By Steven Pam
Time to break with Hound TV tradition – and journalistic neutrality – for a bit of editorializing. Accordingly, here’s a disclaimer: these are my personal opinions, and may not be representative of our sponsors or of any other organization we work with. So there.
So, in case you haven’t heard, on 6 May 2010, Victorian Agriculture Minister Joe Helper tabled a proposed bill amending dangerous dog laws, essentially giving more powers to local council officers to kill dogs on the spot, as well as increasing fines etc. The bill is to be debated in a few days on 20 May.
As I see it, there may be a lot of issues in the fine print, but it boils down to about four major points:
1. Dog attacks are not a problem in our community
Controversial? Not if we look at the facts. Of course, any of us would be horrified if one of our children was attacked by a dog – and yes, every time a dog attacks a person – child or adult – that’s one too many times, but that doesn’t mean that jumping up and down hysterically and calling Today Tonight or A Current Affair is going to help. A calm, rational approach is called for.
I have yet to see anyone actually demonstrate compellingly – with facts – that there actually is a dog attack problem in our community.
A visit to the Australian Bureau of Statistics website and their reports on sources of injury reveals that dog bites are such a non-issue that there’s not even any separate data published on them – they’re lumped in with bee stings, spider bites, snake bites, etc. Falling is by far the largest cause of injury. So if we put even a tenth of the resources that go into dog bite prevention into fall prevention, we should see better outcomes.
Likewise, the ABS Causes of Death survey (2008) shows that dog bites are, as you might expect, way down the bottom of the scale. Most years there are no deaths from dog attacks, and three or four people would be a very bad year indeed. Again, we’d be better off putting more resources into some of the more common preventable causes of death.
2. Current laws are sufficient – just not enforced effectively
There are already comprehensive laws protecting people from attack by dogs; and making owners responsible for the conduct of their dogs. There is even provision for dogs that have attacked people to be put down. Perhaps these laws are not being enforced properly.
In any case, how does increasing fines – or putting dogs down on the spot after the fact – prevent attacks? Is there any evidence that when dogs seriously attack humans these are “repeat offences”? No one wants their dog to attack humans (controlled bite work, like military dogs, excepted) – the consequence of this is already death for the dog, plus exposure to extremely expensive civil litigation for the owner.
3. Making council officers judge, jury, and executioner on the spot
The new laws, if passed, would allow council officers to make a life-or-death decision about your dog on the spot if they have “reasonable grounds” to believe that a further attack is imminent. This is all very well if the council officer is a “reasonable person” – and I’m sure that many or most of them are, but the point is that laws should rarely if ever be framed that way. Otherwise why not just give the police the power to do anything? After all, most of them are honest and reasonable. Of course it doesn’t work that way. These are the freedoms that society has fought for since the 13th century or so – presumption of innocence, right to a fair trial, etc. Yes, we are talking about dogs, not people; but killing dogs on the spot, etc, is punishing their owners without a fair trial as well.
Even if you agree that dogs that have attacked someone should be subject to those powers – “innocent” dogs are not off the hook, either. If your dog is found “wandering at large” (maybe a tradesperson accidentally let it out, for example), it can be destroyed within 48 hours (the current laws provide 8 days). If you happen to be away at the time and hard to contact – bad luck.
4. Banning or killing dogs because they “look dangerous”
The final major flaw, as I see it, is the interpretation of what is to constitute a dangerous or restricted dog. It’s hard enough for even experts to determine the breed of non-purebreed dogs by appearance, so they’re proposing to create their own “standard” for identifying a dangerous dog – and it has nothing to do with the genetic breed! So if your dog happens to match this arbitrary standard – bad luck. This is unscientific to the extreme – and if such rules were used to classify humans, we would be outraged.
What do you think? Post your comments below. And if you disagree with the proposal, call or e-mail the Joe Helper’s Office (Agriculture Minister), or your local MLA, and politely let them know your thoughts.
(Hound TV have asked Mr Helper’s office for an interview. Our request has been acknowledged but no interview forthcoming as yet.)
Post Script (20 May) – First this; now draft Code of Practice for animal shelters to ban community participation (foster carers) so the mega-pounds can continue the killing. I may post my thougths on this soon, but in the meantime see Pets Haven, Goodfordogs.org, or SavingPets
Further update (28 May) – Lawyers For Animals (LFA) have published a detailed and thoughtful response to the bill.