“We speak for those who cannot speak for themselves,” said Dr. E.J. Finocchio, president of the Rhode Island Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RISCPA.)
Finocchio was referring to the new animal advocate law, which would allow veterinarians or representatives from the RISPCA and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management to act as advocates for animals that are the subject of court action.
Warwick animal lover and pet therapy specialist Pearl Salotto got the idea off the ground by working in conjunction with other animal advocates and local legislators. Sen. John Tassoni turned the idea into a bill in January.
It was the 2010 case of a dog that was starved that spurred Salotto on to the cause of ensuring animals had a voice in the court.
“This isn’t fair,” said Salotto, who remembered thinking the perpetrator should have gotten a much more severe punishment. At the time, Salotto had to bite her tongue.
It was more than a year later during a meeting with Finocchio and other animal specialists that an idea occurred to Salotto: why not have an animal advocate in the court?
Salotto, who has worked in the pet therapy business since the 1980s, has always been a proponent of cracking down on animal abusers.
“There’s a link of abuse between animals and humans,” said Salotto, who explained that violence toward animals often transforms into violence toward people.
She recalled a case where a man was found guilty of animal abuse but was still allowed to take care of his young son. The man later killed his child.
“People didn’t think it was significant,” said Salotto of the man’s previous animal cruelty charges.
So Salotto got to thinking, and decided to have a conference about animal abuse in 1995. The conference led to the formation of Windwalker, an animal advocacy group. Since then, Salotto has continued her career in pet therapy, most recently with her dog Angel or “Jelly,” and has continued to advocate on behalf of companion animals.
Dennis Tabella, founder of Defenders of Animals, was among those to help flesh out the legislation and make it a reality. He remembers being able to submit a community impact statement during court cases in years past but was never allowed to voice his opinions during the trial.
Tassoni’s bill was signed into law in June and now the Attorney General’s office or town solicitor has the ability to call upon DEM or RISPCA to provide a representative to the animal.
Although the bill opens the door to allow for animal advocates, it does not mandate them.
Finocchio said that 85 percent of animal cruelty cases, where the dog would need an advocate most, are brought to the courts via the RISPCA. Therefore, he said, the RISCPA would already be involved and ensure that an advocate was provided when necessary.
Finocchio said the advocate would benefit animals incarcerated during what he called a “lengthy” and “very inefficient” process.
“[Animals] won’t be in a cage for six to seven months; they’ll be in a home, so they don’t mentally become crazy animals,” he said.
In addition, advocates can push for more stringent punishments of animal abusers.
Finocchio said that if any animal’s case goes to trial, representatives from the RISPCA will be there as witnesses, but during hearings, the animal advocate role really comes into play.
Tabella, who thinks the new law is a good step, also believes that other groups should have been allowed to advocate for animals, namely Defenders of Animals and Windwalker, Salotto’s group.
“A lot of groups have a lot to offer,” he said. “And we’ve been involved in a number of cases.”
Finocchio said he has been getting a lot of feedback regarding the new law, and said people have been confused about the new animal advocate position.
“It’s not a new job,” he said, explaining that existing employees of the RISPCA and DEM will take on advocacy roles when needed.
“It’s not going to cost the people of Rhode Island one red cent,” he said.
Salotto is pleased with the new law, and believes it is a step in the right direction.
“Animals need an advocate,” she said. “It’s a sign that animal abuse will not be tolerated.”