PAWTUCKET - John Holmes, the city's soft-spoken and respected animal control officer for decades, has retired from the job.
In typical Holmes fashion, he asked that his retirement party last week be a private affair, with little fanfare for the work he's done.
Being Pawtucket's animal control officer has been very rewarding, Holmes told The Breeze. It's "broken my heart" to leave a job he loves, he said, but it's time to spend time with his family, including seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Holmes, 63, who had input on thousands of newscasts and newspaper articles over the years, said he's proud of all his department has achieved, even as the practices around the care and protection of animals changed so dramatically over the years.
"I accomplished everything I set out to do," he said.
One of his biggest accomplishments was dramatically reducing the number of animals that were put down, said Holmes.
"I was always against euthanasia, but we've gotten to the point now where euthanasia at our shelter is a rarity, very rare, and I'm very proud of that," he said. "That and the new animal shelter were the best accomplishments."
Holmes said he "always tried to do the right thing to protect animals and people," and no one can question him on that. He has "nothing bad to say about anyone," said the veteran officer, as the people and animals of Pawtucket were "always good to me."
Holmes started as a mechanic in the Pawtucket Police Department back on Jan. 19, 1975, and took the animal control officer job five years later in 1980.
His love of animals started early, said Holmes, as he can remember as a student at Goff Junior High School going with his friend to bring bones and biscuits to the dogs in the old city dog pound.
Back when he started, Pawtucket had just one rusty pickup truck with a cab, nine dog runs and no cat cages in a building where workers had to use electric heaters to keep the kennels and office warm.
Animal control has grown to be a bigger part of maintaining quality of life in the city than ever, said Holmes, and the work he and others do contributes greatly to maintaining public safety. Just the spaying and neutering that happens now has done wonders for the transformation of animal control, he said, with huge populations and the diseases that come with them greatly limited.
"It's a whole different world" in animal control today, said Holmes, as every potential adoptive family is screened and landlords are consulted. Pet adoptions come with a more rigorous process than ever, he said, as officers check to make sure animals are going to the right families.
Holmes said it's sometimes been difficult to deal with the politics of the job, working with many administrations and city councils, but he counts many past and current city officials as friends. He considers City Councilor John Barry, Councilor Mark Wildenhain, whose father, the late Paul Wildenhain, had the animal shelter renamed in his honor, Councilor Mary Bray and former Mayor James Doyle as some of his best friends.
City leaders didn't always agree with him, said Holmes, but they respected his opinions.
Barry this week said the Holmes "became the ultimate professional" in his role with the city, proving again and again that he cared about people and animals. The animal shelter became a "model for the state" under him, said Barry.
A "great public servant," Holmes wasn't above any job, said Barry, and his departure leaves "a real hole." Barry still remembers watching Holmes chase down a small dog on Broadway. He could have driven right by but he cared enough to make sure the dog got home.
Some of the most difficult cases Holmes dealt with involved attacks on children and instances of hoarding. The retired officer remembers one house where officers found 98 cats and had to care for all of them at once.
As a key proponent of the city's pit bull ban, which lasted from 2004 to 2014, Holmes said he acted to protect everyone. While he often took criticism, he "always did things for the safety of animals and people."
The lifelong Pawtucket resident said he feels like he was misunderstood by the "overzealous people" who questioned the motives behind his decisions.
"I think for the most part, people knew what I was trying to do and stuck by us 100 percent," he said.
But many of the biggest critics didn't have the experience of seeing dogs severely injured by cars, pets left in frigid weather overnight, or children who had been attacked by dogs as they recovered in Hasbro Children's Hospital, said Holmes.
Barry said Holmes was a real leader on the pit bull issue, "holding the council's hand as he guided members through a very tough implementation of the ban.
Holmes plans to make himself scarce from the Pawtucket Animal Shelter at Slater Park. He said the job has "consumed me for years," and his wife "is thrilled" about his retirement.
Holmes said he plans to keep his second part-time job for now but is looking for new hobbies to fill his free time.
Officials say they haven't decided on a replacement for Holmes yet. Officer Kevin Mooney will lead operations for now.
Mayor Donald Grebien called Holmes "a dedicated city employee who for 40 years was committed to his job and the residents" of the city.
"His passion, dedication and commitment will be missed at the animal shelter and throughout the city," said Grebien. "He is someone who has always protected against animal cruelty. John raised the level of services we provide to the community when he advocated for the current animal shelter."
Grebien said officials wish Holmes and his wife well on a "great retirement."
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