EXETER, R.I. – Families of those buried in Rhode Island's veterans' cemetery say that using the grounds as a dog park is disrespectful to the fallen, and they're battling pet owners over access to the property.
Unlike many state veterans' cemeteries nationwide that ban pets out of respect, Rhode Island has no such restrictions.
Rhode Island has received six complaints in the past year from visitors to the cemetery who were upset that dogs are roaming about the 265-acre property in Exeter. One complaint alleges a dog knocked down a child.
The head of the Veterans of Foreign Wars department in Rhode Island, Frank Rosebrock, is appalled that dogs walk among the veterans' stones and sometimes relieve themselves.
"I can't believe it," he said. "It is disgusting."
The chairman of House Veterans Affairs Committee agrees. Democratic Rep. Jan Malik introduced a bill on Tuesday to prohibit pets, except for service animals, from the Rhode Island Veterans Memorial Cemetery. Violators would be fined.
It's very common for state veterans' cemeteries to restrict pets and recreational activities to maintain their sanctity, said David Brasuell, president of the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs. Brasuell was surprised to hear Rhode Island allows pets, and called it "inappropriate."
In New England, New Hampshire allows leashed pets into its veterans' cemetery while Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and Maine allow service animals only.
"We don't need them using the gravestones as trees," said Pam Porter, in Connecticut's office of cemetery and memorial services.
At the Rhode Island cemetery on Monday, a 10 ½-year-old Puggle named Artie sprinted along the cemetery roads. His owner, Rebecca Allen, unleashed him because she can't keep up. When he veered near gravestones, she called to him to steer him away. She carried waste bags.
Allen, an Exeter native, likes the quiet of the cemetery. She said she never goes near people visiting the gravesites and she has relatives buried there, too. She's frustrated that responsible dog owners could be penalized because of a few irresponsible ones.
"People come here to mourn. I understand that," she said. "But why shouldn't someone be able to bring their dog?"
A bill was introduced to ban pets, except for service animals, from the cemetery in 2014 and 2015. Kim Ripoli, who oversees the state's Division of Veterans Affairs, told lawmakers in 2014 that it was horrible to witness a dog defecating on hallowed ground.
The dogs didn't have lobbyists. The effort stalled over questions about how to enforce a ban, said Democratic Rep. Raymond Gallison, who sponsored the bills.
The veterans affairs division is also currently considering addressing the issue as it revises its cemetery rules.