WOONSOCKET – The bill was championed by animal rights groups and boosters of that most controversial of canines, the pit bull.

But Pawtucket Animal Control Officer John Holmes says state lawmakers won’t be doing the dogs any favors if they prohibit cities and towns from enforcing local bans on pit bulls.

The city banned “pits” in 2004 after a series of attacks on pets and humans that caused serious injuries. Authorities also suspected illegal dog fights were being staged in Pawtucket after finding the mangled remains of deceased animals abandoned like trash.

“This was a tool to keep the dogs from being abused and to keep them out of the wrong hands,” says Holmes. “Now if this law comes to pass I’m afraid we’re going to go backwards. We’re going to see more pit bulls and we’re going to have more euthanizations.”

The House overwhelmingly passed the measure Wednesday despite the objections of lawmakers from Pawtucket and Woonsocket. If affirmed by the Senate and signed by the governor, the law would make existing prohibitions on pit bills in Pawtucket and Central Falls obsolete, and prevent Woonsocket, which has proposed a similar ban, from moving forward.

The measure was spearheaded by a group of lawmakers from the Greater Providence area, led by State Rep. Thomas Palangio.

“We felt it was unfair to pick on a breed of dog when the problem is not the dog but the owner,” said State Rep. Charlene Lima (D-Cranston, Providence), one of the co-sponsors of the measure. “The opposition from Woonsocket and Pawtucket was there because they felt we should not be messing with town ordinances.”

Woonsocket Animal Control Officer Doris Kay says Lima’s right – they shouldn’t. The legislature should leave it up to the local jurisdictions to decide how to deal with pit bulls on their own turf, she says.

“It should be left up to the local cities and towns to decide because they’re closest to the problem,” she says. “What’s going on in Lincoln isn’t the same as what’s going on in Woonsocket.”

There were 16 dogs at the Woonsocket Animal Control Facility Thursday, and every one was a pit bull, including a nursing mother with six pups seized in a raid at the home of an accused drug dealer.

Without question, they are Woonsocket’s most popular dog – and also the breed that bites most often, with the most injurious results, according to police.

Kay says the House measure, which passed by a vote of 56-9, is a victory for the pro-pit bull lobby, a well-organized coalition of defenders of the American Staffordshire Terrier and related breeds, commonly known as pit bulls. The network has grown stronger over the years in response to what pit bull lovers perceive as unfair attacks on the breed, which are often portrayed as inherently mean and aggressive. Defenders say the dogs aren’t born bad, but many end up aggressive as a result of abuse, neglect or willful training by owners who want them for protection or macho props.

“You could assemble a crowd of a hundred pit bull supporters on an hour’s notice, and that’s something that no other dog can do,” says Kay.

Dr. E.J. Finocchio, director of the Rhode Island Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, agrees. He says the triumph of the House bill on Wednesday is largely a reflection of the power of the pro pit-bull lobby.

Finocchio says the nature-versus-nurture debate over pit bulls is something like the feud between pro-lifers and women’s rights when it comes to abortion.

“It will never be settled.”

That’s because the best science about the nature of pit bulls is mixed, according to Finocchio. Some pit bulls raised in aggressive environments turn out to be wimps. Some born to wimpy parents turn out to be aggressive.

But Finocchio says pit bulls do display higher levels of predatory behavior than many other breeds, and when they bite they do more damage than other canines because their jaws are more muscular and bigger than most dogs.

“Unfortunately for the pit bull, if you did a google search on dog attacks that resulted in fatalities, the pit bull would be right at the top of the list,” he says.

Finocchio declines to take a position on the House bill or municipal bans on specific breeds, but his records do seem to support Holmes. Finocchio said that before Pawtucket banned pit bulls in 2004 RISPCA regularly convened vicious dog hearings for pit bulls corralled in Pawtucket. Such hearings can result in everything from muzzling and castration orders to confinement and euthanization, depending on the severity of the dog’s behavior.

On average, says Finocchio, RISPCA convenes about 65 vicious dog hearings a year. “A majority involve pit bulls,” says Finocchio, but they’re not dogs coming out of Pawtucket any longer.

“Since the city passed that law we have not had a vicious dog hearing come out of Pawtucket,” he said.

Holmes says the local law essentially banned the introduction of new pit bulls into the city after 2004. Residents who already had pit bulls before the law was passed were allowed to keep them, and even get a new one if their existing dog died. Citing a high number of pit bull attacks, the City Council in Woonsocket has twice considered implementing a law modeled after Pawtucket’s, but has so far declined to move forward despite pressure from the police.

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