THE WAR of words between dog owners and the Ontario Government has intensified over the past fortnight after the Government announced plans for the introduction of Breed Specific Legislation. The main target of the new breed specific laws are ‘Pit Bulls’ – which have been designated as American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffords and Staffordshire Bull terriers.
Irrespective of pedigree and ancestry, all these breeds are classified as generic ‘Pit Bulls’ – similar to former Home Secretary Kenneth Baker’s ‘pit bull type’ in the UK’s 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act.
Attorney General Michael Bryant he announced that legislation would be introduced by the Liberal Government within a month, the first such provincial law in Canada. Mr Bryant spelled it out unequivocally: "We are banning pit bulls in Ontario."
If passed, the proposed legislation would allow current owners of Pit Bulls and dogs of the ‘type’ to keep their pets, but they will face "severe restrictions."
"They will be muzzled, they must be leashed and they must be neutered or spayed," Bryant said, the restrictions being an almost complete ‘lift’ of the discredited DDA.
If the legislation is passed there will be a transition period following which it will be illegal to breed, sell, buy, possess or import a pit bull in the province, he said.
In addition to the ban, the proposed law would double fines to $10,000 and allow jail sentences of up to six months for irresponsible owners of any breed of dog that is dangerous and bites, attacks or poses a threat to public safety.
The onus of identification of a dog will be put on the owners who will have to prove it's not a pit bull, Bryant said, clearly indicating that, as with the DDA, the burden of proof will be reversed – and ‘guilty until proven innocent’ will be the way cases will proceed.
The Bill received its first reading in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario last week. Bryant introduced his Bill, backed up with whoops and shouts from a group of BSDL supporters in the public gallery. Their cheers turned to jeers whenever another MPP attempted to speak against the motion, effectively stifling meaningful political debate, in the same way that Bryant has stifled sensible media debate by refusing to engage with responsible dog owners who are in favour of strong canine control laws but who oppose BSL as unfair and unworkable.
Michael Bryant rose to present his Bill, saying: "…This action responds to the growing alarm of Ontarians over the aggressiveness and danger of these dogs; the danger that these dogs pose to public safety; the danger that these dogs pose to other animals; and the imperilling of the safety of our streets, our parks and our communities. This is real; it is not just fear. It is fear based upon real harm caused by pit bulls against animals and victims."
Mr Bryant was interrupted by an Opposition member, but continued, saying: "I hear from the opposition something about fear-mongering. I'd like him to say that to some of the victims who are in the gallery here today who have been attacked by pit bulls. This is real, and we are going to protect Ontarians in the province of Ontario."
This led to claps and cheers from the BSL supporters in the public gallery, leading the Speaker, the Hon. Alvin Curling to ask them to be quiet and not to interrupt proceedings.
Bryant continued, warming to his scare mongering theme: "Pit bulls have been responsible for some horribly vicious attacks on Ontarians. Since August, barely a week goes by where there's not another pit bull attack reported in the media, and my experience has been that there are many, many incidents that simply go unreported: a child playing, a man going out for an evening stroll, an infant being pushed along in a stroller, a family enjoying some peace and quiet in their backyard - all of these circumstances and more - a woman delivering mail to a house. It goes on and on, and we see the incidents and we see the damage done and we see the fear that it causes and we see that people don't go to certain areas or parks and streets because of this.
"This Government is saying enough is enough. It's time that we make amendments to the Dog Owners' Liability Act that makes our streets safer. Ontario breeders would not be allowed to breed them. Future purchase and imports of pit bulls would be banned if this bill passes. There will be strict new requirements for people already owning pit bulls, though they won't be new for the responsible dog owner, because a responsible dog owner is already leashing and muzzling their pit bull. We are just requiring that all dog owners of pit bulls act responsibly.
"We've seen positive results from similar bans in other jurisdictions. The most relevant and telling is the Canadian experience: 14 years ago, Winnipeg became the first Canadian city to ban pit bulls. Winnipeg was experiencing over 30 serious reported pit bull attacks a year; today, zero. Kitchener saw 18 pit bull attacks a year, and in a few short years since the ban came in, thanks to the leadership of their mayor and to Councillor Berry Vrbanovic they now have about one pit bull attack a year in Kitchener.
"This means that people in those cities who otherwise would be subject to the repeated attacks of pit bulls are instead spared serious injury, and the same goes for their pets. Even more interestingly, dog bites in Winnipeg went down over the course of the pit bull ban, refuting the hypothesis that pit bull owners will turn to other dangerous dogs. Similarly, in Kitchener, no other breed has filled the gap left by banned pit bulls.
"In Ontario, in addition to Kitchener-Waterloo, Windsor has a ban in place, and Brantford is moving toward one after its city council voted to ban pit bulls. Toronto is re-examining the issue following a recent and particularly horrifying attack, as are other municipalities."
Bryant continued, saying that had received more than 6,000 e-mails about Pit Bulls, but carefully neglected to say whether these supporter his plans or not. He went on, in deliberately inflammatory language to praise those people who came to his side and to denigrate those who did not: "I heard from all sides. I met with municipal authorities, police officers, animal experts, groups like the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association and the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. I met with national coalitions representing humane societies, veterinarians and animal control experts. I met with victims and with citizens, those great non-experts who are all experts about dogs. We've heard first-hand the accounts of many victims and the suffering experienced by their families.
"I want to acknowledge and thank some people who courageously came here to Queen's Park [in the public gallery] who have been waiting, for a long time in some cases, for this ban to be put in place, if this should pass…Thank you to all of you for coming here."
Mr Joseph N. Tascona responded for the Opposition, saying: "I wish to express, from our party, our sympathy to the victims of dog attacks, and share the desire to stop attacks in future, but we have concerns about how the Attorney General went about developing this piece of legislation.
"My office has received dozens of e-mails, and almost everyone agrees that action must be taken to prevent innocent people from being attacked by dogs. Everyone is asking, what constitutes a pit bull? Experts say that the pit bull is really a breed unto itself, but refer to a number of breeds, crossbreeds, hybrids, etc.
"For the purpose of enforcing this politically charged ban, how does one determine what is a pit bull? Who will be responsible for making the determination and will it stand up in court?
There are people who suggest the government is taking this strong stand on pit bulls not because it feels the law will be enforceable, but because it will convince people it is taking action on a serious problem. Many pit bulls, or for that matter dogs in general, are not registered, especially in rural areas. When someone sees an unleashed dog, they might think, is it a pit bull? Who do they call? Assuming someone catches the dog, what happens next?
"Many municipalities in Ontario do not have facilities to detain stray animals. Some have financial arrangements with the SPCA shelters, run principally by volunteer organizations, but these groups often operate on shoestring budgets and can't be expected to take on the responsibility of dealing with a huge influx of what your government refers to as dangerous animals. Minister, you'll have to explain to us how this ban you propose will be effective and enforceable to protect the public."
Tascona went on to explain that the media hype about dangerous dogs being ‘pit bulls’ was entirely misleading: "Early this morning in Toronto a 28-year-old man is recuperating from serious injuries to his hand and arm after being attacked by a dog. While police are still investigating, this report appears to support your call for a ban on pit bulls. Well, not quite. The dog involved was not a pit bull; it was a Rottweiler.
"Pet owners and animal experts believe a ban on pit bulls will be just the start, that more breeds will be added as other dog attacks are reported. Over time, you might be able to include every breed in the ban. Banning the pit bull breed will not protect the public from other aggressive breeds such as Rottweilers and Dobermanns. My own experience is of having being bitten by a dog in the hand as a young child, by a German shepherd. Are we going to ban that dog also? What will be the criteria in the future for banning other breeds?
"In Italy, they have banned in excess of 90 breeds, and it has not solved the problem of dangerous dogs. The Attorney General says this comprehensive approach of a provincial ban will avoid a patchwork of bans by municipalities. Municipalities, I would argue, are capable of determining their community's safety, and were acting; for example, the city of Windsor.
What municipalities need are the tools to do the job. Muzzling and leashing pit bulls or other dangerous dogs in public is warranted, but will not protect victims from dogs that bolt from their owner's house or property and attack a human being or other creature. Police will not charge criminally unless it be proven that the dog owner was negligent."
Tascona wound up with a stinging attack on the Government and the Attorney General over the political opportunism behind the Bill: "I would say to the Attorney General that this is another example of your seat-of-the-pants approach to government. This is ill thought out, you didn't consult and you don't know how it will be policed or what it will cost. Admit it, Minister: this is a public relations show designed to give people the impression that you are doing something and to get your mug on TV.
"I will say this to you, Mr Attorney General: This bill should go to committee. You should face the public in terms of what you are trying to do. Make sure that it's enforceable and that you're accountable to the public. The people in this audience here today deserve to know that this is not a sham, that they will be protected.
"We have sympathy for anyone who has been bitten by a dog. We want to make sure they are protected by the law. We don't want this to be no more than the public relations exercise it appears to be."
The debate continued in similar stormy session, with arguments flying back and forth. It became very clear that the passage of Bryant’s proposed Bill was going to be a difficult one, even though the Liberal party has a strong majority in the Assembly.
Meanwhile, the Canadian Kennel Club entered the fray, issuing a statement against BSL:
"Make no mistake, The Canadian Kennel Club is in favour of Dangerous Dog Legislation which serves to protect the general public but not at the expense of any specific breed." said Sonny Allinson, Manager, Communications Division of the 116 year old Canadian organisation that registers 75,000 dogs a year with 10,000 members in the Province of Ontario and 25,000 across Canada. "There might have been some support from the Canadian Kennel Club had the Attorney General chosen to deal with all dangerous dogs of any breed but he has chosen to go against the advice of every major organization in this country."
The National Companion Animal has advised that long-term solutions are needed and by taking action with a ban this legislation is ill advised.
The definition of pit bull is based upon the Winnipeg model and The Canadian Kennel Club cannot support legislation which includes recognized breeds. The Attorney General reviewed the successful model in Kitchener/Waterloo excluding purebred dogs along with that city's definition of a generic pit bull has been ignored.
"Definition has been the critical issue from the beginning here" said Allinson "and dogs generically referred to as pit bulls by the media and the general public are the problem.
"They are randomly bred mixed breed dogs and as such have neither a predictable genetic background nor consistent distinguishing characteristics. They would not be eligible for registration with any breed association in Canada operating under the authority of the federal Animal Pedigree Act".
Allinson went on to say that "We intend to protect our recognized purebred dogs and every MPP in Ontario can expect to be asked for support when the vote comes down on this legislation."
THE NEW DOG LAW DETAILS
The proposed legislation will amend the Dog Owners' Liability Act and will ban the pit bull breed.
After a specified time it will be illegal to own, breed or import pit bulls into the province.
Current dogs will be exempt, but their owners will face restrictions and the dogs will have to be muzzled and leashed in public and spayed or neutered.
Fines doubled to $10,000; possibility of jail time of up to six months for owners of any dangerous dog of any breed that bites, attacks or poses a threat to public safety.