August 31, 2006

Pit bull or not?

I've recently run into a couple of situations that highlight an important issue from the Ontario court case.

First, I recognize that there are important considerations in this case other than the ability to visually identify a dog breed. Things such as:

  • Unreasonable (and sometimes warrantless) search and seizure
  • Reverse onus
  • Presumption of guilt
  • Lack of equality and equal protection under the law
  • Lack of reasonable limits and demonstrable justification for such extreme measures
The issue of accurate and reliable identification of the supposed "problem breeds", however, was a significant factor in the constitutional challenge. The inability for average dog owners, for enforcement officers, and for courts to consistently and fairly identify a dog's heritage, even more so in the case of mixed breeds, is the reason why this law can partially be challenged on the argument of vagueness.

During the court case, both sides, as well as the judge, had much discussion about CORE vs. PERIPHERY.

CORE is defined as the specific purebred breeds named in the bill, clauses (b) through (d). In the case of Bill 132, these are: (b) Staffordshire Bull Terrier, (c) American Staffordshire Terrier, and (d) American Pit Bull Terrier. If a person owns a purebred dog of one of these breeds, identifiable through a pedigree with the American Kennel Club, the Canadian Kennel Club, the United Kennel Club, or the American Dog Breeders Association, then that person's dog is part of the CORE. These are also the dogs that, in the case of Bill 132, might be exempted from sterilization and, in certain situations, from the muzzle/leash requirements.

The CORE consists entirely of dogs that the prosecution can legally prove fall into the category of "restricted" or "prohibited" dogs. Our argument was that the core is SO small (incredibly small compared to the number of dogs in Ontario) that the only purpose of including the core was to give a base definition from which authorities can reach out and grab all the other dogs. There is also no proof, whatsoever, that the core is responsible for even a proportionate number of bite incidents compared to their population.

PERIPHERY, on the other hand, is covered by the other two "breed" definitions in Bill 132. Definition (a) is "pit bull terrier" and definition (e) is "a dog that has an appearance and physical characteristics that are substantially similar to those of dogs referred to in any of clauses (a) to (d)".

Much of the argument was related to the size of the CORE in relation to the size of the PERIPHERY. How many dogs can definitely be identified as "restricted" or "prohibited" (core)? How many dogs are sitting on the edge (periphery) and might or might not be identified, depending on the arbitrary and subjective opinion of the officer or the court? The government lawyers spent a lot of time trying to prove that "pit bull terrier" is such an accepted word, a norm if you will, that everyone knows what it is and what it looks like. If they were successful in this argument, then they could actually throw out clause (e) since clause (a) would cover anything they wanted it to.

OK, enough of the legalese. Back to my stories.

1. The Border Collie

A friend owns a dog that we think is a mixture of Border Collie and something - we don't know what. My guess, off the top of my head, would be Lab or something close. The problem is, when this dog smiles and you happen to be looking at the dog head on, it is easy to imagine that you see a "pit bull" grin. Never mind the fact that, when a Lab smiles, you get the same look.

So, she has been told by a few people, here and there, that her dog might have "pit bull" in it. Petrified, of course, and loving her dog more than life itself, she went out and got a muzzle. Now her dog is always muzzled in public. I had an Animal Services officer friend of mine look at the dog and tell her, point-blank, there is no way her dog would get identified as a "pit bull". But she's too worried about the one wrong person saying the one wrong thing. So she muzzles her dog. The point is, nobody knows. Not her. Not her friends. Not me. Not the Animal Services officer. Nobody.

2. The Terrier Mutt

Another couple owns a definite terrier mutt. Who knows what the heck is in this dog? Maybe some sort of wire-haired terrier, maybe some sort of hound as well. The dog has webbed feet and a nose that will take her two miles in any direction before she looks up. So maybe there is some hound. When they got the dog from the rescue group, they were told that there might be "pit bull" in her. Their only reason for suggesting that was because the dog is grey brindle (remember BRINDLE = PIT BULL). The dog has wire hair going in every direction except the ground and the hair is much longer than your average American Pit Bull Terrier. She's about 50 pounds. The owners are convinced the dog has Plott Hound in her, because of the brindle, the type of hair, and the webbed feet. Whatever the dog is, nobody knows for sure nor can they even muster an educated guess.

This dog was being boarded at another friend's house and I was to pick her up and walk her to the owners' house, a few blocks away. It just so happened that the day I did that (Saturday) was the Taste of the Danforth in Toronto. The Danforth is a road in Toronto, but it's also a Greek neighbourhood, with many Greek businesses and restaurants. Taste of the Danforth is a huge annual celebration of Greek culture and cuisine. Hundreds of thousands of people crowd through a closed off Danforth Avenue, sampling the goods and enjoying the music. Of course, there are also a lot of police there for crowd control, just in case.

I had to walk this dog right along the Danforth, through the crowds, to get from one friend's house to the other. As I was walking, I realized that I was still wearing the "My Ontario Includes Pit Bulls" button because I had been helping at a dog show booth earlier in the day. It suddenly occurred to me that there was no way I could prove the breed of this dog, that my button may attract the attention of a police officer, and that because of the brindle colour of the dog and because of my button, they may assume that she's a "pit bull". It would not be an unreasonable assumption, except that the dog doesn't look anything like any of the purebred dogs mentioned in the law. Not even close. But the colour plus the button could very easily cause someone to assume that the dog is a "pit bull" mix. Of course, she wasn't muzzled.

So, what did I do? For the sake of my friends, for the sake of the dog, and for my own peace of mind walking along the street, I removed my button.

What you have read here, my friends, is what this law does. It creates fear. It creates fear of dogs in the general public mind and it creates fear of authority within the dog owning population. It makes a simple thing like WALKING YOUR DOG a stressful, scary experience.

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