By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
EXETER – The latest move in the increasingly intense tug-of-war at the troubled Exeter Animal Shelter can only be termed drastic: a notice has been posted on the facility’s door announcing that, per order of the town council, the services of all volunteers are suspended.
Council president Arlene Hicks says the decision to prohibit volunteers was a direct result of the strife that percolated for weeks before erupting April 23 after the euthanization of two pit bulls at the traditionally no-kill shelter. Howls of protest have continued since then with some of the shelter volunteers at the forefront.
“There are some wonderful volunteers – caring, kind, reliable – but there are others who just have made it an impossible situation,” says Hicks. “The council felt at least for the next couple of weeks, the best thing to do would be not to have [any of them] come into the shelter.”
The council has also taken steps to change the shelter’s e-mail address, making it what Hicks calls “officially a town address [in line with] what all other departments have. It needed to be done; the old one wasn’t a town account.”
Also in the works is a plan to change the locks on the facility “so only the people who should have keys have keys.”
And, in a related matter, the council is seeking bids for veterinary care of shelter animals because the contract with North Kingstown Animal Hospital expired some years ago and, apparently, nobody noticed.
Meanwhile, in the ever-growing war of words focusing on the facility and its paid staff the chasm between the council-supported shelter management and those who want to see change has widened.
Too many opinions are arising, says Hicks, with the Internet full of comments from “people with no connection with Exeter [who] jump right in.” She, herself, was attacked in a recent posting. “Someone,” she reports, “wants to see me hung [sic] in the town square.”
The gloves have definitely come off.
Dennis Tabella, founder and director of Defenders of Animals, a statewide advocacy group, says, “The present atmosphere [at the Exeter shelter] is toxic and it’s hurting the animals, volunteers and potential adopters.”
He also decries the ban on volunteers, insisting the temporary policy “is absolutely wrong.” Tabella supports developing a set of guidelines for operating the shelter and believes the volunteers should be allowed back in while the “process takes place.”
He further recommends that town officials use as a template the West Warwick Animal Shelter whose animal control officer [ACO], Lori Rivard, is “a former veterinary technician and is very familiar with medical and behavior issues with dogs and cats.”
As Tabella is keeping abreast with breaking news at the shelter, a number of participants are meeting to talk over ideas for improving the situation at the facility. One person has turned into an uninvited guest, reportedly making people uncomfortable.
His name is Richard M. Seymour and he is the owner of Waste Away, a septic tank service located on Black Plain Road. More importantly, he has emerged as an outspoken knight in shining armor, defending Jutta Lucas, the town’s embattled ACO.
Seymour, who identifies himself as Lucas’ boyfriend, made his first public appearance on her behalf at the April 23 town council budget work session that turned into a free-for-all.
He stood to defend her, interrupting one woman and accusing her of “spewing” as she pled for better, more civil communication among the factions.
Seymour later arrived at a brainstorming session and, as participants tried to discuss ideas for programs at the shelter, he steered the conversation to a defense of Lucas and a counterattack on her detractors.
Members of the predominantly-female group say they felt threatened and intimidated by Seymour, whom they describe as “scary.”
He rejects the notion that he’s threatening, saying he’s just “speaking in a declamatory way.” Responding to complaints about his behavior, Seymour maintains, “They can dish it out but they can’t take it. They actually told me to ‘zip it’.”
While Lucas “doesn’t really” want him to speak for her, he says, “she doesn’t stop me either.” Seymour is outraged by what he feels is a vicious campaign against his girlfriend and says he has to speak up because the council has ordered her not to talk to the media. Things are so bad at the shelter, he states, Lucas has received death threats.
“Jutta is in fear of her life. [Councilman] Dan Patterson, Sgt. Brown [Town Sergeant Richard Brown] and I have gone there while she’s working [in order] to protect her.”
Seymour blames the entire Friends of the Exeter Animal Shelter for the “lies” told about Lucas. “She’s supposed to be a murderer and all that. I’m sitting here on the porch and I can see about 30 animals [on her property.] There’s garbage on craigslist that gets transferred to Facebook.”
A relatively new site called Friends of the Exeter ACO has become a Facebook fixture, its author sneering at everyone who has spoken negatively about Lucas. Although widely suspected of being the owner of the page, Seymour denies it.
On the issue of the public outrage over the two euthanized pit bulls, he asks, “If all these [options] are out there for training and socializing the dogs, why didn’t somebody go to the council? Why didn’t one of these Friends adopt the dogs rather than letting them sit in prison [the shelter] for two years?”
After saying he wants “to see everyone get along so they can refocus on getting dogs and cats into ‘forever homes’,” Seymour changes course.
“There will never be peace out there until [Lucas] receives at the very least a public apology and maybe somebody goes to jail.”
Also weighing in is former councilman Robert “Bob” Johnson who has gone on the attack, writing a critical letter to the editor and using a budget hearing to denounce the Standard-Times and, by name, this reporter.
Sounding very much like a man who is running for office – having been voted off the council in the last election – Johnson essentially blames the current state of affairs on another former member, Ken Fernstrom, who was the long-time liaison to the animal shelter.
In a far-ranging phone interview, Johnson complained that newspaper stories “called into question” actions of the council, the state veterinarian and others; defended the newly-instituted requirement that prospective volunteers agree to criminal background checks; insisted that having a long-term contract for veterinary care is illegal; and demanded that a reporter’s confidential sources be named.
Conversely, Johnson stated the shelter situation “ought to be exposed and blow up the whole [issue]. It’s been mismanaged; the whole thing needs to be reviewed. I suggested [having an audit] when I was on the council, similar to what we had done with the collector’s and assessor’s offices. I wanted to do that for animal control and it turned into a big firestorm.
“Should I have gotten into that issue? Maybe, but I just let it go. In the six years I sat on the council, I heard nothing from the volunteers or the liaison [Fernstrom]. Everything was [supposedly] fine. It’s a long-term mess that’s now reaching a boiling point. What it comes down to is the lack of management in the town; without a town manager, nobody keeps up with it. There’s a lot of stuff they [the council] don’t know about.”
He noted that “some of the animal control people” feel he shouldn’t have been voted out of office.
Since the contentious April meeting, the council has drafted two changes to the Code of Ordinances that would put the director of public works in charge of the shelter, with employees reporting to him.
A public hearing on the proposed amendments is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. next Tuesday in the program room of the Exeter Library. Council president Hicks says she expects a vote to be taken.
One woman, active in private animal rescue and a member of the Friends of the Exeter Animal Shelter’s advisory sub-committee, likens the council’s action to a lateral pass in football.
“This is the council’s attempt to dump the responsibility for the whole mess on someone else [DPW]” thus evading any attempt “to clarify what they mean and what they are committed to.”
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN.