By Ricki Demarest
Denville Township Animal Control Officer Meredith Petrillo once spent five days of her life wrangling 185 cats. She has kept swans in her bathtub, fawns in her yard, and ducklings in her kiddie pool. One Halloween night, Petrillo and local police performed an intricate reunion between a mother bear and treed cubs. Costumed children continued to trick or treat nearby. Denville Mayor Tom Andes recently said he will never forget how Petrillo extricated a trapped squirrel from a car hood – eighteen years ago. “It was stuck between the radiator and the fan and it was mad,” Andes said. “I watched her manipulate that squirrel with the greatest of care. We are lucky to have her.”
The words of her husband Gary Petrillo underlined his wife’s passion for her vocation. “She’s the most dedicated person regarding animal control. It’s her life, its 24-seven,” he stressed. “She gets a call and she’s out. She’s concerned for the animals more than anything else.”
“In all honesty she has the biggest heart in the world for anybody who can do this job. It comes naturally,” Petrillo emphasized. In addition to serving as the township’s Animal Control Officer, Meredith Petrillo is the Director of the Morris County Animal Response team and a member of the state’s Venomous Snake Response Team. She has forged a network of other local and regional animal shelters to rescue and rehome lost and abandoned pets. Two immensely popular Denville Township animal shelter fundraisers she has helped launch are the bi-annual Dogs Gone Wild event and Denville’s Lunar New Year parade. Both immensely popular affairs are only two examples of Petrillo’s successful efforts to educate the public about animal needs and behaviors.
Meredith Petrillo’s lifelong dedication to animals began in childhood. She grew up catching and releasing snakes and turtles every chance she got. At the age of five, a pivotal encounter with a black bear sparked joy and fascination that she still feels when working with furry neighbors. “We were living on the west side of Cedar Lake and my Mom was in the kitchen,” she explained. “I looked out the window and saw what I thought was my neighbor’s black Labrador Retriever walking up the road. I went running out to catch it. My mom, not far behind me, started yelling ‘That’s not a dog that’s a bear!’
Petrillo continued, “I was scooped up by a passerby and told never to do that again. Well, you can never tell a 5-year-old not to do that again. I just waited until I could do this as a job along with helping all animals.”
After high school, she became a Veterinary Technician at the Bedminster Animal Hospital. She married and had twins in July of 1984. Six months later, she was back to work part time. In 1991, Petrillo studied and became a certified Animal Control Officer. After working part time in three towns for years, Denville Township hired her as a full time Animal Control Officer within the Township’s Health Department in 1999. She began carrying out the tasks of animal licensing, animal control and running the available animal shelter. “The laws were evolving in the animal control world, animals were becoming more and more the family member and not the working animals they were in the past,” Petrillo noted. “Animal cruelty was becoming more public, people were reporting animals not being cared for the way the law provides.” Transferred to the police department, she said the force welcomed her with open arms. Petrillo also became an animal cruelty investigator in 2002.
“The support I receive from the police and township as a whole allows me to do a job that I love to do.” Petrillo emphasized that she is a civilian who is empowered to enforce local and state animal welfare laws. “People don’t like me when I issue summonses,” she said. “I try to respect people. Everybody has different views. People think I’m gruff but I’m only one person. I don’t have time to pussyfoot around. The law is the law.”
In 2004, Petrillo found an innovative way to enforce one of those laws. She came up with the idea for a township dog park in order to curtail the issue of dogs running ‘at large.’ As a township councilman, Andes admitted that he didn’t get why Petrillo wanted money to fence in a doggy play area. “I couldn’t comprehend that much money for dogs,” he said. “She said to me ‘I’m going to have this event – Dogs Gone Wild. She promised us she would raise the money and she would pay back the money for the fence,” Andes said. “I went over there, and I walked in and I was sold in about a minute. I saw happy dogs and happier people.”
Since then, the bi-annual Dogs Gone Wild has become a much-loved canine and owner extravaganza. The next Dogs Gone Wild is scheduled for Sat. May 11 at Cooks Pond. Terrie Carr, WDHA 105.5 FM’s Program Director and Midday Host serves as the official DJ for the day. “Rock listeners love their pets so getting a day out with their dog, running free and meeting other pet owners is something they love to do,” Carr stated recently. “We have had such great feedback from people who really appreciate an event that tires their pups out so much too!”
Carr claimed that Petrillo is the “backbone of animal welfare in this area.” She has become friendly with Petrillo after working with her on several animal adoption projects. “I had heard quite a bit about Meredith’s contribution to the community shortly after I started WDHA’s Rock N’ Ruff program in 2010,” Carr said. “We decided to do an adoption day right at the station about a year after the program started and she reached out to me to offer to bring her trailer so we could properly showcase cats that day. I was still learning about shelter rules, safety and how to put together a pet event. Her trailer was a smashing success and many cats and kittens found homes that day.”
“Meredith is a great teacher and does her job with a purity of heart that is sometimes hard to find. For her, it is all about the animals. Their well-being, dignity and care,” Carr said.
Carr and some of her co-workers have adopted animals through Petrillo. Her “precious Rosie” was one of Petrillo’s many fortunate rescue animals. Meanwhile Petrillo remains an ever-popular guest on Carr’s Rock N’ Ruff radio show and podcast. “I rely on her expertise as an animal control officer if I have questions,” Carr explained. “She is always a great interview because she speaks from the heart. Doesn’t sugar coat anything and is open and honest.”
Meanwhile, The Happy Hound Playground has flourished as evidence of Denville Township’s culture of animal care and education. After selling the petless Andes on the idea he said his son Joe helped with the project. “My youngest son was looking for an Eagle Scout project. He designed and built all the equipment for the agility area,” the mayor explained. In the process, Joe Andes became both a dog owner and great friends with Petrillo.
The Happy Hound Playground has expanded and relocated over the years, another example of Petrillo’s communication skill. It is a controlled facility. Dogs using the park must be friendly, disease free and have current vaccinations. “The police and I patrol the park. Just this year we have purchased security cameras that allow us to view the entire dog park along with the parking lot and a view of the turf field,” Petrillo emphasized. “The dog park has lights which allow dog owners to come up to 9:30 p.m. The park has three areas – a large dog area, a small dog area and a training agility area.” Denville residents pay $35 to use the park. Non-residents pay $50.
When she’s not out on a call, Petrillo can be found at the township’s animal shelter building. Opened in 1997, the no-kill shelter has hosted goats, chickens, pigs, pythons, and tarantulas along with plenty of dogs, cats and rabbits.
Recently, a large lizard rested comfortably in its cage while two rabbits, a tank full of fish, two dogs and a room full of cats waited for their forever homes. The main portion of the shelter has three indoor-outdoor dog runs and two standing cages. There is an isolation ward for new arrivals. Cats have a separate room with climbing equipment and bedding in each cage. The shelter boasts a donated washer-drier unit and an entire donated kitchen, along with a special bath tub. Paul Sedlacek, DVM from the Animal Clinic of Morris Plains provides low cost veterinary care for the shelter. He also maintains a disease control program for the shelter and low cost spay/neuter services.
Deb Clark has worked at the shelter with Petrillo since 2012. “I go in the door and I’m glad to be there and help with the animals. It’s a little labor of love. We have our chores every day,” Clark noted. “I take care of everything. We have a couple of volunteers who come in and help.” Cleaning dishes, doing laundry, feeding animals and cleaning out their cages takes more than her paid two hours a day. Fortunately, Clark stated that Denville is full of animal lovers who provide a steady supply of food, toys, bedding and towels. “Girl scout troops do donations. Small children will donate to the shelter instead of (getting) birthday presents!”, she said.
Although Clark enjoys caring for the creatures, she said she and Petrillo are always thrilled to place them. The shelter has its own Facebook page. Clark said it does a splendid job of getting the word out about the shelter’s residents. The shelter does not charge an adoption fee, accepting donations instead. Petrillo said that while 95 percent of the dogs she picks up are claimed by their owners, only one percent of the cats are. An average of 65 animals are adopted from the township’s shelter every year. Through the years, Petrillo has forged relationships with other regional municipal and private animal shelters. “Denville Township allows us to assist other shelters that have overcrowding, a disaster or animal hoarding incidents by providing space if we have enough room,” she said. “The big question everyone asks is are we no kill – yes – we are no kill.”
Volunteers are always welcome at the shelter and Petrillo noted that they are a huge part of the facility’s success. She has steady help with dog walking and two young ladies who are always there on the weekends. One very young volunteer has donated her time by reading books to the dogs and cats. Petrillo did say that all the animals, especially the cats, could use more interaction with male volunteers. Interested volunteers can call (973) 627-4900 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
When Petrillo isn’t working to reunite people with their domestic animals, she helps people co-exist with local wildlife. “Most animals are in our residential neighbors for one thing – food. Removal of that food source will assist in the removal of that animal,” Petrillo explained. “I have had raccoons with peanut butter jars stuck on their heads. Deer getting into fenced in yards unable to get out, skunks, raccoon’s baby duck and fawns getting into swimming pools unable to get out.” In addition, she said, owls, bats, and birds get into homes through the fireplace. The Animal Clinic of Morris Plains also provides free care to injured and orphaned wildlife.
While Petrillo said she tends to get more calls for wild animals than domestic ones that are running wild, licensing a pet is vital to its overall health and well-being.
“First the tag you receive from the townships is a visible sign the dog or cat is current on its rabies shot,” she explained. “If this tag is seen then the person bitten by that animal knows there is a good possibility that the animal is current on its rabies shot and will have time for animal control to locate the animal before the human has to start shots. The second reason is if your pet gets out and is located by another resident, police or animal control will be able to expedite the return before the animal is taken to the shelter.”
Unlicensed animals garner summonses for owners. This year Denville is offering a three-year dog license. Three hundred have been issued to date. Petrillo said she licenses about 2,600 dogs each year.
“I love educating people on what they should be doing,” Petrillo said in summation of her job. “My ultimate goal is to educate people to where I wouldn’t have a job.” Considering the immense role Petrillo plays in public education, whether on a one on one basis or through public speaking she should be busy helping animals and people for a long time to come.