TOMS RIVER — A tiny eight-year-old puppy named Gunner slipped off his collar within minutes of being adopted from Toms River Animal Facility in December 2020. His story ends differently than some of the many animals rescued during the pandemic.
Local resident Hilary Cohen has had more time at home due to the imposition of lockdowns and COVID-19 restrictions. An animal lover since childhood, Cohen decided to make an appointment at the city animal shelter to offer her a forever home.
“I used to travel a lot for work and just wasn’t around enough for a pet,” said Cohen. “I lived with my mother during the pandemic. I knew that even if I had to go somewhere, someone would always be there.”
Cohen actually grew up around big dogs and describes Gunner as a really tough little guy who weighs a full sixteen pounds. Not everyone tries to rescue older dogs, which gave Cohen even more reason to give Gunner a home. After she signed the adoption papers, Cohen went to her aunt’s house to introduce her new companion.
“Five minutes after I adopted him, Gunner slipped out of his collar and was loose,” Cohen said. “He ran around for six days and it seemed like everyone in Toms River was looking for that dog.”
Volunteers from Toms River Animal Facility alerted the public that they needed help locating Gunner. They suspected the puppy was extremely scared and would run away from anyone other than someone from the shelter.
Ultimately, Cohen and Gunner were reunited on Gunner’s birthday. The two are now inseparable, although that doesn’t mean it was an easy transition and shows the true meaning of unconditional love.
Gunner spent the first five years of his life in a hoarding situation, hiding in sofa cushions. An elderly woman then adopted Gunner and brought him back to the shelter when she moved.
“To me, Gunner is the best dog in the world,” Cohen boasted. “My family is afraid of him. He is very aggressive when it comes to protecting our house and me. He bites and lunges, and as cute as he is, he’s a little creepy.”
Undoubtedly, Gunner’s past trauma caused problems similar to those of abused or abandoned children. Cohen set Gunner up with dog training and made arrangements with his vet to put him on a doggy Prozac treatment. Now that Cohen is back to work, she also enlists the services of Crystal Ann Hendricks, a pet owner who works as a kennel attendant at Toms River Animal Facility.
“Of the three trainers I’ve worked with with Gunner, one told me to take him back to the shelter,” Cohen admitted. “Another told me that 95 percent of people would have returned it.”
“To me, an animal is part of the family whether I like it or not,” Cohen continued. “That does not happen.”
Cohen’s attitude is likely to be the exception, as observations at the shelter confirm.
Hendricks started out as a volunteer at the local animal shelter before securing her position as a part-time kennel attendant.
“I started volunteering when COVID first surfaced,” Hendricks said. “The facility then stopped volunteers as we were not allowed to enter the building. I started my job there in August last year.”
“We’ve definitely been on a rollercoaster ride, starting with an influx of adoptions,” Hendricks continued. “Everyone was unemployed; They had time and wanted the pets.”
At one point, the shelter only had five or six dogs available for adoption. The number has already increased to an average of 16 to 18 dogs as people return or abandon rescued animals during the pandemic.
“We just started finding loose, stray and abandoned dogs,” Hendricks shared. “A lot of people came in and had to give up their dogs because they were coming back to work and didn’t want them sitting around the house alone for fifteen hours.”
The Toms River Animal Facility is unique in many ways. First, they are one of only four in the state that are community-run.
The building not only offers shelter for cats and dogs, but also for other animals such as rabbits. When a squirrel is injured in Toms River, local authorities transport it here to help.
“We also don’t kill animals without a medical reason,” Hendricks said. “For example, we recently euthanized a little cockatoo that was suffering from severe kidney failure.”
Some of the animals that end up at the shelter are given up because of their physical ailments. Not all owners are open to the institution and admit that their pets suffer from a disease. They may be embarrassed that they cannot afford medical treatment.
Hendricks says she sheds tears of joy whenever an animal leaves with the hope of a “forever” home.
“We sent home a pit bull today that has been with us for a little over eight months,” Hendricks shared. “Graham had a meet and greet the day before and his owners were keen to take him home.”
Those interested in adopting an animal should contact the shelter to schedule an appointment by calling 732-341-1000 extension. 8450. The facility is located at 235 Oak Avenue and is open daily from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.