A Look at Rhode Island's Animal Welfare System

The state has lots of resources, but critics say they don't work together.

On Thanksgiving weekend, Gil Fletcher and Martine Ireland lay a fancy feast for the neighborhood strays. The cottage on East Providence’s Grosvenor Avenue stands at the nexus of the owner’s kind heart and an adjacent school where cat owners often shed themselves of that title. Margaret Tainish and her daughter Elena try their best to feed the abandoned animals haunting their back stoop; neighbors provide shelter in their garages.
But left to their own devices, cats multiply like cats. The state hosts an estimated 75,000 free-roaming felines capable of producing up to 200,000 kittens annually. Their fecundity is almost matched by the rigors of life in the wild; the mortality rate is high. Half of a litter dies in eight weeks; 75 percent of the remainder do not survive six months.
Nonetheless, without human intervention, feral cat colonies will sustain themselves and grow. Snapping open cloths and spooning food into dishes, Fletcher and Ireland bait rectangular traps, as the regulars muster in the shrubbery. A smoky gray male stalks the yard, attracted to the food, but suspicious of the ambiance.
Fletcher and Ireland repair to a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts to wait. The duo are volunteers with PawsWatch, an animal welfare organization dedicated to reducing the feral cat population. Founded in 1997, PawsWatch traps, neuters and vaccinates the adults before returning them to their colonies where they are fed and monitored. The group manages about 750 cats in ninety colonies throughout the state. By 2014, PawsWatch had provided veterinary care to 20,000 cats.
These numbers do not comfort Fletcher. PawsWatch, like many of the animal welfare organizations in the state, is pulling its oars against the river of unwanted dogs and cats. PawsWatch cannot dent the feral cat population without partnerships with municipalities and other groups. Nursing his coffee, Fletcher bemoans the fractionalized world of animal rescue.
“I’ve been on this soapbox for years,” he says. “Rhode Island has an amazing richness of animal welfare resources. The problem is: They can’t work together. They compete; they conflict; they present confusing directives to legislators. It’s internecine fighting.”
That may be a function of changes in the way pets move in and out of homes. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, in 2012, 4 percent of dogs were purchased at pet stores; 85 percent were acquired through a shelter or rescue — organizations without facilities that foster unwanted animals until adoption. Each year, an estimated six to eight million dogs and cats in the United States enter 13,500 sheltering organizations. In Rhode Island, most pets are acquired from the thirty municipal pounds, nine brick-and-mortar private, nonprofit animal shelters and about seventy-five rescues; only a handful of pet stores sell dogs and cats.
“There are so many shelters in this small state, it’s ridiculous,” says Dr. Ernest J. Finocchio, president of the Rhode Island Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “There needs to be consolidation and reciprocity. Alone there is little we can do. Together there is nothing we cannot do to adopt out animals.”
By most accounts, though, the state is managing the dog population adequately. In 2014, the state’s pounds and shelters took in 4,846 dogs. (The number of dogs brought in from unregistered rescue organizations is unknown.) Of those totals, about 15 percent were euthanized because of advanced illness or behavioral problems that made them unadoptable, but not for lack of space. Shelters are not at capacity.
“Everyone’s numbers are going down,” says Carmine DiCenso, executive director of the Providence Animal Rescue League. “If you compare New England’s numbers with the rest of the country, our numbers are lower and going down, because of better laws, better compliance and the availability and accessibility for spaying and neutering.” >>
For example, in July 2010, the Ocean State Animal Coalition (OSAC) opened the Rhode Island Community Spay/Neuter Clinic (RICSNC) with a $350,000 grant from the Rhode Island Foundation. The high-volume, low-cost facility focuses on reducing pet over-population.
Nonetheless, there is tension between rescue organizations, which import dogs from high-kill shelters in the South, and some of the long-established shelters.
“In New England, we don’t deal with our own unwanted dogs, we deal with other states’ unwanted dogs,” says State Veterinarian Dr. Scott Marshall. “A big driver is people are looking for puppies and there are not a lot of puppies in shelters and pounds. There’s some evidence that the rescue groups are a new model for the pet shop industry.”
In many instances, he says, we’ve supplanted pet shops, “a well-regulated industry with a lot of state and federal regulations, and shifted those animals into other channels with less oversight and a lot less transparency.”
In April 2012, outbreaks of the highly infectious canine parvovirus, traced to out-of-state dogs, prompted emergency regulations requiring a five-day quarantine. In the aftermath, Marshall and rescue groups worked on new requirements that created high-risk and low-risk designations for rescue operations. Rescues without a pre-importation vaccination plan are considered high-risk and are required to quarantine their adoptees at municipal shelters.
Defender of Animals’ Dennis Tabella worries that the influx of out-of-state dogs will eventually overcrowd local shelters.

“We should be concentrating on the dogs in our own shelters,” he says. “Instead, some dogs sit in local shelters for months and months while these groups keep bringing up dogs.”

Roie Griego, president of Friends of Homeless Animals, says that well-run rescues ensure that adoptable dogs are in good health and vaccinated and are properly matched to new owners. They also require adopters to sign a contract promising to return the dog to the rescue if they cannot keep it. “We are rescuing dogs from high-kill shelters. They are on death row, and I don’t want to take them from frying pan to the fire. I take this as a very serious responsibility.”

Unwanted cats are a bigger problem, with fewer resources. State figures show that in 2014, 4,996 cats entered shelters; 20 percent were euthanized. Domesticated cats are most commonly affected by rabies. That worries South Kingstown Animal Control Officer Robert Wilson. “You have unvaccinated cats cohabiting with rabid animals,” he says. “Skunks and raccoons come back positive all the time.”

Back at the Dunkin’ Donuts, Ireland checks her phone. “We’ve got three!” Ireland and Fletcher head to the Tainishes’, where the gray male, an orange male and a female are piteously protesting their accommodations. Fletcher loads the cages into his Ford Fusion. On Monday, the cats will go to the clinic to be spayed, neutered and vaccinated, and then returned to East Providence.

Fletcher believes that the state has made a lot of progress in animal welfare. Rhode Island eliminated the gas chamber as a means of euthanasia in 2005. In 2006, the Rhode Island Foundation brought together some of the animal welfare groups with veterinarians and animal control officers to create OSAC to prioritize problems. PawsWatch is working with the town of Tiverton on a two-year demonstration project to implement its Trap-Neuter-Return program. This year, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management issued first-time regulations addressing the care of animals in licensed facilities.

But the fissures remain. A couple of years ago, a Brown University student and students at the Highlander Academy partnered with OSAC to create a special spay/neuter state license plate, with the proceeds supporting RICSNC. Fletcher thought the proposal would sail through the legislative committee meeting. But a representative of another animal welfare group testified against it, and the bill was held for further study.

A voluble man given to elaborate metaphors, Fletcher likens the state’s squabbling animal groups to the creation of our solar system. He envisions one leading organization that, like the sun, could exert enough gravity to nudge these groups in an orderly orbit to attack problems together.

It might not get animal lovers to love other animal lovers, but it might stop them from fighting like cats and dogs.