There Is No Us vs. Them, We All Want Safe Communities

In February of 2013, House Bill 5287 and Senate Bill 178, were introduced in Rhode Island. The companion bills called for state-wide regulation of the ownership of “pit bull” dogs and would have required, among other things, mandatory insurance, confinement, muzzling, and banned from walked within 100 feet of a school, and other severe restrictions. The bills would have created statewide BSL. In March of 2013, both bills were withdrawn by their sponsors.

Animal Farm Foundation’s Executive Director worked closely with Rhode Island the constituent who submitted the bill to his legislators, in order to help affect a positive outcome. She writes about her experience here.

Last month, (editor’s note: this article was originally written in 2013) a Rhode Island Senator introduced legislation targeting “pit bull” dogs. The language was some of the most inflammatory I have ever seen in legislation. But as I read the legislation it was clear that this was motivated from a place of deep emotion.

My experience as an advocate has taught me that almost every single instance of proposed breed specific legislation is motivated by emotion – a reaction to a single, frightening event. Or, maybe it is a reaction to something frightening that could have happened, but didn’t. BSL is always fueled by fear and a desire to address the issue of safety. It’s always about the fear of not being safe in our own communities. We all want to feel safe. And that’s something we can all agree on.

I called the senator who sponsored the legislation and asked him if he was willing to tell me about his motivation for filing the bill. In order to help him understand that I wasn’t calling to start an argument, I explained that while on the surface it may seem that we didn’t agree, that I was certain we really did. I explained that we both probably wanted the same thing: for ALL the citizens of Rhode Island to feel safe. So although the senator and I did not agree on how to get there, we shared a community of interest. We both agreed everybody in Rhode Island deserved to be protected from reckless dog owners. We had established common ground to stand on together.

Turns out, I was the first person who had called the senator with solutions regarding building safe communities, instead of complaints. The senator asked me to speak with the constituent who had asked him to take up this legislation in the first place. I was glad to!

The constituent, a dog owner himself, had a very scary experience with a dog in his community. While they were out for a walk, another person allowed their dog to severely injure this constituent’s dog. The dog needed emergency surgery and lots of stitches. It was a legitimately terrible experience for this citizen and his family – they were afraid their pet was going to die. They had every right to be angry and frightened. I would have been too.

Afterward, there was a dangerous dog hearing regarding the incident. It became clear that the reckless dog owner didn’t care if his dog was destroyed. He’d simply get another dog if this one was gone.

The dog owner was the problem – he’d failed to properly manage his dog – and he was the one to blame for the incident. But since the victim does not live under the “pit bull” tent, as so many of us do, he was susceptible to the incorrect notion that the “pit bull” was to blame for what happened to his dog. He believed that in order to prevent this sort of thing from occurring again, it was “pit bull” dogs that needed to be restricted.

He didn’t want what happened to his family to ever happen to another family. He had exhausted all recourses allowed by law, but nothing had really changed. He knew he needed to do something to bring attention to the problem of reckless dog owners.

So after months of meeting with his city council about this matter, this gentleman was given the opportunity to meet with his senator to discuss a legislative solution. The result was that statewide breed specific legislation (BSL) was proposed in Rhode Island.

Obviously, I do not agree with their legislative solution. But as a dog owner who would do anything to keep her pets safe, and as a human being who genuinely cares about the well-being of her friends and neighbors, I could understand why they felt like they needed to do something. I know firsthand what it feels like to live in a city where legislation (fueled by the acts of a single, reckless dog owner) would ultimately force me to either leave my home and my job, or surrender my dog to be killed, was being considered. I was afraid. And I no longer felt safe in my own community.

And I also know what it is like to feel unsafe in my own neighborhood because a reckless dog owner will not properly contain his dog. I have a “pit bull” dog who is still too afraid to go for walks in our own neighborhood because he was bitten by the neighbor’s at-large dog.

In talking with the constituent, it turned out that we’re more alike than we are different. Instead of focusing on our disagreements, we started with our shared community of interest and our goals regarding building a safe community. We discussed how BSL has never been proven to reduce dog bites and fails to increase public safety. We agreed that in order to reach our shared goal – community safety – BSL was not going to be an effective solution for addressing reckless dog owners in Rhode Island.

Together we determined that there was much room for improvement in how Rhode Island currently deals with reckless dog owners and that by focusing our efforts there – on addressing reckless owners of ANY dog – we could affect real transformational change in regards to increasing public safety. We looked at existing animal control laws and discovered where a lack of enforcement (of current ordinances) could be addressed. When current legislation isn’t being enforced, introducing new legislation makes little sense – why not try enforcing what you already have on the books, before introducing new legislation? We could both see that there were many steps we could take to improve community safety in Rhode Island, without banning dogs based on physical appearance or breed label.

Today, there is still much work to be done, but all the stakeholders now agree that BSL is not going to be the solution.

It’s worth noting that I didn’t attempt to influence the constituent’s decision by talking about how much I love “pit bull” dogs. I was not attempting to change how he felt about “pit bull” dogs. From the beginning it was clear that we were both on the same side, so I focused the discussion on our mutual interest in building safe communities and shared the research that shows BSL would not lead to an increase in public safety.

Breed-specific legislation fails responsible “pit bull” dog owners, such as myself, and it fails our neighbors and fellow community members, such as this gentleman.

We all wind up losing with BSL, no matter what side we’re on.

The takeaway here is that there is no us vs. them when it comes to wanting to be safe in our own communities. I am absolutely certain of this. Responsible dog owners (of all kinds of dogs) and various community members typically have more in common than it might seem at first. On the surface it seems as if we are worlds apart, but remember: safety is the goal for everyone. We all want to be safe.

Rather than creating a divide based in misunderstanding and anger – us vs. them – we can start the conversation from the common ground we all share: a desire to be safe in our own communities. Safe from reckless dog owners and safe from ineffective, discriminatory legislation. That how real solutions which truly benefit everyone are achieved.

I think that the us vs. them syndrome is rooted in the chronic fringe that dances around those of us who are working hard to make a difference. On one side, there’s the anti-“pit bull” dog, agenda-based hate groups that masquerade as champions of victims’ rights. On the other are the arrogant, reckless dog owners who disregard basic ownership laws allowing their dogs (“pit bull” dogs or any other dog) to become a nuisance or a threat to all of us. Both are the exception. They are on the far ends of the spectrum and have little in common with the majority of us who live together and are working towards fair, safe, effective solutions. These fringe groups do not get to define how the rest of us interact with one another.

Let’s refuse to play this divisive game of us vs. them. We did. Together, we found a common ground solution that benefits all the people of Rhode Island. You can do this too. You don’t need to be the Executive Director of a non-profit or even a member of a group to build bridges and let the “other side” know that you understand their concerns and want to work with them to create safe communities for all of us to enjoy.

We’re all more alike than we think. The same goes for the dogs: “pit bull” dogs are not uniquely different than other dogs – for worse OR better. The way to move forward effectively isn’t to get stuck championing how different or special or unique our dogs are or by spewing anger at the other side. We can accomplish so much more if we focus our energies on what we have in common. We’re all on the same team.

We all want safe communities.

– Stacey Coleman

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