May 20, 2006
Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice will soon decide whether the province’s ban on pit bulls is constitutional. This high profile case unites legendary libertarians and lefties – specifically, National Post columnist George Jonas and jurist Clayton Ruby – in their attack on the provincial legislation.
To both, this is a matter of rights, a case involving discrimination against dogs. I fear that others may find them persuasive, and that our Bill of Rights may some day be amended to prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, colour, creed or breed.
“Should any specific breed of dog be banned?” Jonas asked eminent veterinarian Mark Spiegle, past president of the Veterinarian College of Ontario. Dr. Spiegle replied no. “It was the kind of ‘no’ you’d expect in reply to the question: ‘Should any specific human race be banned?’ from a person who knows anything about human beings.”
Jonas concluded that “Banning ‘pit bulls’ to eliminate dog attacks makes about as much sense as banning Irishmen to eliminate bar-room fights. … There are bad breeders. There are bad masters. There are even bad dogs. There are no bad breeds.”
Ruby argues a similar line. Like Jonas, he doesn’t object to punishing bad dogs or their masters; he objects to punishing either a specific breed or cross-breeds such as pit bulls (mixes that might include the American pit bull terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier and the American Staffordshire terrier). Breed-specific legislation (BSL) does not focus on “dangerousness, but rather on breed and breed is not a sufficient enough marker of dangerousness to pass constitutional muster,” he stated.
Opposition to BSL is a growing movement. A large literature has by now developed around the evils of BSL, some of it reasoned, some of it not (in dog circles, many equate the extinguishing of a breed with ethnic cleansing or genocide). Courts in various U.S. states have ruled breed-specific laws to be unconstitutional (some make exceptions for pit bulls) for denying pet owners equal protection and due process. Legislators are proposing bans on breed-specific laws, just as they have objected to demeaning animals in circus use.
Pet owners once rated no such rights, and pets no such status. Pets and other animals were property, even if protected against cruelty. Now they are a new frontier in a relativist movement that has extended rights from humans to animals, and disturbingly equates wrongs perpetrated against one with the other. In 1993, only one law school in North America taught animal law. Today, more than 40 do so, including the University of Victoria, University of Alberta and McGill University.
The pit bull controversy, and especially breed specific legislation, has become the chief battleground in the movement to endow animals with inalienable rights. These advocates are barking up the wrong tree.
Laws should be breed specific because breeds, being man-made, vary wildly. We have bred dogs for size, for strength, for speed, for colour, for stature. We have bred them to chase animals into fox holes and up trees, to pull sleds and herd sheep. We have bred them to guard houses and to track criminals. And we have bred them to fight other dogs and to kill.
Pit bulls trace their ancestry to bulldogs and terriers bred by English butchers to fasten their jaws upon the noses of cattle destined for slaughter, and not let go. With the cattle thus immobilized, the butcher would smash its head with a mallet. The breed’s ferocity and exceptional jaws – rated at 1,800 pounds of pressure per square inch – led to its development as a fighting dog. Pit bulls fought each other in a pit, surrounded by frenzied spectators. After England outlawed the sport in 1835, it went underground, where it continues to this day. Underground garages now clandestinely host pit bull fights weekend nights in our suburbs; in rural settings, they might occur in a barn or the open air.
There are bad breeds, and bad breed combinations, such as the ones that produce pit bulls. The pit bull and other fighting dogs have been bred, and continue to be bred, as bloodthirsty animals. The wonderful disposition that the pit bull exhibits is also a matter a breeding: Because the risk of damage by a pit bull is so great, they have been bred to respond well to those they trust. “Never hit your dog,” warned a column in American Game Dog Times, one of many publications that promote dog fighting. ” You are going to be handling this dog in the pit someday. He must trust your hands, not fear them.”
Because of the pit bull’s threat to the public, and especially because of the disfigurement or death that can accompany an attack, some 30 jurisdictions in Canada, and hundreds around the world, have passed BSL legislation. Where the legislation requires dangerous dog owners to acquire breed-specific liability insurance, the insurance premium for a pit bull often exceeds $1,000 a year – the judgment of the marketplace of the risk that a pit bull poses.
Critics of BSL claim a pit-bull ban will be futile – the taste for dangerous dogs will merely shift to Rottweilers or Akitas. Perhaps, but why would that matter? Other inherently dangerous breeds can likewise be regulated. More importantly, we would be distinguishing between good and bad, and rights and wrongs..
Lawrence Solomon, author of the forthcoming book Toronto Sprawls, is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute and Consumer Policy Institute, divisions of Energy Probe Research Foundation.; www.urban.probeinternational.org