A group of volunteers has removed the longtime directors of the , six weeks after filing a lawsuit claiming the previous directors mismanaged funds and mistreated animals placed in their care.
Former board members Nina Ryan, her husband John Ryan and Marcia Halley were the . Volunteers at the shelter claimed the Ryans, who controlled the shelter for more than 20 years, had been renting space on the facility for personal gain while keeping animals in "deplorable" conditions. The suit also said fundraising efforts were non-existent as was any visible effort to have animals adopted from the shelter.
The lawsuit also sought $150,000 in damages accrued over the years, but has been settled with the Ryans maintaining they did nothing wrong, said newly elected board president Eric Lobel. The settlement did result in all three former directors retiring from their positions to allow for an election of new board members to take place, Lobel said. A new 15-member board, comprised mostly of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, was elected on June 6.
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Lobel said he is confident the facility will be rebuilt into a shelter the community can be proud of, saying he views the change in leadership as an opportunity to move forward.
“It’s a new day at Harrison’s animal shelter,” said Lobel, who was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “For the longest time no one knew what went on here and many local residents don’t even know we exist. We want to transform it into a world-class rescue center and get the word out that these animals need our help.”
With the previous directors gone, Lobel said the effort to rebuild both the actual facility and its image within the community will begin immediately. After last week's elections the new board placed a sign in front of the property at 7 Harrison Avenue announcing the change in management.
A project to enlarge the current dog kennels and create a large outdoor play area for the animals has already begun. Lobel said volunteers have already paid out of pocket to bring sick animals to the vet, clean the entire complex and walk dogs every day since gaining access to the facility in January.
Under the new leadership Lobel said he hopes to introduce new training programs for the animals and bring in more volunteers to help maintain regular walk and exercise schedules, along with a new social media strategy to promote adoption and raise funds.
"Make no mistake, when we are done this place is going to be a world-class facility that both the Town of Harrison and the county of Westchester can be proud of," Lobel said.
The shelter currently cares for about 30 dogs and 45 cats and Lobel said one of the immediate goals will be to raise money to pay off inherited debt while continuing the care for the animals. Funds are also needed to repair a home on the property that has been condemned by the Harrison Building Department.
The site has also been operating without a license since Jan. 1, said Caren Halbfinger, a spokesperson at the Westchester County Department of Health. The Ryans were in the process of applying for a new permit when news of the lawsuit broke in early May.
Lobel said the situation the new directors inherit is a difficult one, but said he is confident that with the help of the community the shelter can thrive in the near future.
“This is an energetic and dedicated team of volunteers committed not just to fixing the place up but to creating something special. But the reality is that the conditions we’ve entered into are incredibly difficult,” he said. “We have a lot to overcome to make this a healthy environment that nurtures the animals and contributes to the community.”
Anyone interested in making a donation can do so on the Westchester Shore Humane Society website, or by stopping at the shelter to walk a dog or play with the animals. Lobel said taking the dogs for walks and playing with the animals plays a key role in getting them adopted, which is the ultimate goal of any animal shelter.
"The dogs, before they never saw the light of day," he said. "Now they are being walked at least two times a day."
With the help of the community, Lobel said he hopes to continue improvements and make the humane society one that is an important and well-functioning part of town.
"We are going to dot all of those I's and cross all of those T's," he said. "We want a place for the community to be proud of."