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What is a pit bull? A Montreal pit bull ban struggles with identifying breed correctly

A Montreal pit bull ban

Pit bulls

A Montreal pit bull ban has provoked criticism from the breeds’ owners and animal rights advocates, some of whom are saying that it unnecessarily puts dogs’ lives at risk and is almost impossible to legislate in practice. That’s true, says a study from the University of Florida which found that most people, including trained animal shelter staff, are unable to accurately identify dogs of pit bull heritage, a result which speaks to the difficulty in enforcing city-wide pit bull bans.

In the wake of the horrific mauling death this past June of 55 year-old resident Christiane Vadnais, Montreal city councillors voted on Tuesday in favour of a bylaw banning the new ownership of pit bull and pit bull-type dogs within the municipality. Montreal mayor Denis Coderre voted for the legislation. He says the safety of Montreal’s citizens is of prime importance.

“My duty as mayor of Montreal is making sure I am working for all Montrealers,” he says “And I am there to make sure they feel safe and that they are safe.”

Animal rights advocates such as Montreal’s SPCA have been quick to condemn the legislation as cruel, ineffective and impossible to legislate in practice. Director of the SPCA’s animal advocacy department, Alanna Devine, argues that other municipalities in North America that attempted such legislation have subsequently repealed it, due to the lack of supportive evidence that it helped to reduce dog bites and injuries.

“It just seems kind of unbelievable that our city would adopt legislation that goes against all expertise, all peer-reviewed studies, and the trend around the world,” says Devine.

Set to go into effect on October 3rd, the new law would make it illegal to acquire pit bull-type dogs and would require current owners of the dogs to obtain a special permit by December 31st of this year, after which dogs without permits could be euthanized.

Although the pit bull is not a recognized breed, it applies to dogs with heritage from either American Staffordshire terrier or Staffordshire bull terrier and also includes dogs known as American pit bull terriers. Some of the grounds for legislation such as Montreal’s new bylaw are that dogs with this particular heritage are constitutionally more prone to aggressive and potentially dangerous behaviour and that dogs with this background can be identified on a reliable and consistent basis.

Yet, a study earlier this year from the University of Florida’s College of Medicine showed that animal shelter employees all of whom had at least three years’ experience working in shelter environment were unable to accurately label dogs as pit bulls. Researchers evaluated 16 shelter staff, four of whom were veterinarians, at four different animal shelters and found that dogs whose DNA put them in the pit bull category were identified by shelter staff between 33 to 75 per cent of the time, while other dogs who did not have pit bull-type DNA were identified as pit bulls up to 48 per cent of the time.

“Essentially we found that the marked lack of agreement observed among shelter staff members in categorizing the breeds of shelter dogs illustrates that reliable inclusion or exclusion of dogs as ‘pit bulls’ is not possible, even by experts,” said Julie Levy, professor of shelter medicine at the University of Florida and lead author of the study.

Levy says that mistakes on identification can lead to drastic consequences, especially in regions where pit bull bans are in place. “Unlike many other things people can’t quite define but ‘know when they see it,’ identification of dogs as pit bulls can trigger an array of negative consequences, from the loss of housing, to being seized by animal control, to the taking of the dog’s life,” says Levy.

Montreal’s SPCA plans to challenge the City’s new legislation on grounds that it illegally discriminates against pit bull-type dog owners and contravenes sections of Quebec’s Civil Code and Animal Welfare and Safety Act.

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About The Author /

Jayson is a writer, researcher and educator with a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Ottawa. His interests range from bioethics and innovations in the health sciences to governance, social justice and the history of ideas.
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