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Montreal’s Pit Bull Ban: Education, Not Euthanasia the Key

Michael Wickson (1L)

In September, Montreal’s City Council passed a bylaw banning Pit Bulls.   This breed-specific legislation (BSL) followed in the wake of an incident that resulted in the death of a woman earlier in the summer.  Although the incident is truly tragic, the adoption of BSL is not a suitable response.  The bylaw forbids new pit bull breeds within the city, and all existing dogs must be registered as restricted, sterilized, and wear a muzzle and be on a leash while outside.  Montreal’s SPCA challenged the bylaw on several grounds, including that it would require all pit bulls in shelters across the city be put down.

Montreal is not the first municipality in Canada to adopt BSL, but many of these, including Edmonton, have since repealed their BSL, due to enforcement difficulties, and their statistical ineffectiveness.  In Toronto, for example, the ban has been strictly enforced over the past decade, but the city has actually seen an increase in reported dog bites.  However, Winnipeg has, oddly enough, noticed a significant decrease in the number of pit bull related incidents since banning the dogs in 1990—go figure.

There are two main problems with BSL.  First, BSL removes the responsibility for aggressive animal behaviour from dog owners, and places it solely on the breed, without assessing the individual characteristics of each animal, or considering the conditions that led to the incident.  For example, in Winnipeg, an animal involved in an attack was locked in a garage for multiple days before it broke out and ran into a nine year old girl while in a severely agitated state.  These incidents are rare, and tend to result from the unacceptable conditions imposed on the animals by irresponsible dog owners.

The situation in Montreal was quite similar, but there is also conjecture as to whether the dog involved was even a pit bull.  It has proven difficult, even for trained personnel, to differentiate dog breeds at the best of times.  The Montreal Police are no exception.  Experts agree that the instinctive reaction people have to the term pit bull is unfounded.  For example, in Quebec, over the past three decades all other dog-related fatalities have been from incidents involving huskies. There has never been a discussion to ban huskies—yet when one mentions “pit bull”, people immediately consider banning them.

Another problem with BSL is that “pit bull” requires clarification, as it is actually a loose categorization of several breeds of dog.  For the purposes of the ban, Montreal defines a pit bull as: an American Pit Bull Terrier, or; an American Staffordshire Terrier, or; a Staffordshire Bull Terrier (affectionately known as the “Nanny Dog” in the UK due its reliability with small children), or; any mix of these breeds, or; any dog showing morphological traits of one of these breeds.  The definition of these “morphological traits” is ambiguous and concerning.  Many other dog breeds could easily be considered to have similar characteristics to a pit bull, such as boxers or bullmastiffs, just to name a few.

Montreal’s ban was supposed to take effect on October 3, but was delayed by an injunction, which Montreal’s SPCA requested, due to the vague terminology.  Montreal has appealed this suspension to the Quebec Court of Appeal.  Unfortunately, historical precedents are not promising for the SPCA, since courts have typically upheld BSL.

Ontario amended is “Dog Owner’s Liability Act” in 2005 to ban all pit bull following several incidents.  Challenges to the ban on constitutional grounds were dismissed by the Ontario Court of Appeal, and resulted in only a few minor revisions to the legislation.  The Supreme Court of Canada has yet to voice its opinion on the matter, although it likely will in the coming years.  An application for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court was denied in 2009.  More are coming.

One factor that may distinguish the situation in Montreal from the rest of the country, is a recent amendment to the Civil Code of Quebec.  Last year, Quebec passed an animal protection law recognizing that animals have biological needs that differentiate them from common property.  With some exceptions for livestock, animals in Quebec now have the status of sentient beings.  Part of Montreal’s SPCA’s challenge to the ban revolves around this new status, and the fact that euthanizing countless dogs would violate the protections inherent in the sentient being legislation.

Many municipalities have repealed their BSL and moved toward regulations that restrict individual dogs that have shown aggressive behaviour.  What has become known as the “Calgary Model” is largely considered to be the most modern approach to animal control.  This approach holds dog owners accountable for the action of their pets, and emphasizes education for pet owners and children.  Many municipalities in Canada and the United States have used the Calgary Model as an approach to animal control.  Montreal should have done the same rather than defaulting to a total ban.  While the suspension is in place, numerous pit bull are being sent to animal sanctuaries in other provinces, including Alberta.  The appeal will be heard on November 25t.

If you would like to learn more about BSL and stereotypes around pit bulls, I highly recommend watching a documentary on Netflix called “The Champions”.  This film highlights the individuality of dogs—even those raised in the most horrific conditions are still capable of being loving pets.