A bill introduced by Senator Christopher Ottiano (R-Bristol, Portsmouth) has some Rhode Islanders barking, as the legislation calls for pit bulls in the Ocean State to be caged or muzzled at all times.
The legislation is breed-specific, and requests that pits be locked in a pen "with either a top or with all four sides at least six feet high." When a pit is not confined but on a leash, the legislation asks that the dog be muzzled, and never walked within 100 feet of a school.
Additionally, it suggests that pit bull owners be fiscally responsible in the event that their dog inflicts harm. An amount of $50,000 is proposed.
Yet, Ottiano says the bill, which was drafted by a Bristol resident, was only submitted to “create discussion.” A hearing has not been scheduled. Rep. Ray Gallison, the bill’s House sponsor, said he introduced it per the request of the Bristol Town Council.
“Being an elected official, I’m obligated to put it in on their behalf,” he said. “I didn’t do anything else with it. I didn’t ask for a hearing on it.”
Still, it’s getting plenty of attention.
“I’ve gotten more comments, more emails and more constituent requests on pit bill legislation than any other legislation in the entire General Assembly this year, and that includes marriage equality and binding arbitration,” said Rep. K. Joseph Shekarchi.
He said the majority of people who have contacted him oppose the bill, noting that they have an issue with breed-specific legislation. Shekarchi said he has the same issue.
“It’s not the breed, it’s the behavior of the owner,” Shekarchi said. “And any dog can attack anybody. It doesn’t have to be a pit bull.”
Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson, a pit bull owner, agrees. She and her husband adopted their 13-year-old pit, Peaches, a few years ago from PittieLove Rescue, a pit bull rescue center based in Massachusetts. At the time, Peaches was in foster care and had been neglected. Now, Peaches is as happy and healthy as ever.
“Pits aren’t the only dogs guilty of attacks,” she said. “A lot of it has to do with the way the animal has been raised, and that’s the case with any animal.”
While looking at her beloved pet sleeping on her lap, Vella-Wilkinson, who pointed out that Helen Keller’s service dog was a pit bull, as was the mascot for the “Little Rascals,” said she thinks the legislation is potentially harmful to the breed.
“Breed-specific legislation is as silly as hell as far as I’m concerned,” she said. “There’s a greater number of pits left in shelters, and it’s legislation like this, even if it’s just for discussion purposes, that can create fear and further misunderstanding about the breed. What happens when people can’t afford the extra insurance? Are we going to end up having even more pits that are in the animal shelters?”
Dennis Tabella, director of Defenders of Animals of Rhode Island, said he’s also concerned about the legislation for being breed-specific, and could lead to more pits in shelters. If they are not adopted, they can be euthanized in some cases. While a hearing has not been set at the state level, the Bristol Town Council can still request that a hearing be held regarding the issue within their municipality.
As a result, Tabella and his organization are asking people to contact the Bristol Town Council and encourage them to let the council know they oppose the legislation. He feels Bristol should first try to solve whatever problem they are having at a town level before going statewide.
“It’s not a responsible action on the part of the Bristol Town Council,” said Tabella. “Other cities and towns are not having these issues. I don’t think it’s justified. We’re against breed-specific legislation, no matter what type of dog it is.”
For Ottiano, as well as the Bristol resident who drafted the bill, the feedback, whether bad or good, is the goal of introducing the legislation in the first place. They are aware of the fact that changes need to be made in order for it to have the possibility of going anywhere in the future.
“This was destined to never go anywhere, other than spur discussion,” Ottiano said. “The end goal has already been achieved. National dog organizations are now already holding meetings with constituents to help them craft much better legislation for it. There is no legislator saying, ‘Oh, this has to happen.’”
The Bristol resident, who requested to be unnamed, feels the same. During a recent phone interview, he said he began to conduct research for the bill two years ago, shortly after his 8-year-old yellow Labrador retriever was attacked by a pit bull at an outdoor event.
Though still alive, his dog was harmed extensively, not only causing pain and suffering to the animal, but emotional trauma, as well as “thousands of dollars” to him and his family. He attended a hearing on the case, and said the pit owners didn’t seem to have “a care in the world.”
“They basically said, ‘We don’t really care. You guys can take the dog,’” the man said. “They ended up walking away scot-free on the whole issue and we had thousands of dollars worth of vet bills.”
Feeling frustrated that there was no way for him to seek justice in the form of being compensated for veterinary bills, hospital bills and legal fees, he began compiling research on the matter statewide. He said he has read about situations similar to his own, and he wants to put a stop to it.
“It seems like the laws we have as a state don’t offer any protection for citizens,” he said. “Each individual town has it’s own ordinance and if you get stuck in a situation where a dog comes into your town from a different town and attacks your animal or, God forbid a child or somebody else, you’re stuck in the middle between the town’s jurisdictions and who actually has control.”
In terms of the legislation he drafted, he said after speaking to animal advocacy groups such as the Animal Farm Legislation, and the National K-9 Research Council, he realizes breed-specific legislation isn’t the way to go, as any breed is able to attack. However, he still thinks it’s a state issue.
“Just in [Bristol] alone, I’ve seen at least a half a dozen cases involving pit bulls and irresponsible owners [in the last year] and nothing’s really done,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s in my community or not. It needs to be a uniform blanket legislation across the state.”
The man says that while he’s not a legislator or lawmaker, he’s a concerned citizen attempting to make a positive change. Through the introduction of the bill, he wants to develop more specific guidelines and regulations for promoting responsible animal ownership so these types of things don’t happen.
“It’s a starting point,” he said. “We welcome and encourage input from everybody. We’re just trying to make sure there are laws to protect people.”
In the meantime, Vella-Wilkinson said life with Peaches will continue as normal. They plan to visit all their favorite places in Rhode Island as often as possible.
“She loves going to Conimicut Point – it’s her favorite place to walk,” Vella Wilkinson said. “There are always a bunch of people there. And she loves walking down Main Street in East Greenwich. She’s a good girl.”