North Fork Animal Welfare League's Riverhead shelter manager Taylor Dixon with Misty, a stray puppy found wandering in the parking lot at the Riverhead Stop & Shop last weekend. Photo: Alek Lewis

Last weekend, a stray female puppy was found wandering the Stop & Shop parking lot in Riverhead. 

The puppy — now named Misty — did not have a microchip and no owner was on site. As is typical for strays in Riverhead, she was taken into Riverhead’s animal shelter in Aquebogue, run by the North Fork Animal Welfare League.

This year marks a decade of the North Fork Animal Welfare League taking in stray dogs like Misty around Riverhead. It was in 2013 when the nonprofit organization took over the operation of Riverhead’s shelter, which was then run out of a decades-old cement block building near the Youngs Avenue landfill. 

“They’re doing a great job,” said former Council Member Jim Wooten, who was the Town Board liaison to the animal shelter when he was on the board. He said it was his goal to privatize the animal shelter when he was in office.

“We’ve always had protests and stuff in the shelter when the town did it,” Wooten said, characterizing it as a “pro-kill” pound. “You know, the animal [rights] people were upset about the treatment of the animals and the policies that were in place — and rightfully so.”

“So it’s a good thing for a municipality to have a private organization, because they had the expertise, they have the time, they have the networking,” Wooten said. “There’s so many things that they do to give every one of these dogs a chance to survive that the town just can’t do or doesn’t have the time to do.”

Photo: Alek Lewis

The NFAWL and the town reached their first three-year contract in 2012, ending the management of a town-employed animal control officer who reported to the police chief. The contract was extended for another three years and then, in 2019, the town and the nonprofit agreed to a new 10-year contract, ensuring the organization’s footprint in Riverhead will remain through at least the end of the decade.

Other than serving as Riverhead Town’s animal shelter, the no-kill shelter has an open door policy, taking in local strays and other animals without homes, including those living in a nearby municipality’s overcrowded shelter, and rescuing animals from Georgia — a state notorious for its kill shelters. 

Aside from a decade working in Riverhead, the organization — which has also operated the Southold Town animal shelter since 1980 — is celebrating 60 years since its founding. 

North Fork Animal Welfare League’s Aquebogue location on Church Lane, the former Scoshire Kennels Photo: Alek Lewis.

The biggest change over the organization’s 10 years in Riverhead has been its change in location, NFAWL President Leslie Benway said. The town’s animal shelter building was “dilapidated” and in “terrible condition,” she said, making it inadequate. The NFAWL considered several alternatives, including moving the shelter to the Henry Pfeifer Community Center in Calverton, and launched a campaign to raise funds required to renovate the facility. That plan never bore fruit. 

In 2018, the organization bought and moved into the former Scoshire Kennels property on Church Lane in Aquebogue. They immediately started planning a costly renovation project to retrofit the building with a new interior that works better for the needs of the animals and the staff. 

“It’s a big milestone for us,” Benway said of the renovations. “We’re moving a lot more animals, we were able to add cats to our repertoire — so we now save cats in the community. And we have more opportunity to do our outreach to help people spay and neuter and feed animals that wouldn’t necessarily get fed with our community outreach programs.”

The new shelter renovations were completed in 2021. It took many years and a lot of fundraising to make the project happen, Benway said. The old Riverhead animal shelter could only take in dogs and had a limited amount of space for keeping strays. The Aquebogue shelter currently has 28 dogs and roughly 60 cats in its care, according to shelter manager Taylor Dixon. 

The shelter also has two rooms made for prospective adoptive families to meet potential pets. “We are able to show animals better,” Benway said. People looking to adopt “can feel like they’re in their own home as they get to know the animals.”

Leanne Simonsen presents a $5,000 check to NFAWL Riverhead shelter manager Taylor Dixon last month. The foundation also donated dog and cat food. “We were very grateful and appreciative of the donation,” NFAWL President Leslie Benway said

The North Fork Animal Welfare League adopted out approximately 400 animals out of the Aquebogue shelter in 2022, according to Benway. 

Dixon, the shelter manager, said helping people looking to adopt is one of the best parts of her job. “Me and the kennel attendants, we kind of try to find the best match for them based on the information that they’re giving us. So we’re basically like matchmakers,” she said. “And it’s pretty rewarding, being able to go through that. And then we get follow up pictures or videos saying how the dog or cat that they adopted from us is doing great, like even months or years down the line.”

The shelter’s work can also be unpredictable, Dixon said, but it’s something she enjoys. “Basically anything can happen,” she said, before recounting a story where a man said he wanted to surrender two cats to the shelter, only to reveal moments later that he wanted to surrender 17 cats instead. 

Dixon said the organization is always looking for volunteers to help at the shelter, located at 324 Church Lane, including by socializing with animals. NFAWL is always accepting donations of pet products and food. You can also inquire as to how to adopt or volunteer with the NFAWL by visiting the organization’s website

The organization also holds community events. It will host an open house and pet photo with Santa event on Dec. 9 at its Aquebogue shelter from 12 to 3 p.m.. Benway said the organization also hopes to expand its community outreach by working with local school districts to teach students about animal care.

Cats at the North Fork Animal Welfare League shelter facility in Aquebogue. Photo: Alek Lewis
Photo: Alek Lewis
Photo: Alek Lewis

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: