The Stafford: at risk under Ontario Breed Specific Legislation
ALL STAFFORDSHIRE Bull Terrier pups born in the province of Ontario, Canada after Monday November 28th must, by law, be euthanased under the second and most lethal part of the Ontario Liberal Government’s Breed Specific Legislation to stamp out ‘Pit Bulls’.
The province's pit bull ban came into effect at the end of August. As part of the legislation, a grace period ‘grandfathered’ pups born 90 days from that date, hence Monday’s deadline.
The path to the breed ban goes back two or more years, but the catalyst was an attack that took place exactly one year before the ban – the infamous Bill 132 – was enacted. In the pre-dawn hours of Aug. 28, 2004, a 25-year-old Toronto man was viciously mauled by two alleged pit bulls he had been walking for their owner.
Police shot both dogs and ultimately suffocated one with a mattress. On the front page of the Toronto Star the next day a witness called the scene "a bloodbath." Sgt. Greg Cole described what he saw: "I believe the dogs were sort of working their way up — from his feet up — had they gotten to his neck who knows what would have happened."
The attack came within two weeks of an attack on a man in Thorold and a week after a woman's dog was attacked in Toronto. The mauling at Isabella became the last straw in what was starting to look like, or be portrayed as, a rampaging urban menace.
Within days, Attorney General Michael Bryant announced that the province was considering a province-wide pit bull ban. "Some animals," he said, "amount to nothing less than dangerous weapons." His comments spurred an intense reaction from the public. Bryant would later say that his office was flooded with emails (the attorney general's office tallied more than 5,000) and telephone calls from people "informing me of pit bull incidents that had never been reported, and pit bull owners, of course, expressing their concerns."
Accompanying the initial story was a chart, compiled from reports of dog attacks that had appeared in the media. Of 15 attacks cited, the greatest number — six — were Rottweiler bites.
Five were pit bulls. One of the most gruesome attacks was the death of a Stouffville girl by a 130-pound bullmastiff in 1998.
Obviously, statistics can be manipulated to suit any point of view. A report such as the one quoted ad nauseaum by Bryant lacks any statistical validity. In the case of dog attacks, the devil is in the statistics, or rather the lack of them. An oft-cited figure for the number of annual dog bites in Canada comes from the Canada Safety Council, with an estimate of 460,000 bites per year. But, says Ethel Archard, spokesperson for the council, "We have based our estimates on extrapolations... they're really rough."
The council based its figure on a Quebec coroner's report released in 1999, which had documented bite reports from Quebecers in 1997 and 1998. The statistics were not, however, broken down by breed, though the council did cite a number of high-profile maulings, two involving Rottweilers, one involving "mastiff-cross dogs" and a fourth by a dog whose breed was not identified. "We have been concerned for a number of years that there are no national statistics," says Archard. "We don't have statistics on the breeds involved, whether they're licensed animals or not... whether they are neutered or spayed."
More recently, the Canadian Institute for Health Information conducted a tally of people visiting Ontario hospital emergency wards because of dog-related injuries. In 2003-2004, 10,883 made trips to the emergency department. Of those injuries, 85 per cent occurred in the home.
The need for hard data has been apparent for years. After the death of the girl in Stouffville, an inquest was held and subsequent jury recommendations included the implementation of a centralized database by the provincial government for reporting dog bites. That didn't happen.
In October 2004, Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government introduced Bill 132. On August 29 of this year, the amendments to the Dog Owners' Liability Act came into effect, banning all "pit bulls" while making restrictions for those dogs already resident in the province and those born prior to November 28th. Among the requirements to be met by owners of so-called "restricted" pit bulls is that they be sterilised, muzzled and leashed. Fines to owners of dogs deemed dangerous and thereby posing a threat to public safety were increased to $10,000, and jail sentences can now be imposed of up to six months for those same owners.
Toronto Mayor David Miller said he supported the government's "swift action," which he applauded as "the best solution... to keep Ontarians safe from dangerous dogs."
One of the jurisdictions Ontario looked to in crafting its legislation was Winnipeg. "We were seeing a large number of pit bull related incidents," says Tim Dack, chief operating officer of the city's animal services agency. Similar to Toronto, there was a particularly horrific attack, this one involving a nine-year-old girl in 1989. The city's pit bull ban went into effect in June 1990, and, says Dack, the city has seen no bites from pit bulls in the past two years.
Anti BSL campaigners and some animal welfare organisations have persistently argued that banning a breed will only result in the numbers of bad biters increasing elsewhere in the canine chain. Their voices have been joined by those of breeders, animal shelter workers, veterinarians and kennel clubs.
"Dog trainers are not usually considered animal rights activists and they're usually at odds with one another," says Julie King, who runs a computer consulting firm, breeds Staffordshire Bull Terriers as a hobby and was one of many to make an anti-ban presentation to the legislative committee on Bill 132.
The Staffie, she says, is not a "pit bull," but making that argument "can be taken in the wrong light to mean we can support the ban as long as you don't include us." The cultural battle lines were thus roughly drawn between the disparate dog community on the one side, and pro-ban politicians on the other, each backed to varying degrees by members of the public who may or may not be possessed of the facts.
To return to the Winnipeg example, 28 bites by "pit bull type" dogs were recorded in the city in 1989; 34 bites by German Shepherds were recorded in the same year.
A report published in 2000 by Vet Med Today, an American publication, assessed available data over time and reported that in 1979-1980, Great Danes caused the most reported dog-bite-related fatalities. Measured across a longer period (1975-1980), the German Shepherd dog was responsible for the highest number of fatalities. In 1997-98, the latest data reported in the study, Rottweilers were the most commonly reported breeds in fatal attacks.
Still, in that same year, Rottweilers and "pit bull type dogs" together accounted for 67 per cent of human fatalities, which certainly suggests, said the report, a "breed-specific problem."
Attorney General Michael Bryant echoed the disproportionate weighting of attacks prior to passing of Bill 132. To those who argue that a breed ban is not an effective way to control dog behaviour, Bryant argued that there must be an exception to that general principle. "Are we," he asked, "going to risk having these ticking time bombs out there in the province of Ontario?"
The Canada Safety Council offers this answer. "For people who want aggressive dogs, if there's a particular breed that they're not allowed to have, they'll find something else," says the council's Ethel Archard.
Meanwhile, Staffordshire Bull Terrier owners are waiting for the constitutional challenge to Bill 132. Court dates have been set. Commencing May 14th 2006 lawyer Clayton will argue in Superior Court that the legislation is overbroad in part due to the provision that allows for the imprisonment of owners who do not obey the law. The legislation, he continues, "is not tailored to the harm the government is seeking to prevent."
The harm, of course, is dog attacks. "There are people who really want vicious dogs and they train them to be vicious and they breed them to be vicious," says Ruby. "Those people, when they can no longer have pit bulls they will move to Rottweilers or shepherds or corgis."
The corgi reference is no jest on Ruby’s part. The list of banned or restricted breeds in Italy numbers 90, including the Queen's own, though any thoughts that the corgi could become a cultural brand for urban toughs the way pit bulls have is amusingly absurd. Bizarrely, Staffies are not included on the Italian BSL banned list, because the Italian Government granted dispensation to the breed having listened to expert evidence form the breed’s own experts. And yet they still enacted BSL on what appears to be an arbitrary number of other breeds.
‘Pit Bull pups’ flown away from province
It was 4 in the morning, Friday, November 18, when Operation Puppy Rescue was engaged. A worker with the Hamilton-Burlington SPCA drove up to the back entrance of the city's animal control facility and spirited away six pit bull puppies, all under four months of age.
"They had to be on a 7:15 flight and WestJet needed them two hours early so they had to be at Pearson at 5:15," says president Jim Sykes.
The puppies were strays, destined under the new legislation for either euthanisation or a research facility registered under the Animals for Research Act. A third option is an out-of-province transfer by a pound. Sykes found a welcoming home with the British Columbia SPCA in Victoria.
"We had a couple of e-mails from people who said if donations were going to be used to ship genetically defective animals on vacation they weren't going to support us any longer, " he says.
The majority of SPCA donors were supportive, including the four who paid the $400 puppy freight. Sykes believes there exists still a lack of public awareness of the life and death decisions now being made.
"I think people who just want to abandon them are going to do it now."
The deadline has left the Staffordshire breeders feeling bereft. Breeder Julie King says she will follow the ban directive and will breed no more. Fellow breeder Sylvia Barkey has dogs placed out of the province, which leaves her with breeding options outside of the legislation. Sitting at her kitchen table, with now five dogs bounding about, she can't help but express her frustration.
"The legislation is not protecting anybody," she says. "The people who are having a fit about this aren't the bad people who dumped their dogs in the pound and then went and got something different. The people who are upset about this are people who love their pets."
If you would like to register a protest against Ontario’s breed specific laws, write to: Mr Mel Cappe, Canadian High Commissioner, Canadian High Commission, Macdonald House,1 Grosvenor Square, London, W1X 0AB. Tel: 020 7258 6600.
Dogs Trust denounces BSL in Ontario
Dogs Trust, the UK’s largest dog welfare charity, is shocked to learn of the Ontario Government’s amendments to the Dogs Owner’s Liability Act which come into effect today. These amendments ban all dogs which appear to be pit bulls, including the Staffordshire bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier and the American pit bull terrier.
The charity is appalled to learn that from today, pups belonging to these breeds are now due to be euthanased. Dogs Trust is opposed to breed specific legislation either in the UK or abroad and will be writing to the Canadian embassy to express its concerns.
Dogs Trust accepts that some individual dogs may need to be muzzled, neutered and specifically registered but believe most of the underlying cause of aggression lies with the manner in which the owners train their dogs and that better education of owners would substantially reduce aggression.
Dogs Trust would like to see legislation amended to include a duty of care on owners to have proper control of their dogs to prevent injuries, especially to children and other dogs.
Dogs Trust is a member of the Dog Legislation Advisory Group in the UK, which amongst other issues advises against breed specific legislation.