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West Place emerges from avian flu 'nightmare'

March 7, 2023

By Paige Shapiro

All it took was one goose to throw a massive wrench in the honorable mission of West Place Animal Sanctuary. One Canadian goose, flying overhead on its autumnal journey southward, that sentenced the sanctuary to a mandatory 120-day fallow period. The USDA confirmed the presence of the highly pathogenic avian influenza, HPAI, at the Tiverton sanctuary last October, stating an infected goose as its probable cause.

West Place Animal Sanctuary is East Bay’s largest home to rescued animals and was founded in 2007 by Wendy Taylor, an attorney-turned-philanthropist whose own catastrophic loss of all nine of her pets to a house fire 20 years ago began her impassioned mission to create a safe haven for rescued animals. The sanctuary is a refuge to all types of animals in need, but namely to domestic gamebirds and waterfowl rescued from cases of abuse, neglect, and cruelty.

Although the avian flu doesn’t always mean a death sentence for a bird, it was certainly a blow for West Place. As the first, and only reported domestic case in Rhode Island, West Place’s small backyard flock was assumed to have caught the flu from a migratory goose, which may have secreted the virus that would go on to claim the lives of thirty-eight of their treasured birds.

Before the outbreak, the Avian Influenza was an ominous threat to many bird populations across the globe. According to the CDC, the first case of this dominant strain of bird flu, called HPAI, was detected in the US in late 2014. However, the threat of the bird flu became more insidious in recent years. Last January saw the first wild bird infestation since 2016, and a month later, poultry farms became infested for the first time in two years.

Immediately following the USDA’s diagnosis, the state Department of Environmental Management became responsible for handling the virus in the sanctuary.

“The USDA and the DEM all came in in hazmat suits and they euthanized our birds right in front of us,” recalled Taylor. “It was horrid and it was tragic and it was absolutely awful.”

Taylor claimed that about two months after the mass euthanasia, officials suggested that quarantining the affected birds in place may be sufficient protocol to keep the virus at bay. In other words, the slaying of a few dozen of the birds at West Place may not have been necessary.

But Taylor and the sanctuary’s small team were determined to prove that those birds had not died in vain. Struck with the tragedy of the circumstances, they spent the mandated four-month dormant period improving the sanctuary –– cleaning, rebuilding, and making the area safer and less susceptible to future outbreaks. After finally reopening their doors after 120 long days, West Place welcomed its first batch of new animals with open arms last Sunday.

To this day, West Place Animal Sanctuary is still the only reported case of the bird flu in the state.

"It is nearly impossible that no other bird in this state has had bird flu. It's not possible," Taylor said. "There’s no way that it was confined to an eight-acre parcel of land in the entire state of Rhode Island. We were just the only people to come forward.”

Taylor said sanctuary directors felt a public responsibility to report the cases –– although they were afraid of the possible repercussions from the DEM that included the devastating euthanasia that they did eventually face, Taylor knew that they “had to do what was right.”

"They were all like family to us," said Patrick Cole, the sanctuary’s Director of Development and Communications, when discussing the birds they had lost. “They all had names and personalities and distinct behavior. So losing them was like losing thirty-eight pets.” Cole believes that what happened at West Places serves as a learning experience for anyone caring for domestic birds.

The sanctuary is non-profit and encourages individuals to consider giving to the Birds of West Place Memorial Fund, which honors the lives of the birds who fell prey to the flu last October and helps to fund the rebuilding and improvement of the facilities as a result of the virus. Additionally, interested individuals can give back by sponsoring a newly rescued animal or by purchasing West Place apparel at All proceeds will go towards the Memorial Fund.


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