PIT BULLS: Woonsocket, RI
By RUSS OLIVO
WOONSOCKET CALL Thursday, November 8, 2012
A legislative crackdown on pit bull dogs has been tabled by the City Council, which now says it wants to work more closely with pet owners to address growing concerns about the burgeoning population of the controversial canines.
City Council President John Ward, who proposed curbs on the dogs that mirror those in effect in Pawtucket for several years, says the council might have to be a little more creative to find a solution that balances the interests of responsible pet owners and the need to protect the public from vicious dogs.
The idea is to be a little more comprehensive about the problem rather than slapping together an ordinance we might have trouble enforcing," said Ward.
Ward proposed a law that would have banned the licensing of any new pit bulls after the measure was passed and forced the owners of existing pit bulls to obtain $100,000 worth of liability insurance on their dog. All breeds commonly called pit bulls, including the American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier or any mixed-breed that looks like one of those purebreds would have been affected.
Pit bull owners and other animal rights activists sharply criticized the proposal during each of several public airings of the measure, calling it punitive and unnecessarily heavy-handed.
The ordinance was on the council's agenda for preliminary passage on Monday, but the panel ended up tabling it unanimously after the proposal.
One of the speakers, Dennis Tabella, director of Defenders of Animals, said Woonsocket simply cannot marshal the resources to manage the pit bull problem the same way as Pawtucket, which has made significant investments in shelter space and manpower to round up rogue dogs.
Furthermore, Tabella asserts, Pawtucket's strategy is hardly worthy of copying. Pawtucket officials may hold up their law as a model of efficiency that has all but flattened the population of pit bulls in the city since it was enforced, but Tabella says its dog pound is full of pit bulls on a regular basis. "What do you do with those dogs, euthanize them?" said Tabella. "If you're going to inundate your local shelter with a lot of pit bulls, it's not working."
Too many pit bulls get tarred with a broad brush as vicious, unpredictable dogs, says Tabella. Once, his group went to court to free five pit bulls which the city of East Providence had impounded as vicious dogs. The court ordered the dogs released to Defenders of Animals, which successfully rehabilitated them.
It was Tabella who first suggested forming a task force to study the issue when he addressed the council on Monday. As a starting point, Tabella says the city might be more successful in controlling pit bulls not by going after their owners, but by focusing on landlords who allow tenants to keep the dogs in their apartments. "Those people will move," he said. "You may be dumping the problem on another city but you're trying to solve the problem in Woonsocket."
The proposed crackdown came after a pit bull attack sent three people from Sayles Street to the hospital with bite wounds recently. The dog was euthanized a day later under an emergency order from the State Department of Health after the animal control officer deemed the animal unadoptable.
ACO Doris Kay, who was herself mauled by a pit bull about two years ago in an incident that caused her to lose nearly a year of work, has long been calling for tougher laws to control pit bulls and related breeds, which appear to have become the most predominant in the city. Kay has told members of the City Council that pit bulls are responsible for more bites "and bites that cause more physical damage” than any other kind of dog in Woonsocket.
Mayor Leo Fontaine doesn't dispute that many pit bull owners are responsible, nurturing pet owners, but he says that there are others who are prone to neglect the dogs, raising animals that can be unpredictable and dangerous. While the issue may be backburnered for further study, Fontaine praised the City Council for taking the time to address the issue in a way that's practical and effective for the city.
"There is a concern about the cost and our ability to enforce it given our limited resources," says the mayor. "Now we're going to have an opportunity to sit down with dog owners, animal rights groups or anyone that wants to be involved to talk about what to do about the problem."
One thing the council learned from exploring the issue is that the city would require the blessing of the General Assembly before enacting new regulations to control pit bulls. Lawmakers won't convene for the 2013 session until January, but Council President Ward says that in the meantime he wants to assemble interested parties to begin developing a legislative proposal that works for the city.