Enforcing a pitbull ordinance like Pawtucket's will require money Woonsocket doesn't have and General Assembly approval, but police and animal control officials said it would be a step in the right direction.
From the start of Monday night's City Council work session on a proposed pitbull ordinance taken from Pawtucket's, that city's Animal Control Officer John Holmes said that while other dogs bite, it's the pitbulls that are the problem in his city.
"You're always going to get your dog bites," Holmes said, "But it's the bite of the pitbull. It really is."
Woonsocket Police Captain Michael Lemoine said it was the same in Woonsocket. "This is the breed that causes the city and the police the most problems," Lemoine said.
Lemoine said that although there isn't enough money to hire the number of staffers Pawtucket has, "I think it's enforceable. As long as we're committed, it'll just take a little more time," he said.
Woonsocket Police Chief Thomas Carey agreed. "There's a problem and we need to get something in place to solve it," he said. Having the law in place will help by itself, he said.
Woonsocket Animal Control Officer Doris Kay also agreed, noting there are people flocking to city hall to register their dogs since word of the proposed law started circulating.
The most serious dog attacks, including one suffered by Kay, involve pitbulls.
"We're not having a major problem with rottweilers," said Kay. "It's always the pitbull, pitbull, pitbull."
She said right now, the city pound has 13 cages, and nine of them have pitbulls in them. There are so many pitbulls taken in by the pound from irresponsible owners, she said that they haven't got resources left to care for regular strays.
Outside City Hall, about 20 people, including families and children, stood on the sidewalk holding signs proclaiming, "We love our family pets," and "They are our family" for drivers of passing cars to see. Several drivers honked as they passed, the sound carrying to the second floor conference room where the working session was held.
City Councilman Roger Jalette seemed to be in the demonstrators' corner. "I think it is wrong for us to use the Pawtucket legislation to put out breed-specific legislation," Jalette said.
But, Mayor Leo Fontaine said, "I saw the police reports and I heard at the time on the radio what was going on when she (Kay) was attacked," which gave her an out to leave, he said. "But she came back."
"I am not against pitbulls," Kay said, "Even though I've been bit, I love dogs." But, she said, "It's getting dangerous."
Fontaine said that though there are many responsible pitbull owners in the city, irresponsible owners, including some people the police visit often, are not treating the dogs well and training them to be violent, which puts officers in jeopardy. "It's a dangerous situation," Fontaine said, when a single officer responds to a call and finds himself surrounded by pitbulls.
The pound isn't full of akidos right now. It's not full of shepherds. It's not full of labs," Fontaine said.
City Councilman Bob Moreau, a Woonsocket Policeman for 23 years, agreed. "I have never gone to any other dog bite call," except for pitbulls, Moreau said. He said on one of his last days as an officer, "I witnessed a pitbull literally tearing a seeing eye dog apart," while the blind man with the dog was forced to stand by as good Samaritans came to his dog's aid, striking the pitbull several times to stop the attack. "That dog would not let go," Moreau said, "It was one of the worst things I've seen as a police officer." He said he's never been on a call for any other breed of dog in more than two decades.
Holmes said that since Pawtucket's pitbull-specific legislation was passed, the number of pitbulls in their pound has decreased. "We were euthanizing 15 pitbulls a week," he said. With the pitbull law, he said, they've only taken custody of 84 pitbulls since January, and only had to euthanize three of those.
The law cuts down on irresponsible pitbull ownership, he said, because it encourages them to spay and neuter the dogs, which reduces their numbers, and keeps people who just want to breed and use the dogs irresponsibly out of Pawtucket. He said with the law, people who own pitbulls just to breed and sell them as attack dogs don't stay in the city.
The law also provides for fines as high as $1,000, though most are between $25 and $50, he said. Fines higher than $500 did require General Assembly approval, he said.
But, he said, his department enforces it with about eight staffers to Woonsocket's two, and the judges in the city back them up. "Don't put the law in, if you're not going to enforce it," Holmes said.
"People can walk down the streets of Pawtucket and not worry about being attacked," Holmes said.
City Council President John Ward said the proposed ordinance will require changes to fit Woonsocket's needs. Also, he pointed out that if they followed Pawtucket's lead, the city would need the approval of the General Assembly.
The ordinance, introduced for the first time last Monday night by City Council President John Ward, would ban anyone who does not already own a pitbull from acquiring one, require muzzles on existing dogs and require owners to take out $100,000 liability insurance policies on their animals. It would also require a sign warning others that a dangerous dog is kept there, and call for pitbulls to be put down if discovered in violation of the law, or moved outside the city (see attached .pdf).
Moreau suggested formally inviting the city's General Assembly representatives, which Ward said was a good idea.
After the meeting, Harry Parker, owner of Dynamic Dog Training in Warwick and an opponent of the ordinance, who was sporting a photo of "his kids and their pitbull, said he wasn't swayed by anything said at the meeting. "No. Not at all. Not at all. Breed specific legislation is wrong."
Another opponent of the proposed ordinance, Matther Desilets, had a poster he used to demonstrate the difficulty of identifying pitbulls without DNA testing.
Kay said if a pitbull owner runs afoul of the law, the owner will be given an opportunity to prove their dog isn't really a pitbull. She said that any dog could be subject to the city's vicious dog law, but that is triggered by an attack. "This is a pre-emptive strike," she said, to regulate pitbulls to prevent them from attacking people.
The next meeting on the issue will be a public forum Nov. 5.