By Brian Zahn / Aug. 4, 2021
HAMDEN — Could a new animal shelter be the tail that wags the dog this election? Possibly.
Mayoral candidates challenging incumbent Mayor Curt Balzano Leng for his job, as well as other advocates, claim the mayor has dragged his feet for years on establishing a town-owned animal shelter.
“The reason this issue has been ongoing since 2005 is simply because animals don’t vote,” said Leonard Young, leader of Gimme Shelter, the fundraising and advocacy group that encourages the town to act on establishing a Hamden shelter without contracting for cages from shelters in other municipalities.
So far, the town has set aside $400,000 in capital spending for the project. Even though plans have been drawn up by officials, the Leng administration has not put anything forward to the Legislative Council.
“The money is there, there’s just nobody acting on it,” said Young. “We could’ve had three animal shelters on the money we spent on outsourcing.”
But Leng said he supports the idea of a regional shelter with North Haven, an idea proposed in 2015 that fell through once before. He said New Haven leaders also have shown interest in a regional shelter.
“It’s gonna cost a significant amount of money if we go it alone,” Leng said. “In order to create the kind of place that we would like to provide … it’s going to cost substantially more than the $400,000 that we currently have, so having additional partners working on it would bring substantially more to the table.”
Gimme Shelter has asked other mayoral candidates to commit to finding a location for a new shelter within the first 100 days of their administration. Those candidates said they are heeding the call.
Ron Gambardella, the endorsed Republican mayoral candidate, said he sees a Hamden shelter as not only an opportunity to save money but to generate revenue.
“I see a state-of-the-art facility unlike anything that’s been done in the past,” he said.
Gambardella said he has identified a site on Putnam Avenue that he sees as ideal. He said he envisions an opportunity to turn the shelter into an attraction and revenue opportunity — with cameras to livestream dog interactions to a wide audience, bleachers to create a venue for dog shows and educational opportunities, and a memorial wall for pet owners to memorialize their pets and to generate revenue for the shelter.
Lauren Garrett, the mayoral candidate endorsed by the Hamden Democratic Town Committee, did not name a specific location for a possible shelter, but said the willpower to establish an animal shelter in Hamden is the only component currently missing.
“We have money that’s been set aside for years, $400,000, to find a location, design and build an animal shelter and it is really surprising it’s not happened yet,” she said. “I think it’s just mismanagement that has prevented us from doing this.”
One area she knows Garrett said she is not interested in is Brookvale Park, which had been proposed during prior discussions at the council level. She said the logistical difficulties would drive up the cost of utilities, making it an unwise location.
“Finding a location is the first priority; an animal shelter doesn’t need to be an extravagant building. It needs to serve a couple purposes: you need water, electricity and a sewer to run to it, it needs to be air-conditioned and heated and a safe place for animals,” Garrett said.
“It’s not something difficult for us to build, it’s just really a lack of leadership and getting this across the finish line,” she said.
Brad Macdowall, a councilman also seeking to run for mayor as a Democrat, said he has also committed to the Gimme Shelter 100-day pledge to find a location for a new animal shelter — though he thinks the town can accomplish even more in that amount of time. Picking a location is “in our top priorities when we are in office,” he said.
“We are currently using a number of different facilities, causing a range of different costs to have animals housed there,” he said. “Not only is it outrageously expensive to have our animal control officers driving around the state to house different animals, but it’s also not all of the facilities across the state that are equal in terms of conditions.”
Macdowall said he has several ideas for potential shelter locations, though he would not make a decision before receiving feedback from relevant city department heads and stakeholders such as Gimme Shelter leadership. Like Garrett, Macdowall said Brookvale Park is not on his list.
“There are more people in Hamden closer to the North Haven animal shelter than to Brookvale Park,” he said. “We have to think carefully about the neighborhood and development costs. I am also opposed to building on wetlands, and that’s something that would eliminate some locations.”
Mayoral candidate Peter Cyr, another Democrat seeking to run for mayor, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday, although Young said Cyr has attended Gimme Shelter functions and fundraisers before and he knows the candidate is on board with the 100-day pledge.
For roughly 15 years, Hamden had a working relationship with the North Haven Animal Control Department. However, that relationship has since been reduced to Hamden renting several cages from the North Haven shelter on an annual contract, according to a representative of the North Haven Animal Control Department.
Young said animals picked up by Hamden animal control officers had been housed in a combination of locations — such as North Haven, Branford and Derby. Those shelters charged a per diem for each animal, which he said becomes very costly over time.
Police Chief John Sullivan, however, said that since the town renegotiated the contract with North Haven, Hamden almost exclusively uses that site to house animals. Sullivan said the cost subsequently dropped.
Hamden paid roughly $22,500 to North Haven in 2020 for the service, Leng said.