Pet politics

Montreal’s pit bull ban hits homeless the hardest

Dogs can be the only support system or companion for many on the streets
Photo: Bernadette Dye

The latest polls show Montreal’s breed-specific legislation targeting “pit bull-type dogs” is rapidly losing support among Montreal residents. But lost in the hullabaloo and outrage is a question on many minds since this all began: what will this highly-restrictive bylaw mean for the city’s vulnerable homeless population?

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Under the new bylaw, hastily introduced on Sept. 26 after a woman died from a mauling by a dog originally reported to be a pit bull (although the breed has yet to be confirmed), it will now be illegal to own a pit bull-type dog that hasn’t been registered with a special ownership permit by Dec. 31, 2016. Most experts agree it is almost impossible to identify a pit bull just by looking at it.

“The bylaw is practically forcing people to be non-compliant with the legislation because it’s impossible to follow.”

The ban was supposed to go into effect on Oct. 3, but after the Montreal SPCA launched a legal challenge, a Quebec Superior Court Judge ordered a temporary stay (which has now been extended). The judge cited too many concerns over an unclear law, and told the City to go back to the drawing board.

So the status quo remains, but what happens if the new bylaw goes ahead without modifications, and becomes the de facto law regulating pit-bulls in the city?

Disproportionate impact on those suffering from homelessness

“The new bylaw will have a disproportionate effect on the city’s homeless population if it passes,” Sophie Gaillard, a lawyer for the Montreal SPCA, explained to Ricochet.

“Right now, the bylaw stipulates that pit bulls have to be muzzled at all times when outside of a building. How exactly is a person who doesn’t have a roof over their head and owns a pit bull supposed to do that? How are they supposed to feed and hydrate their pet? The bylaw is practically forcing people to be non-compliant with the legislation because it’s impossible to follow.”

While the additional costs of owning a pit bull may have aggravated many current owners, one can only imagine how difficult it will be for people with limited to no financial means to cover hundreds of dollars of unexpected costs.

Quick and ill-conceived legislation was voted in with little thought to the consequences.

“When you add up the costs of microchipping, vaccinating, sterilizing your pet, plus paying for a now-mandatory criminal background check to attest to the fact that you haven’t committed a crime, we’re talking about approximately $650,” added Gaillard. “That might be an impossible amount to get together for someone living on the street. Particularly since they only have until March to comply.”

“Committing a crime,” by the way, can be something as benign as selling a dime of weed, which in this case could cost someone their dog. Under the new bylaw dogs can’t be adopted by another owner (except for a compassionate clause that permits adoption in the case of an owner’s death), so a dog seized under these circumstances would immediately be put down — no exceptions, even though it did nothing wrong.

In addition, under the new legislation pit bull owners will have to prove that they owned the dog and were Montreal residents before the bylaw came into effect. While that might be fairly simple for someone with an address and receipts to prove both residency and ownership, a homeless person with no roof over their head is unlikely to be able to prove either of these things.

How many people experiencing homelessness own dogs?

Colleen Ovenden, director of education and community outreach for the SPCA, told Ricochet that it’s extremely difficult to collect numbers on how many people experiencing homelessness own dogs, or specifically pit bulls.

“First off, it’s very hard to properly identify a dog as a pit bull-type dog, which is why the SPCA has been so adamantly against this legislation, and secondly there are no official stats anywhere,” said Ovenden.

She also made it clear that not all homeless shelters accept dogs. The Old Brewery Mission doesn’t, for example, while Dans la Rue does, but it only caters to those under 26 years of age.

For many experiencing homelessness, their animal may be their only support system, their only companion, and their only sense of home.

“Dans la Rue has what is unofficially called ‘Vet Night’ where Dr. John Fairbrother and a few veterinary students associated with the Université de Montréal descend on downtown Montreal once a month and try to provide their services, mainly prevention clinics,” Ovenden added.

Reached by email, Dans la Rue representatives told Ricochet that roughly 45 dogs are counted per week, and, once again, we don’t really know how many of those dogs are pit bulls.

Ovenden is in charge of the Montreal SPCA’s One Welfare Program, a collaborative program that unites the SPCA with human welfare organizations in the common goal of removing barriers to recovery and housing for those experiencing homelessness with companion animals. It’s a program that works in collaboration with social service organizations to develop co-sheltering options at human shelters, minimal-cost veterinary services, a pet safekeeping program, and a system of data collection.

People currently on the street who happen to own dogs that may fall into the pit bull-type category are very concerned.

“They’re absolutely worried,” said Ovenden. “During a recent workshop we did, quite a few people expressed concern. I know that some are planning on leaving the city, which is hard because they’ve already established connections with social services here.”

Taking all the necessary steps to comply with the new legislation can be daunting enough. One can only imagine how daunting it can be for people often ill-equipped to handle these new requirements.

“I imagine that many of them will now need the help of case workers to figure a lot of this out, which will only serve to overtax an already burdened system,” Ovenden added.

Workers on the ground dealing with the intricate legal details and ramifications of failure to comply bemoan the fact that quick and ill-conceived legislation was voted in with little thought to the consequences or the necessity of putting in place resources to ease the transition.

While some might dismiss this as a small price to pay for what they perceive to be safer communities, and others might claim that people on the street don’t have an automatic right to a pet, for many experiencing homelessness their animal may be their only support system, their only companion, and their only sense of home.

To have that taken away from them because of incomplete and ill-considered legislation is unfair and cruel to them and to their animals. The City of Montreal can do better. It should work more closely with those who have everyone’s welfare at heart — the two-legged and the four-legged alike.

For more information on how legislation can be improved to decrease dog bites without penalizing dog owners and their pets, as well as sign the petition, you can log on to the SPCA’s website.
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