong code enforcement officer led to the idea of getting an ordinance to prohibit the type of situation that existed in Roberts' yard. The Burlington County Prosecutor's Office, Sheriff's Office and Health Department were all aware of Roberts but there was nothing they could do because of the lack of a law, Lazos said.
Brian Hackett, New Jersey director of the Humane Society of the United States, also got involved with developing the ordinance regulating large kennel operations. The law calls for inspections of properties with at least 15 dogs that are at least 6 months old.
"There was an obvious amount of concern over what was happening on the property not only by the residents who lived nearby and were suffering day in and day out but by the town officials and other groups both in-and-out of the town," Hackett said.
Hackett said that Roberts has been a concern to animal rights advocates going back to the 1990s.
"There was a NJ Division of Consumer Affairs investigation, which looked into allegations of failure to comply with the Consumer Fraud Act and other state laws. In 2015, she plead guilty to operating a kennel without a supervising veterinarian. A national breeding club suspended Roberts and her breeding partner for violations of their standards," Hackett said.