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Pit bulls bitten by bare-bones budget

May 15, 2013

One of the many pit bulls at the Woonsocket Animal Shelter receives a treat from Animal Control Officer Doris Kay Wednesday.

WOONSOCKET – In a city flirting with bankruptcy, even stray dogs and cats are feeling the squeeze.

Animal Control Officer Doris Kay says her supply budget of $6,000 wasn’t enough to feed sheltered pets this year, but she’s facing a cut of some 16 percent in the weeks ahead.

While private donors are expected to help fill the food gap, there’s no relief in sight for another precious commodity at the animal control facility off Cumberland Street: space.

A proposal to build an addition on the shelter that would double the number of dog cages is off the books for the foreseeable future. The Woonsocket Police Department asked for $500,000 Community Development Block Grant to increase the shelter capacity to 24 dogs, but Planning Director Paulette Miller says the CDBG Advisory Board has determined the city faces more urgent priorities.

Most of the projected $1.2 million CDBG allotment for fiscal 2014 is already committed to pay leases on two fire trucks and make debt service payments on construction loans for the Woonsocket Middle School complex. And some of the budgeted programs, including social supports like Meals on Wheels and the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, might have to be revisited.

“The grant is based on an estimate of what we received this year, but HUD is telling us to expect a five percent cut because of federal sequestration,” said Miller.

Located on a hidden spit of land overlooking the Blackstone River, next door to the Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant, the cinderblock shelter has been decried as functionally obsolete and overcrowded. The police pushed for more space this year after a series of drug raids in which they encountered more pit bulls than the shelter had room for – 14 dogs in one apartment alone, according to Chief Tom Carey.

“It happened twice at the same apartment,” he said. “We sent the landlord a letter. We told him you have to straighten your tenants out.”

While all but two of the dogs were eventually adopted, the city borrowed shelter space from the town of Lincoln and the Rhode Island Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in East Providence to temporarily house some of the dogs, according to Police Capt. Michael Lemoine.

“We’ll run into this problem again,” he says. “We can’t rely on our neighboring towns to be there for us consistently. There is a need.”

Lemoine says the proposal to expand the shelter was part of a two-pronged strategy to step up enforcement against unregistered or problematic pit bulls.

After pits bulls attacked several members of a family on Sayles Street last year, the City Council considered a legislative crackdown modeled after a pit-bull control law on the books in Pawtucket.

Recently, the proposal was tabled for further study. Lemoine says it’s difficult to step up enforcement of illegal pit bulls if the city doesn’t have room to shelter them.

There are 13 chain-link “runs” at the animal control facility and yesterday eight of them were occupied by canine tenants. There were also 11 cats in an isolated room indoors.

Five of the dogs were pit bulls and another was a related breed, an American Bull Terrier. One of the pit bulls belongs to a man who was critically wounded by gunfire on the Fairmount Street Bridge several weeks ago. Kay is still waiting for someone to claim the friendly pet.

Kay, who once lost nearly a year of work after her arm was mangled by a pit bull, says the dogs are a serious problem. Pit bulls and related breeds have become the most popular dog in the city, but officials say they are responsible for an inordinate number of attacks on humans and other pets. A pit bull bit a policeman responding to a report of a family quarrel just last week.

The dog population at the shelter is “always over half” pit bulls, according to Kay. Because the census is dominated by so many big dogs, smaller dogs are usually placed in foster care while awaiting permanent adoptions, for safety reasons.

The most common reason pit bulls land in the pound is because they are found running loose and their owners never claim them, she says. Contrary to popular perception, pit bulls are quite adoptable and make good pets, but some do have to be euthanized because of poor temperaments or health problems.

The shelter took in about 160 dogs last year and was successful in gaining placements for about 89 percent of them, Kay says. About 20 dogs were put down.

The limited capacity of the shelter contributes to the euthanization rate, according to Kay.

“I only take in what I can handle,” says the animal control officer. “If the shelter was bigger, I’d take in more. I’d do more. I’d be able to help more animals. I’d be able to adopt more animals, and I might be able to make a dent in the stray cat population.”

But Kay says there are other good reasons to step up enforcement against pit bulls, or even their owners. She says there is evidence that some Woonsocket pit bull owners are raising the dogs to fight for stakes, which is illegal. She says she has found discarded animal carcasses with apparent fight wounds and other signs of fight-training, including teething swings dangling in local backyards.

Kay says there’s no evidence that organized dog fights are going on in Woonsocket, but she believes there are dogs kept here for fights that take place in Providence.

In neighboring Pawtucket, Animal Control Officer John Holmes, a prominent advocate for the humane treatment of animals, says the city’s state-of-the-art shelter in Slater Park has 49 caged runs for dogs. Even though Woonsocket’s human population is around half that of Pawtucket, Holmes says the capacity of Woonsocket’s animal control facility is “absolutely not” sufficient to meet the needs of a city its size.

Before 2009, Pawtucket was operating out of a shelter that had 19 runs for dogs. Pits bulls were so problematic that city residents overwhelmingly supported a $2 million bond issue to build the new shelter. The successful bond referendum, coupled with a new law that outlawed all new pit bulls in the city after 2003, have helped slow the euthanization rate of dogs to a trickle.

“Unfortunately, a lot of these shelters have to euthanize a lot of animals because they’re so small,” he said. “I’ve always believed that’s the wrong reason to put down an animal.”

Before the new shelter was built, Holmes said about 40 percent of all the dogs taken in by the city were ultimately being euthanized. By contrast, Holmes says the city probably euthanized fewer than five dogs in all of 2012.

“We love pit bulls,” says Holmes. “We put this ordinance in effect not just to protect people, but to protect the dogs.”

Capt. Lemoine says he is not optimistic that the police department will be able to persuade the state-appointed budget commission to free up money to expand the animal shelter any time in the foreseeable future. But he says the problem isn’t likely to go away and he predicts the police will resurrect their petition for funds in the future.

“We’ll try again next year,” he said.

@russolivo

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