2016-09-29 / Opinion


The Power of the Pen

Americans have few fealties stronger than that for animals. In fact, almost a third of Americans believe animals should be awarded similar rights as people, according to a 2015 Gallup poll. The majority, or 62 percent, reported animals should have some degree of protection. Historically, Aquidneck Island has taken issue with the coyote population, but residents recently made a strong exception for a coyote named Cliff that captured the hearts of locals.

Cliff’s final fate remains uncertain. As of this writing, Dr. Numi Mitchell, head scientist at the Narragansett Bay Coyote Study (NBCS), reports that the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management is now in charge.

Officials moved away from plans for lethal force after the public rose to the coyote’s defense. Demands to protect Cliff filled Facebook feeds, residents wrote letters to the editor, and tens of thousands of people across the globe signed online petitions. In a matter of hours, a GoFundMe campaign launched by Newport Councilor John Florez raised thousands of dollars in order to “tranquilize and transport the coyote to a zoo in Massachusetts.”

We were gratified that a story that Newport This Week covered for months prompted people to action. Our readers changed policy. It’s democracy in action! It’s the power of the pen! It is an example of why journalists are attracted to the industry in the first place.

Elsewhere, six local churches have scheduled Blessings of the Animals for their services this weekend. Imagine what our community could accomplish if we rallied behind issues such as the quality of our education, childhood hunger (food insecurity affects one in seven Rhode Island households), or homelessness with the same force as we did Cliff or our pets. We have complex problems on Aquidneck Island, and too often the level of public engagement is marginal.

It isn’t that residents are blasé.

Not only did compassion pull Cliff out of harm’s way, but it pushed him into the quandary in the first place. Throughout the summer, Newport This Week tracked Cliff and published several stories bursting with entreaties from Dr. Mitchell not to feed wild animals. Cliff eventually became conditioned to trust humans. He bumped into people on the road, followed a mother with her small child, and sat down at a bus stop full of children. On Sept. 19, we were saddened to report the Middletown Police Department and Dr. Mitchell determined Cliff had become a public safety threat and that he would be killed.

Three days later, amid strong pushback, Middletown Police Chief Anthony Pesare rescinded the order to use lethal force against Cliff, with the expectation he would be relocated. The voice of the people prevailed.

When it comes to confronting critical issues, let’s not make the same mistake we did with Cliff, and turn a blind eye to what preceded the decision to use lethal force. We can use the power of the pen to give a voice to the children and families in Newport County who need it as much – more – than Cliff does.

Democracy works. Now let’s get to work.

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