March 10, 2023
by Steven Matregrango
It was a normal October evening as the team at West Place Animal Sanctuary fed their animals, with nothing out of the ordinary in sight.
That is, until the team went on its final round to check on the dozens of birds at the shelter. One in particular, Dottie, a young and healthy chicken, “didn’t look like herself,” Patrick Cole recalled.
Dottie looked asleep, but wasn’t, and she could barely keep herself upright, according to Cole, the nonprofit’s director of development and communications. He and his team knew right away that something was wrong, given her age and health.
By the following morning, Dottie was gone.
“It all happened so fast,” Cole said.
The sanctuary immediately contacted the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM).
“They feared it was the avian flu, but we just hoped for the best,” Cole said.
The DEM arrived within hours and retrieved Dottie’s body for testing.
Cole told 12 News that the DEM, along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), planned a mass euthanasia of the remaining birds, given the confidence that it was avian flu and their close proximity to Dottie.
“The plan was in motion before the tests confirmed avian flu, but when [the results] did come back, they confirmed everyone’s worst fears,” Cole said.
In total, the sanctuary lost 38 rescue birds due to the avian flu outbreak. The experience has forever changed the organization.
A four-month “fallow” period was ordered for the sanctuary, prohibiting them from accepting domestic birds in need, which is a major part of what the organization offers.
Cole said the sanctuary spent countless hours cleaning and decontaminating buildings and sterilizing the eight-acre property, all while providing care for dozens of other species of rescued farm animals.
On Feb. 21, West Place emerged from the fallow period and began accepting birds rescued from cases of abuse, neglect and cruelty.
The first round of new birds arrived on Sunday, March 5. West Place welcomed three ducks, a partridge, and a chicken, a sign that things are headed in a better direction.
In honor of the fallen birds, the sanctuary created a memorial where they are buried. It has 32 plaques featuring each bird’s name.
“They all had individual personalities,” Cole said, reflecting in front of the memorial.
West Place urges anyone who cares for birds to follow USDA guidelines to keep their flocks safe.
“We hope that others can learn from our experience and prevent future loss of life from this deadly virus,” Cole said in a statement to 12 News.
West Place has since set up the Birds of West Place Memorial Fund to raise money for the ongoing recovery efforts.
The sanctuary also offers volunteer-designed shirts paying tribute to the birds that were lost.