Jasmine CY Lam
Pit bulls have once again made their way to the front page of our newspapers. This is following the fatal attack on Montreal woman Christiane Vadnais by a dog that police identified as a pit bull, but has now been found to be a registered boxer. Following the attack, Mayor Denis Coderre passed a pit bull ban in an attempt to make Montrealers feel safer in the city (the Montreal SPCA is currently challenging the bylaw in the Quebec Court of Appeal). This form of regulation has been in effect in Ontario since 2005, despite a trend to move away from breed-specific legislation. Municipalities such as Vancouver and Edmonton repealed similar legislation in 2005 and 2012 respectively.
Policies driven by such unsubstantiated rhetoric take precious resources away from policies that do work, can exacerbate the problem, and are unable to address the actual issue—which in this case is irresponsible ownership.
One of the main concerns regarding breed-specific legislation is that public emotions such as fear, and politicians’ desires for quick political wins, tend to drive their presence on the public agenda – actual evidence is of little importance. The mayor of Kitchener, Berry Vrbanovic, recently described pit bulls as virtually indestructible by recounting a tale where a “few bullets actually [bounced] off the pit bull’s skull”. Similarly, Montreal’s legal representative René Cadieux explained to the Quebec Supreme Court that Ontario’s courts have determined that there is “no need for concrete scientific evidence for breed specific legislation,” and that it is “enough to rely on logic and common sense”—a precedent that supports Montreal’s ban. Policies driven by such unsubstantiated rhetoric take precious resources away from policies that do work, can exacerbate the problem, and are unable to address the actual issue—which in this case is irresponsible ownership.
A fundamental challenge to pit bull bans is that there is no consensus on what the term “pit bull” actually means. While “pit bull” generally encompasses Staffordshire bull terriers, American pit bull terriers, and American Staffordshire terriers, or any mix of them, the term is commonly used to apply to any dogs that appear to have “large heads and wide necks.” Given that the appearance of dogs, even those of the same breed, can vary immensely, the SPCA in Montreal has stated that it is “virtually impossible to identify ‘pit-bull-type dogs’ definitively, and even its veterinarians can’t do it.” Unfortunately, a study shows that DNA tests are also unreliable and recommends that the use of breed identification be re-evaluated. When the breed in question is largely undefinable, a pit bull ban takes on the role of pure, unfettered discrimination.
There is substantial evidence that breed-specific legislation is failing its stated goal to reduce dog-bites worldwide. Major veterinary associations agree – this includes the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, American Veterinary Medical Association, and the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association. Even President Obama has voiced his opposition to such bans. More than one hundred municipalities in the United States have overturned pit bull bans after they were found to be ineffective in reducing dog bites. Almost a decade ago, both the Netherlands and Italy reversed their own bans. When Edmonton repealed its own ban it cited Vancouver’s statistics, which found that pit bull bans do little to reduce incidences of dog bites. A nationwide Canadian study published by the Canadian Veterinary Journal found no evidence that municipalities with breed-specific legislation have seen a reduction in dog bites. Meanwhile in Ontario, total dog bites by various, non-pit bull breeds have increased since the implementation of its pit bull ban.
As the studies above have demonstrated, breed-specific legislation has proven ineffective, and is thus a misuse of public resources. They take resources away from breed-neutral legislation that is evidence-based, and has a greater potential to result in safer communities. Montreal need only look to Calgary, where strengthened licensing and public education campaigns on dog safety have seen a five-fold reduction of dog bites. While supporters of breed-specific legislation often cite Winnipeg, which has seen a reduction of dog bites since their pit bull ban, they neglect to acknowledge that Winnipeg invested $70,000 – $90,000 into annual education campaigns to promote responsible ownership immediately after its ban. Studies also demonstrate that education in dog interaction for young children, who are most commonly involved in bite incidences, can prevent dog bites. Enhanced enforcement by ticketing and dog licensing can reduce dog bites. Cities need to focus on putting their limited animal-control resources towards policies that are proven to work.
By depriving dogs from the socialization that healthy development requires, for the sole reason that they are, or look like, a controversial breed, regulators increase the possibility that dogs may develop aggression as they age.
The reality is that taxpayers are the ones who must pay to enforce a policy that does not work. Dog inspectors cost money; euthanizing dogs that may or may not be dangerous costs money; and disposing of euthanized dogs costs money. Regulators also risk future problems by stigmatizing a breed of dog. By depriving dogs from the socialization that healthy development requires, for the sole reason that they are, or look like, a controversial breed, regulators increase the possibility that dogs may develop aggression as they age. When policy makers tout breed-specific legislation as a way to solve dog-safety issues, they take precious resources away from other policies that are actually effective in enhancing public safety.
Jasmine CY Lam is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance, and holds a BA Hons in Political Science and International Development from McGill University. She has over 4 years of professional experience in the non-profit sector, with a passion to develop and implement effective policies and solutions that tackle social and equity challenges in Toronto and in Canada.