By Alyshah Hasham
The seven puppies were under a death sentence from an Ontario branch Animal Control Services.
Their mixed-breed mother had been labelled a pit bull under provincial law.
So in the dead of night, a volunteer of the Ontario-Nova Scotia Ador-a-bull dog rescue spirited the seven away.
The volunteer drove the “pirate puppies” to Halifax, N.S., where they were adopted into loving homes.
The former owner of the dogs was not charged, after a Halifax vet sent Animal Control a letter stating he was in possession of the seven puppies.
“They were six weeks old,” said Emily Ugarenko, co-founder of Ador-a-bull. “They hadn’t done anything wrong. They were just born and of a certain colour with little short ears and possibly their mom was more bull-and-terrier than boxer.”
The story of a doggy underground railroad is common in post-pit bull-ban Ontario.
A network of volunteers work quietly to save hundreds of dogs from being euthanized or used for research if they are seized and determined by a veterinarian to be or resemble one of the banned breeds listed in Ontario’s Dog Owner’s Liability Act: pit bull terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, an American pit bull terrier.
What rescues like hers do is legal, says Ugarenko. But they are dependant on the cooperation of local animal control services or shelters, which means sting operations like the case of the “pirate puppies” sometimes happen.
As long as the dogs are not deemed a threat to public safety, pounds and shelters have the legal right to send them out of the province, said OSPCA spokesperson Brad Dewar. “But it would be illegal for a pound to move an animal considered illegal under legislation to a rescue group within the province.”
Ugarenko says her rescue only chooses dogs that pass a rigorous temperament assessment and have no history of aggression.
They have saved more than 300 dogs this way since 2005, driving or flying the dogs out of Ontario to Halifax on donations.
It beats adding to the death toll of 1,000 dogs unfairly judged by the breed-specific legislation, say animal advocates seeking a repeal of the ban.
“It’s the deed, not the breed,” they repeat.
But it’s that number —1,000 — that has become the emotional driving force behind a campaign to overturn the ban, turning middle-aged women into passionate activists and at times social pariahs for associating themselves with dogs still widely perceived as inherently dangerous.
One such woman is Fran Coughlin. In her backyard in Etobicoke, she plays with her bull-mix dog Che who is just 6 months older than the ban that took effect Aug. 29, 2005, and thus was grandfathered in.
Repealing the ban is a full-time obsession for the realtor-turned-advocate, and it’s only growing as Bill 16 — a tri-party private members bill — inches towards a third reading. The bill would end the ban. It’s the third incarnation of such a motion and the brightest hope since their court challenge of the ban in 2009 was lost on appeal.
Coughlin believes the trend once directed firmly against banning breeds has changed.
Ohio removed pit bulls from their definition of “vicious” dogs in May, a classification that refers to a dog who has seriously hurt or killed a person or killed another dog. Netherlands repealed their 15-year ban in 2009, Vancouver in 2005 and Delta, B.C. in 2011.
However, Maryland passed a law in April declaring pit bulls “inherently dangerous,” proving the debate in the U.S., as in Ontario, is very much alive.
And Winnipeg’s ban — which was an example for the Ontario ban, continues to hold.
Lifting the ban, which has been in place for 22 years, could cause shelter overcrowding since it would be difficult to find adoptive homes for the dogs that still carry a stigma, said animal services chief operating officer Leland Gordon to the Winnipeg Free Press.
The Ontario Veterinary Medical Association, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the OSPCA and the Toronto Humane Society have publicly opposed the ban as a means of reducing dog aggression.
Both Coughlin and Ugarenko agree that changes to the dog ownership act should include other provisions for public safety, that hold irresponsible dog owners accountable for dangerous dogs of any breed.
That could mean micro chipping all dogs, harsher penalties for irresponsible dog owners including mandated training or jail time, and increased education for dog owners, and for children on how to interact with dogs, along the lines of Calgary, whose much-touted model has dramatically reduced dog bites in the city.
NDP MPP Cheri diNovo (Parkdale-High Park), one of the co-sponsors of Bill 16, says that rescinding the ban can only be done by “substituting it with tighter legislation,” that will improve public safety. She hopes to see it happen by next year.
Tom Harrower says that is the only the way the ban could be lifted.
Harrower’s elderly mother Thelma was the victim of a vicious mauling when her neighbour’s pit bull mix dog leapt a four-foot fence into the backyard of her Burlington home in 2006. The dog had been sick and was left alone in the backyard.
Thelma passed away earlier this year, never fully recovering from the trauma.
“The attack changed the course of her life and mine,” said Harrower, a retired teacher who has spent a great deal of time thinking about how to prevent such attacks.
“Dogs need protection and pit bulls need particular protection from a bad owner,” he says.
He believes the muscular pit bull-type dogs can be dangerous. But he also says any large dog could have been capable of an attack like the one on his mother.
If the breed-specific ban is removed, he wants some assurance from owners of pit bull-type dogs that they will be responsible owners who will be held fully accountable for the behaviour of their dogs.
Most of all, he wants to see advocates and legislators have a reasonable and calm discussion.
We owe that much to the dogs, he said.
“They say dogs are a man’s best friend. But I think that man hasn’t been a good friend to dogs.”
- Torstar News Service