“Sweetpea is currently ON FIRE and we need volunteers to help MOVE animals,” workers wrote on Facebook at the time. “This is not a drill. Please help!”
The fire killed 17 dogs and 39 cats, according to the shelter. Four dogs and one cat survived.
“Tonight, sweetpea has lost almost everything,” shelter workers said on Facebook.
A GoFundMe page for the shelter, which was created earlier this year, has raised more than $130,000 since the fire.
But for years, it seems the shelter has struggled to meet the state’s expectations.
In inspection reports from 2013, 2014 and this year, inspectors with the state Department of Agricultural Resources’ Division of Animal Health have warned that the shelter was not fit for animals. Inspectors have noted “extreme” noise, overcrowding and a “significant odor.”
In July 2014, the state agency responded to a complaint from the Animal Rescue League of Boston about inhumane conditions at the shelter. A state inspector reported that cats were living up to four per cage, “leaving little room to move freely,” and that large dogs were living in kennels that were too small. “The larger dogs bang into the walls of the kennel when they try to turn around,” according to the report.
Cats were living in a kennel room with dogs, creating chaos, according to the report.
The inspector also noted a potential fire hazard.
“There is a concern about fire hazard with the facility being kept in this fashion, particularly with the absences of sprinklers and the presence of minors and other people who regularly come in to volunteer with the animals,” the state inspector, Stephanie Funk, wrote in the report. “The building is an older facility that hasn’t been updated since it was built. The condition of the electrical system is unknown.”
Two months later, the state followed up, reporting that conditions inside were the same — “noisy, overcrowded, cluttered and with a strong odor present.”
“None of the outside runs were being used, despite the fact it was mid-afternoon and 70 degrees out,” Funk wrote in a September 2014 report.
A shelter spokeswoman told The Washington Post in an email that when most of the inspections were conducted, the shelter did not own the property.
Following state inspections, Melanie Kenadek, the shelter manager, said in a statement that the local fire department made several recommendations, including installing smoke alarms and fire extinguishers. The shelter complied, she said.
The fire department wanted the shelter to move a cat pen that blocked the back door; but, Kenadek said, the pen was too large to relocate. Fire officials also wanted the shelter to store blankets and towels in an outside shed, which, she said, the shelter did not own and whose owner would not allow it to use. Prior to the fire, workers were in the process of moving those items into storage, she said.
Less than a week before the deadly blaze, state inspectors made another unannounced visit to the shelter. At the time, 19 dogs and 23 cats were reported to be living in the main facility, where the same issues persisted, according to an inspection report.
The inspector also noted that the kennels were separated only by a chain-link fence, allowing the animals to bite each other’s ears, paws and tails.
“Many dogs showed signs of stress including repetitive behaviors such as circling,” state inspector Kristin Godfrey wrote in the report, dated Nov. 19.
The state determined that the shelter was “not suitable for the detention and care of animals” according to Massachusetts state laws.
Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Katie Gronendyke said the agency has jurisdiction only over shelters holding stray animals for a municipal animal-control program. She said that during last month’s visit, state inspectors determined the shelter was housing an animal for a nearby town, New Braintree, and was able to issue an order barring the shelter from housing municipal animals until it made the recommended improvements.
The fire occurred Nov. 22. The order was not issued until Dec. 4.
“The Department of Agricultural Resources’ Division of Animal Health is committed to protecting the health and safety of companion animals in the Commonwealth,” Gronendyke said in a statement. “The Division of Animal Health performs inspections following all animal shelter complaints it receives and strives to work together with municipalities and animal welfare groups to ensure animal shelters are in compliance with regulations and properly caring for rescued animals.”
The Paxton animal control department referred The Post to the town administrator, who could not immediately be reached for comment.
Kenadek, the shelter manager, and her father — Richard N. Clark, the shelter’s founder and president — told the Telegram & Gazette that they had plans to improve the facilities but could not do so until they purchased the property, which they did this year. The previous owner, they said, remained on the property until late October.
“Plans were in the making to bring this old place up to standards once he moved out,” Clark told the newspaper. “I don’t know what more we could have been doing.”
Investigators told the Telegram & Gazette that last month’s fire started in the shelter’s ceiling, though the exact cause could not be determined.