An ordinance amendment intended to prevent people from inadvertently (or even purposefully) feeding rats through other forms of wild animal feedings and contributing to quality of life issues within the city has stalled once again after being originally proposed in October of last year, as it was held during the council’s ordinance committee on Monday night.
The ordinance change is championed by Ward 2 Councilman Jeremy Rix, who argues that the city is expending unnecessary resources trying to curtail rodent problems in the city when there are solutions that residents can employ themselves.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Rix said on Monday night, recounting a story of a family dog that was bitten by a rat last year. “It's not a pleasant thing to talk about or think about, but these sorts of things do happen.”
The ordinance change would essentially give Warwick police officers the same authority held by the state Department of Environmental Management to fine individuals who knowingly feed wild animals – classified in the ordinance as including, but not limited to, “coyotes, foxes, skunks, raccoons, opossums, weasels, rodents and pigeons.”
Feeding these types of animals is already a violation of state law, but City Council President Steve Merolla clarified that the reason this ordinance has emerged is because DEM has indicated they simply do not have the number of employees necessary to enforce that law.
“What we're doing here is allowing Warwick officials, in times when DEM cannot enforce their own regulations, to be able to enforce those regulations,” Merolla said.
As opposed to the state law, which carries fines for any offense related to feeding wild animals, the ordinance change proposed by Rix would include a provision that gave first time offenders a warning, with no possibility of a fine. He argues this would encourage police – who are already trained in de-escalating disputes between neighbors – to facilitate productive conversations about unintended consequences of feeding animals.
“We're looking at this not as a means of punishing people, but as a means of furthering that education,” Rix said.
However the ordinance, which has been held multiple times already, ran into a speed bump this time around because it does not specifically state what punishments would be faced by individuals after that first warning (and there is no first time warning if the individual is feeding a coyote). The ordinance language defers to the fine structure set by DEM, which according to its info sheet on feeding waterfowl is capped at $500 and not more than 90 days imprisonment.
This caused a couple of Warwick residents to take to the microphone and express their concerns about how some language in the ordinance change is not entirely clear – specifically dealing with the terminology “reasonable spillage” that would come from elevated bird feeders utilized by birds and squirrels and not be a prohibited type of animal feeding.
“I am very concerned about making something in effect illegal for Warwick residents who feed birds or squirrels,” said one resident who didn’t identify herself. “We're going to make someone a civil criminal with a fine of who knows what for throwing some peanuts on the ground?”
The resident asked that if law enforcement officers are already trained in conflict resolution, then why is a penal fine necessary at all? She said that despite the inclusion for a “reasonable” amount of spillage, the ordinance change still opened the door for well-meaning residents to face fines.
“If you're going to put it in a law, I don't believe it's the right remedy,” she said. “If you're going to charge them for unreasonable spillage, I'd like to know exactly what that means.”
Another resident, Barbara Muriel, said that educating residents should be the goal, and that the issue is being blown out of proportion and can potentially impact people who feed animals like birds and squirrels responsibly. Rix took issue with the notion that he hadn’t attempted to educate residents prior to going for an amended ordinance.
“A lot of people talk about education. I believe I've spent hundreds of hours on education going to people's homes. I know I've spent well over $1,000 on educational materials as I walked to over 2,000 houses and distributed educational materials. I've spent dozens of dozens of hours on the phone...But we still have people who perform activities that draw rats, and that's a big part of why rats are still an issue,” Rix said. “This is about education. And sometimes education fails.”
Between questions from the residents and questions from some of Rix’s fellow council members, the ordinance committee agreed to hold the proposed change until the council meeting on Feb. 25.