Quebec, Ink. — Man Bites Dog

Montreal’s procedure for dealing with dangerous animals definitely needs an overhaul, but not in the direction the city is trying to tug it.

Imagine if Canadian criminal law made absolutely no distinction between somebody who accidentally hurt someone on a single occasion and someone who did so regularly and with enthusiasm.

Imagine that the only punishment for either offence was death. And the determination of guilt was made by a single person, with no defence lawyers present and no clear rules of evidence. And that any appeals would have to be launched within 24 hours of the verdict, otherwise the death sentence would be carried out immediately.

Well, there’s no need for imagination. The city of Montreal is preparing just such a system this fall as it overhauls its dog by-laws. Although the wording of the new rules has yet to be finalized, critics are already calling it the “dog scratch by-law.” The major changes they are expected to bring are the following:

1. A dog will be deemed to have caused an injury if skin is broken on the person or dog that was injured. Current by-laws refer only to bites.

2. The punishment for dogs found guilty of such an offence is death. Right now, punishment can range from requiring that the animal be muzzled when outdoors to execution “if, in the opinion of the director (of permits and inspections), it constitutes a danger to health or public safety or if the wound caused by the dog leads to a skin laceration requiring several stitches.” (my translation, from city by-law C-10, sec. 20)

3. The delay in appealing any decision to put down a dog will be cut from 48 to 24 hours.
The proposal made headlines earlier this year, when a five-year-old bull terrier named Wicca was put to death after a city director ruled she was dangerous. As the animal’s owner was fighting the decision, reporters discovered the city’s plan to adopt even tougher rules. Not that the rules we have now are wussy. Wicca was executed on July 26.

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Montreal’s procedure for dealing with dangerous animals definitely needs an overhaul, but not in the direction the city is trying to tug it. We need a system that protects people and animals from dangerous dogs, but it should also respect basic rules of justice. In my mind, that would include:

1. An independent judge. Maybe someone who actually knows a little about animal behaviour. Right now, the dossier is tossed in the lap of an extremely busy civil servant who has had absolutely no training in animal behaviour. And she probably has cats.

2. A range of legal remedies. A one-size-fits-all punishment is ludicrous and could easily make people less likely to report incidents because they don’t want to see an animal killed over a minor mishap. For example, if someone else’s dog nipped yours while playing at the municipal dog run and your dog scratched the aggressor in defence, the city would have no choice but to kill both animals.

3. A reasonable opportunity to collect and present evidence and to challenge any contrary evidence that may be brought forward. There is no need to rush to judgment, especially with a life in the balance.

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The SPCA and other organizations plan to fight any efforts to change the by-laws in the direction suggested by the city. To join them, you can send the city a letter or sign a petition at ■

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist and stand-up comic. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear at least once a week in this space. You can follow him on Twitter or find out about his upcoming stand-up performances here.

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