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Territory liable for dangerous dogs: report

Dangerous dogs roaming rural Yukon create legal liabilities for the territorial government that are a "bomb waiting to go off," according to a new report.

Dangerous dogs roaming rural Yukon create legal liabilities for the territorial government that are a “bomb waiting to go off,” according to a new report.

Many rural communities have no dog-control program, leaving the problem in the hands of either the RCMP or Yukon’s Department of Community Services. Neither agency has the necessary training, equipment or manpower to sufficiently deal with dangerous dogs, according to the report.

Yukon’s laws that deal with dogs are also a mess, leaving the RCMP unsure when and how to prosecute the owners of vicious dogs. Two residents of Lake Laberge had their dogs fatally attacked by vicious dogs over the past year. They’ve both been told their only recourse is to take the matter to civil court.

In rural Yukon, neglected dogs periodically pack and begin to attack other animals. When this happens, the current solution in rural communities is to declare a day when any dog off-leash will be shot. But that’s never a permanent solution.

Kids are given puppies, then lose interest as the dogs grow up. These neglected dogs pack and the cycle starts over.

Nowhere in the Yukon is this problem as frequently discussed as in Ross River. That’s why the territory hired Richard Herbert, a Whitehorse resident who once worked as a veterinarian in northern Ontario, to research Ross River’s dog problems and come up with a pilot program that could, if successful, be applied to the whole territory.

He’s made far-reaching recommendations. His plan, endorsed by the Ross River Dena Council, calls for an overhaul of Yukon’s dog-related laws, for better veterinary services for the communities, for more manpower and resources to be poured into enforcement and for better public education to prevent dogs from being neglected in the first place.

Implementing this would be too expensive, said Wes Wirth, manager of operations and services for Community Services. He estimates Herbert’s program would cost $250,000 in Ross River alone.

“From a practical point of view, that’s not something we can do right now.”

So Wirth and his staff are spending the next three months picking priorities to include in Yukon’s 2011 budget.

To start, the territory funded a spay and neuter program in Ross River in this spring of 2010. The department is also working with the RCMP to develop new protocols for officials handling dogs, said Wirth.

And the territory is examining the cost of a dog identification program for Ross River. The report recommends the pricey solution of implanting microchips in the community’s dogs.

“In the long-run it’s probably the only way to do it,” Herbert said in an interview.

Collars and tags go missing. Tattoos are hard to read without turning the dog over. Chips have the additional advantage of helping to track when a dog was last vaccinated for rabies.

Yukon’s enforcement of dog-related laws is woefully inadequate, according to the report. RCMP have no training on how to deal with dogs, it notes. Nor do they have equipment to capture dogs.

Yukon’s Department of Community Services has one animal control officer, based in Whitehorse.

As a fix, the plan calls for regional dog-holding facilities staffed by animal control officers and outreach workers to teach animal health for the public.

The report’s big-government approach to dealing with dogs will probably cause some residents to roll their eyes and ask what’s wrong with shooting strays. But the report argues the past practice of summarily shooting dogs has landed the federal government in hot water.

The RCMP’s practice of shooting Inuit sled dogs in Baffin Island and Northern Quebec from the 1950s to mid-1970s created historical grievances that fester today.

Recent inquiries into these shootings failed to substantiate allegations these shootings were part of a government plot to transform nomadic hunters into wards of the state. But they did find the RCMP was often wrong to shoot these dogs.

The report skates over the many profound differences between a nomadic Inuit hunter living on Baffin Island in the 1950s and a modern-day First Nations resident of Ross River. Inuit frequently couldn’t speak English. They lived off the land and depended on their dogs for transportation.

But what matters, said Herbert, is that both prefer to keep their dogs loose. And in both cases, this practice runs afoul with laws prohibiting dogs being at large.

Ross River residents told Herbert they believe loose dogs help scare bears away from the community.

“If we tied up every dog in Ross River today, there’d be a nightmare with bears,” he said.

Perhaps a sturdy fence around the dump would be a better solution than letting dogs run amok. But that’s a decision for the community to make, said Herbert.

He insists the idea a dog must either be a pet, a work animal or a stray is based on the “European model,” and that First Nations culture views roaming dogs as playing a broader role.

The problem, said Herbert, is that the “wrong kind of dogs” are left roaming.

“You can’t make a rottweiler into a community dog,” he said.

While spay and neuter problems are essential to controlling dog populations, surgical methods may be deemed unacceptable in some First Nation communities, the report warns.

This objection wasn’t heard in Ross River, but elsewhere, “First Nations culture does not include the surgical manipulation of animals,” the report states. It proposes a sterilization program based on chemical injections.

Yukon’s legal system has a few holes big enough for a Saint Bernard to bound through when it comes to treatment of the territory’s dogs, according the report.

To wit: it claims that Yukon’s veterinarians are all unwittingly breaking the law.

We expect veterinarians to be licensed elsewhere. But “every province, territory and state restricts their veterinary licensing to within their own jurisdiction,” the report states. As a result, “a veterinary license is not valid to practice in other jurisdictions, including the Yukon.”

This matters because a veterinarian needs a valid license to prescribe drugs, under federal law. This “seems to place all veterinarians in the Yukon in a position in which they unknowingly illegally possess and traffic in controlled drugs.”

But Fiona Charbonneau, Yukon’s director of consumer services, disputes this is a problem.

“We don’t have any concerns with the Pharmacists Act,” she said.

The report also warns Yukon’s Animal Protection Act forbids people to allow their pets to suffer from a lack of veterinary treatment, yet veterinarians only rarely venture out of Whitehorse to rural Yukon.

This creates an “impossible requirement” for rural dog owners, the report states.

“How do dog owners without transportation or those living in Old Crow comply with the Animal Protection Act?” the report asks. It concludes the territory is “duty-bound” to help pay for veterinarians to tour rural Yukon more frequently.

The territory is chastised for having stopped tracking rabies several years ago.

It also makes the controversial recommendation of regulating the territory’s mushing industry. It would take just one outbreak of disease during a big sleddog race to have “international repercussions for the sport and its offshoot tourism industry.”

Representatives from the Ross River Dena Council didn’t return repeated calls. But Tim Moon, a longtime Ross River resident who has publicly aired his concerns about wild dogs in the past, laments that loose, vicious dogs have “been a problem forever. And nothing ever gets done.”

He isn’t hopeful the report will spur change soon.

“Maybe when a kid gets chewed up,” he said. “Hopefully it won’t come to that.”

Contact John Thompson at