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Breed Specific Legislation snares Ontario
“At the end of every leash, there is a voter." - Ontario MPP Shelley Martel

THE GROWING menace of Breed Specific Legislation last week claimed a new electoral scalp when, as widely expected, the Ontario Legislative Assembly passed the controversial breed specific Bill HB132 put forward by Attorney General Michael Bryant to ban 'pit bull type' dogs from the Canadian Province.

The Attorney General had vowed to ‘ban pit bulls’ as the scourge they were – citing them as the most inherently dangerous dog breed. In doing so, Bryant was merely aping what his opposite numbers in many other countries - including the UK, USA, France, Germany, Australia, New Zealand and Spain, to name but a few – had done before him. They had seized upon the myth that banning a specific breed – or ‘type’ of dog would see an end to dog attacks.

The pattern in each country, state or province – including Ontario – had been the same: A spate a well-publicised dog attacks, biased reporting by a media determined to use this latest affront to the citizenry to attack a Government that was seen to be weak, accusing them of failing in their duty to protect the public. The only answer, the Government decrees, is to ban this or that breed – invariably ‘pit bulls’ a generic term for a ‘type’ of dog which is wrongly cited as the worst offender.

Breed Specific Legislation – or BSL as it is known - sounds like a good concept. Ban a breed, banish the problem. Except there’s one crucial flaw in this premise – BSL simply does not work.

As in other countries, the Ontario Liberal Government went through the motions of pretending to listen to those who opposed breed specific legislation, experts in canine matters, vets, animal welfare workers, the vast majority of which agreed that stronger dog control laws were a good idea, but that such laws should be directed towards the owner of any vicious dog – in so doing, to ‘Punish the Deed, Not the Breed’, the rallying cry of the worldwide anti-BSL movement since the 1990s.

So the Liberal Government duly convened a Standing Committee of MPPs - with an in-built Liberal majority - to hear evidence from experts and interested parties on the subject of BSL. Despite a clear majority of those giving evidence – 81 out of 103 in fact - saying clearly that BSL was not workable and had not worked in other countries, the Attorney General proceeded with he Bill - as most campaigners had suspected he would anyway. Just like his opposite numbers elsewhere.

The Bill received its third reading in the Assembly two weeks ago, where it was passed by a comfortable Liberal majority of 61 votes in favour and only 25 against. Every Liberal MPP that had previously expressed reservations about the Bill to campaigners - which included their constituents - voted in favour of the Bill.

So what is it that makes politicians lose even their most fragile grip on reality? What makes them overlook the wealth of evidence that BSL is a bad law and does not work? What makes them think that a knee-jerk reaction to assuage the media campaigns is the sensible answer when all the evidence points to the fact that BSL isn’t even a short-term solution but is, in fact, no solution at all? It is, in fact, the most flawed form of legislation ever to emerge in supposedly enlightened modern democracies.

EXPORTED IDEA

BSL is an international concept, originally mooted in a few US cities in the late 1980s and enacted at national level for the first time in the UK in 1991.

John Major’s Conservative Government established the concept of Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) in the UK in the spring of 1991, following a spate of particularly nasty dog attacks upon people by dogs alleged to be American Pit Bull Terriers.

The media had been conducting a hysterical campaign against ‘devil dogs’ for some months, spurred on by various pressure groups and animal charities such as the RSPCA. Thus it was that Home Secretary Kenneth Baker assured his place in history by accepting the advice of so-called’ experts’ and enacting the Dangerous Dogs Act, which was based on the simple premise of BSL – that all dogs of a particular breed or ‘type’ are inherently dangerous and, by association, their owners belong to a particular social class.

FLAWED CONCEPT

Since 1991, the DDA has been shown to be flawed, thus the whole concept of BSL is flawed. Dogs have been seized simply because of their resemblance to Pit Bull ‘type’ dogs. This even led to the ridiculous scenario where pedigree Staffordshire Bull Terriers have been found guilty of being ‘of the Pit Bull type’, and, as one police officer who regularly appeared for the prosecution in DDA cases gleefully put it; "A Kennel Club pedigree isn’t worth the paper it’s written on."

But even so, the outgoing Major Government conceded in 1996 that the DDA was flawed and it was amended into a less draconian form in early 1997. Even so, this wasn’t enough to save Major’s Government from a crushing defeat in that year’s General election – and the dog owners’ vote was a crucial factor. Since the Act was amended, far fewer dogs have been seized as pit bull’ types’, whilst some politicians even use the DDA as an example of a badly drafted law. Yet still the Act remains on the statute books, despite pre-election pledges by Tony Blair’s Labour Government to amend it. But promises made in Opposition are so easily forgotten in Government.

And how much did this wonderful Act cost and what did it achieve? Well - nearly £8.7 million was spent in breed identification alone in respect of DDA cases in 1996. Also in 1996, a medical study found that there was no decline in dog bite presentations at hospital Emergency Departments since 1991.

More recently, a report by the BBC in 2002 says that dog attacks have increased by 25%, again since 1991.

So did it work? You do the arithmetic.

BEWARE THE DOG OWNER

The final word on the latest round of BSL in Ontario goes to Conservative Opposition MPP Shelley Martel during the Third Reading of Bill 132, which would serve as clear notice for Bryant and his fellow Liberals that voters would not easily forget a bad law:

"In conclusion, let me just say that I had urged the government at second reading, ‘Bring forward all the experts, bring forward the information, bring forward the evidence to show me that a breed-specific ban would work and I will be there supporting the legislation.’ It didn't happen. The experts that came said over and over again that a breed-specific ban doesn't work, but the government wasn't interested in hearing that. The government certainly wasn't interested in hearing about recommendations to deal with dangerous dogs or irresponsible dog owners. I regret to say that we're going to have a piece of legislation that tomorrow afternoon, after this passes, isn't going to do very much at all, if anything, to deal with dangerous dogs and public safety.

"One thing that came to my attention, and this is for the Attorney General: At the end of every leash, there is a voter."

Cartoon which appeared in the anti-BSL Toronto Sun, showing the law that should have been enacted on dangerous Attorney Generals!

(c) Toronto Sun and reproduced with thanks