By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
EXETER – What was to have been a typically dull town council work session on the budget Monday night often devolved into a shouting match over the firestorm of controversy engulfing the Exeter Animal Shelter.
“It’s a disaster out there,” admitted Councilman Dan Patterson before the meeting which drew a standing-room-only crowd of angry residents who pelted Patterson and two other members – Arlene Hicks and William Monahan – with questions about the facility’s management. (Council members Calvin Ellis and Raymond Morrissey Jr., who is the liaison to the shelter, were both on vacation.)
The once highly-regarded Exeter Animal Shelter was built in 1999 and traditionally functioned as a no-kill operation staffed by paid part-timers and heavily reliant on a devoted band on volunteers. The facility has come under attack following the euthanization last week of two dogs deemed unadoptable.
As news of the killings began to circulate, the issue went viral: the internet exploded over the weekend with furious postings on craigslist and Facebook; an online petition had garnered thousands of signatures nationwide as of press time.
Besides the killings, volunteers insisted that, under a recently-hired animal control officer’s practices, dogs are no longer being regularly walked and, on Thursdays when the shelter is closed, the animals are forced to sit all day in their own excrement.
At the heart of the matter is a toxic relationship between many of the volunteers and Jutta Lucas, the new ACO, whose judgment and qualifications were already being questioned before the two dogs were put down.
The majority of the internet postings were from people calling for her dismissal and urging residents to vote town council members out of office because of they hired and continue to support her.
“I’m sorry to say,” wrote one, “I think everyone has lost sight of what was truly in the best interests of the animals.”
Amber Bloschichak, who started the online petition, added, “This is my home town. I’m outraged.”
The shelter has other issues as well.
At Monday’s meeting, Monahan said he made a surprise inspection at the South County Trail pound where he discovered filthy medication dispensers that were being reused until he insisted they be thrown out. In the garage, he said he found two freezers full of animal carcasses which he had hauled away and cremated.
Moreover, the Standard-Times has learned that the Friends of the Exeter Animal Shelter, a committee that raised funds to build the shelter and takes animals to special events to promote adoption, has lost its tax exempt status after failing to file the required annual paperwork.
Kelly Patton, the organization’s president, said, “The committee has hired an attorney and an accountant to get things in order and get our non-profit status back. Fundraising is on hold.” She acknowledged the divisiveness that exists between the volunteers and shelter management.
Once the non-profit status was lost, she added, the town council demanded that the books be turned over. Because it’s a separate entity not under council purview, the group refused.
At an April 10 meeting, Patton said, Monahan yelled at people voicing their concerns, saying “If you don’t like our rules, don’t volunteer.”
“I got up and walked out,” said Patton. (At Monday night’s meeting, Monahan acknowledged the quote; later he apologized for offending people.)
Hicks, the council president, started the session by reading the first paragraph of the shelter policies and procedures, adopted in 2005, that provide reasons for euthanizing animals. Among them are sickness, aggressive behavior and the designation “unadoptable.”
She’s concerned, she said, because “a lot of things I personally read [on the internet] are not the facts as we on the town council know them.” She assured the crowd “we have no intention of changing the no-kill status” and insisted there are no animals scheduled for death.
The decision to euthanize the two dogs was “not made lightly,” she said. “We’re not happy that it had to be done. It was done very humanely. We’re trying very hard as a council to improve things at the shelter.”
Patterson, adamant in his defense of Lucas’ hiring from among 12 applicants, added that he, Hicks and Monahan had spent a lot of time at the pound during the past week. Hicks said of Lucas, “We stand behind her [but] we realize there are things that do need addressing.”
Two women in the audience displayed signs covered with red palm prints suggesting the dogs’ blood is on the council members’ hands. One sign criticized Lucas and another read, “Town Council. Guilty.”
The two animals put down, Sadi and Ruby, were pit bull mixes with histories of being abused and having trust issues. One came to Exeter from the Warwick shelter during the 2010 flood; the other was picked up as a stray near Arcadia.
An anonymous volunteer close to the situation said the two dogs were walked often and were starting to make bonds with people.
The decision to euthanize them came after Ruby was adopted by a woman and then killed her grandmother’s small dog; Sadi reportedly bit an animal trainer brought in to evaluate three dogs – the two killed and a third that was spared.
Hicks said Dr. Scott Marshall, the state veterinarian, was consulted and, without seeing the dogs, e-mailed a response. He advised that, based on their history, the two dogs were “very poor candidates” for adoption and the town faced potential liability problems by keeping them.
Many in the audience were dismayed because, they said, shelter personnel should never have adopted out a pit bull to an inexperienced owner who allowed it near a small dog. They also offered the names of a number of organizations and services specializing in pit bull rescue and training.
Two women identified themselves as pit bull experts who work individually with that breed to socialize them, modify their behavior and make them adoptable. They said they’d offered their services at no charge to Exeter Animal Shelter officials but were rebuffed.
Council members seemed appalled that they were unaware of the existence of such programs. Former council member Robert Johnson said, “I am stunned and ashamed that there are all these great resources that nobody knew about.”
He described the uproar at the shelter, enflamed by the internet, as “an embarrassment to us all as a community.”
Reached by phone in Florida, Ellis said, “It’s really a shame. Jutta Lucas seemed like a good fit. [Hiring her] seemed like the right thing to do based on her application. Paperwork appe-ared to be not up to date; there were operational issues at the shelter itself. She seemed to have ideas to put forward.”
Like the other council members, Ellis reiterated that “pit bull rescue was never mentioned” as an alternative. “That issue of a rescue mission for an unadoptable pet never surfaced.”
Monahan admitted “the council dropped the ball” on management matters at the shelter and would endeavor to improve.
Emerging to rally everyone to work together by sharing information and expertise to improve shelter operations was state Rep. Doreen Costa (R-Exeter, North Kingstown), a frequent donor who owns an adopted hedgehog and a recently-acquired half-blind cat.
“There are so many good ideas in this room,” she said. “We need to call and e-mail each other; the town and state should put our heads together. We’re going to have to form a team and meet regularly. We can adopt [out] so many more animals. I can feel the passion here.”
Later she said, “This [controversy] could work to our advantage if we put the energy to good use.”
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN.