dog laws a tale of three communities

Trevor, the Yukon's most famous dog, is looking for a home. Trevor is the shepherd-Rottweiler cross who made national headlines last year when the Yukon Supreme Court granted him a stay of execution after his third biting conviction.

Trevor, the Yukon’s most famous dog, is looking for a home. Trevor is the shepherd-Rottweiler cross who made national headlines last year when the Yukon Supreme Court granted him a stay of execution after his third biting conviction. Now that he’s off death row, pending a final assessment, it seems that nobody wants him.

Trevor’s story is so fraught with irony, it’s tempting to be flippant about it. There’s his homelessness, for instance. As a result of his anti-social behaviour he is unable to find a home of his own, and is forced to live at the shelter. Isn’t it interesting that everybody in the Yukon has heard his name, while homeless humans go unheralded to the shelter every night?

There’s a punchline there just waiting to be picked up, but the tragic death of 10-year-old Keith Iron in Canoe Lake, Saskatchewan, this week took all the humour out of vicious dog stories. It’s hard to imagine a sadder, more horrific event than a child mauled to death by a pack of dogs.

Since the fatal mauling, there has been much talk about “wild dogs” entering the community. CBC host Anna Maria Tremonti raised the spectre of feral dogs breeding with wolves, while her interview subject, local MLA Buckley Belanger blamed the situation on “dangerous breeds” such as pit bulls, as if a pack of husky dogs wasn’t dangerous enough.

But there is nothing in the news coverage to suggest that the guilty dogs were wolf-dog hybrids – a rare occurrence since wolves are more likely to eat dogs than to mate with them – or pit bulls. There are no real wild dogs in Canada, and according to Canoe Lake First Nation Chief Guy Lariviere, the dogs who attacked Keith Iron were not feral, but belonged to local citizens.

Meanwhile, in Brampton, Ontario, a boxer-bulldog cross mother and pup face the death penalty for the crime of looking like pit bulls. Ontario’s dangerous dog law makes it illegal to own a pit bull terrier, or any of the related breeds, or any dog that looks like a pit bull. The two Brampton dogs have never shown any signs of aggression toward humans, but they do look a lot like pit bulls.

Laws to control dangerous dogs are one of the building blocks of a safe community. Canoe Lake already has bylaws that could have prevented the death of young Keith Irons. What it lacks, according to Chief Lariviere, are the resources to enforce the laws. “We can’t afford a dogcatcher, for one thing,” said Lariviere, and the RCMP won’t deal with it because it’s a municipal responsibility.

Places like Canoe Lake don’t have veterinary clinics, they don’t have government supported sterilization or euthanasia programs or public education on dog control or attack prevention. Saskatchewan does have the Remote Areas Veterinary Services Program, which provides those services the best it can – without a cent of public money. The vets who provide the service finance it themselves.

The only option open to impoverished remote communities is to go out and shoot stray dogs. It’s dangerous and it’s inhumane, but it’s effective, and a lot of people in Canoe Lake today are deeply sorry they didn’t do it last week. How much better if they had the resources to control the dog population in a safe, humane manner.

When people blame dog attacks on dangerous breeds, wild dogs or wolf-dogs, they’re missing an important point: almost any dog is dangerous in a pack. It’s as though people don’t understand what a dog is. No matter how much you love your pet, it’s not a furry, four-legged human. It’s a carnivore, a hunter, and given the right circumstances it’s a dangerous animal.

Consider the following three facts, and what they say about Canada. Brampton can afford to persecute otherwise harmless dogs because they look like pit bulls. Whitehorse can spend thousands of dollars to decide the fate of an animal that has repeatedly demonstrated aggression against humans. Remote aboriginal communities can’t afford a safe, humane solution to a life-threatening plague of stray dogs.

There are too many unwanted dogs in the world, and neither animal-rights sentimentality nor sweeping laws that discriminate against dogs based on their appearance will help to fix the problem. What’s needed are rational rules and inescapable penalties for vicious dogs and irresponsible owners, plus the resources to enforce those laws, not just in predominately nonnative communities, but all over Canada.

Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.