The Massachusetts Department of Agriculture had been documenting inhumane and dangerous conditions at the Sweetpea Friends of Rutland Animals facility for years before it caught on fire last month, killing 37 animals. Sweetpea is a registered 501c3 and registered as a rescue with the state.
In 2013, state inspectors expressed concerns that Sweetpea was overcrowded, the cages were too small for any dogs over 25 pounds, and the animals were being warehoused. Some dogs had been at the facility for 10 months at the time of the inspection. Sweetpea was importing dogs from out of state and over half the dogs were large in size, some from a greyhound rescue. Some of the animals were boarders. The manager told the inspectors that she constantly monitored Craigslist for animals who had been adopted from Sweetpea whom the adopters were attempting to rehome instead of returning them to the facility. A husky at the facility was one such dog.
The dogs had no barriers between them other than chain link resulting in bitten ears, tails and paws. Dogs were exhibiting “long term institutionalized behaviors” such as circling and biting the cage wire. A veterinarian accompanying the inspectors advised the manager that Sweetpea should house a maximum of 20 dogs at any given time but the manager said she could house 50 and indicated dogs could be placed in stacked cat cages if necessary.
Cats were being housed in the same room with dogs, also in chain link cages. Many were feral cats whom the manager had trapped and neutered but never returned, explaining that she planned to tame them. There was no isolation for sick animals and no quarantine for unvetted animals.
Sweetpea did not hold a kennel license at that time and the manager wanted to start accepting animal control contracts from municipalities. A state inspector advised that no municipal agreements could be made without the kennel license. Sweetpea went ahead anyway and began housing impounded animals from municipalities, later obtaining the kennel license.
In 2014, inspectors noted that the feral cats had reportedly been at the facility for more than 2 years. Multiple cats were crammed into each cage, some cages had 4 cats who were unable to move. The dog kennels were still too small for the many large dogs who had to stand in the kennels with 2 feet on the floor and the other 2 on the bed, which took up most of the floor space. The dogs banged into the walls if they tried to turn around. Outdoor runs were available but not in use. The cats were still stuck in the middle of the room with the dogs. All the animals were severely stressed and the “noise level was extreme”. Questions arose about Sweetpea running a for-profit boarding and grooming business without a license.
Inspectors were specifically concerned with the fire hazard represented by the massive clutter inside Sweetpea, noting that the old building had never been updated, did not have sprinklers and the condition of the electrical wiring was unknown.
On November 19, 2015, the state inspector noted that conditions were unchanged: dogs were fence fighting in the cramped kennels, cats were caged in the middle of the dog room and the animals were suffering from severe stress. Due to Sweetpea’s continued failure to correct the inhumane conditions, the inspector officially recommended that the facility stop accepting animals from the municipalities until improvements were made.
Three days later, the Sweetpea facility burned down and most of the animals were killed. The cause of the fire has not been determined. Donations have poured in to multiple fundraising sites. A posting on Craigslist questioning whether Sweetpea should be rebuilt under the same leadership was quickly flagged for removal:
Screencap of a portion of a Craiglist posting that was up only briefly.
On December 7, Sweetpea’s kennel license was suspended by the Board of Selectmen. The group apparently has a lawyer fighting the suspension.
Yet again, I am utterly puzzled as to how a shelter in the Magical North, where we in the Stupid South continually ship our homeless pets, could be less than magical. It’s one of life’s mysteries I guess, like fires.