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Ford government rethinking Ontario’s ban on pit bulls
Oct. 7, 2019
Rob Ferguson

Premier Doug Ford’s government is rethinking Ontario’s long-standing and controversial pit bull ban, the Star has learned.

The move is likely to spark an emotional debate over the dogs considered docile family pets by many and deadly predators by others, who point to news reports such as graphic police body-cam video obtained by an Ohio TV station showing officers Tasering and later shooting a pit bull that had chomped its owner’s arm.

Ban opponents like the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association see this as the best chance in years to neuter the 2005 legislation as two Progressive Conservative MPPs also push to have it repealed, with petitions circulating and a private member’s bill expected later this fall.

Attorney General Doug Downey’s office confirmed Friday that “the government is considering all options with regards to the Dog Owners’ Liability Act and breed-specific legislation.”

That’s good news for dog lovers who consider the ban discriminatory and not based on scientific data, and who were disappointed when New Democrat and Tory MPPs unsuccessfully attempted to overturn the legislation under the previous Liberal government.

“We have very high hopes,” Hannah Sotropa of the Toronto Humane Society said Friday.

The ban shepherded by former Liberal attorney general Michael Bryant required pit bull owners to muzzle, leash and sterilize their dogs, or face a $10,000 fine or up to six months in jail -- or both. It also outlawed the breeding of the dogs and banned them from being brought into the province.

Supporters of the restriction warn that pit bulls are flat-out dangerous, citing deadly incidents such as one last weekend in which a Virginia woman was fatally injured when her two-year-old pit bull lunged at her throat and wouldn’t let go.

On Monday, an Oklahoma man died in hospital after being attacked by two pit bulls and a mixed breed. Police responding to the 911 call had to shoot one of the pit bulls as it came at officers arriving on the scene.

The Texas-based website says it has tracked more than 370 fatal attacks by pit bulls in the United States since 1998, the last year the Centers for Disease Control tracked fatal dog attack data by breed. Toronto, for example, also does not track “dangerous dog acts” by breed.

But opponents say the ban unfairly puts blame on the dog for dangerous behaviour, such as biting, instead of the owner, and singles out several breeds lumped into the “pit bull” category without evidence they are more aggressive than others.

“Our best guesstimate is that this law has resulted in the deaths of over 1,000 dogs that have never done anything to anyone,” said Doug Raven, chief executive of the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association.

“You may prevent an attack on someone by a pit bull but how many dogs are you willing to kill to prevent the possibility of something happening? If a dog is dangerous, it’s generally going to have to do with how the dog was trained or not trained, temperament and upbringing and so on that is particular to that animal.”

Raven said the legislation should be strengthened “to ensure appropriate action is taken when an individual dog is deemed to be dangerous” and to hold owners more accountable.

Conservative MPP David Piccini (Northumberland--Peterborough South) has been circulating a petition for months, stating “all animals are capable of aggressive behaviour” and “the solution to preventing dog-related incidents is best addressed through comprehensive training and education programs.”

It calls on legislators to repeal breed-specific language from the Dog Owners’ Liability Act and the Animals for Research Act, which ban pit bull terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers, American pit bull terriers and any dog that has the appearance and physical characteristics of them.

“We’re more likely to get bit by a husky and a chihuahua. It’s not breed-based; it’s ownership-based,” Piccini, who did not return the Star’s requests for comment, recently told Trent Hills Now, a community magazine in his riding.

Piccini has teamed up on the issue with his caucus colleague Rick Nicholls, MPP for Chatham-Kent-Leamington, who is planning to present the private member’s bill in the legislature, his office confirmed Friday.

Critics say the ban is not evenly enforced in Ontario, with some municipalities largely ignoring it.

In Toronto, animal services department manager Fiona Venedam said officers will investigate complaints about anyone owning a pit bull.

“The onus is on the dog owner to prove their dog is not a prohibited pit bull. If the dog owner is not in compliance with the legislation, a proceeding against the dog owner may be commenced in the Ontario court of justice. The final disposition of the dog is determined by the courts,” she told the Star in a statement.

The Toronto Humane Society gets about five pit bulls a year and sends them out of the province, said Sotropa, who herself has fostered several of the animals and considers them “trainable and capable.”