In 2008, the Victorian government had a problem. The Bureau of Animal Welfare (BAW) Restricted Breed Panel was overturning two out of every three council decisions to seize (and seek approval to destroy) dogs. Of the 34 cases the panel had heard since its inception in 2005, 23 decisions to classify a dog restricted breed had been overturned after the owner contested with the panel the declaration that their dog was a ‘pit bull’. Dogs Victoria president Peter Frost said at the time;
“It’s hard for council officers to make a decision on the spur of the moment because (identifying breeds) is a difficult thing.”
While the BAW Panel and councils couldn’t agree on what a ‘pit bull’ was, dog attacks in the state kept right on happening. After the horrific, fatal mauling of four year old Ayen Chol by a cross breed dog on August 17th, 2011, the government rushed through sweeping changes to the domestic animals act, aimed to expand the net & ensure pit bull crosses and ‘pit bull type’ dogs would be included in restricted breed classifications and improve the Panel’s strike rate at dog identification.
After a highly publicised pit bull registration amnesty (ending 29th September) with announcements that all dogs remaining unregistered after this time would be seized and killed, the government released more than 800 words and 41 images to define the breed standard for the restricted American pit bull, or the Approved Standard for Restricted Breed Dogs in Victoria. Dogs began to be assessed by local government authorities using these new guidelines and any deemed to be ‘pit bulls’, pit bull mix, or are of ‘pit bull type’ were to be classified as a restricted breed dog. Any dog which met the general appearance and characteristics of the standard would be declared a restricted breed dog and councils, could classify ANY dog as a restricted breed, based on its appearance.
The implications to owners and dogs were formidable. Dogs identified as restricted breed would need to be listed on the Victorian Declared Dog Registry. It was already illegal to import, sell or transfer ownership of restricted breed dogs (including adoption from shelters) in Victoria, but now these guidelines also applied to dogs of mixed heritage. Dogs deemed to be of a restricted breed must be kept behind 1.8 metre high fencing, with locked gates. Entrances would need to be identified by signs identifying that a restricted breed dog was on the premises and when out the dog must be muzzled and leashed & wearing a prescribed warning collar.
Any dog found lost or stray, could be immediately destroyed if the Council Officer believed the dog is (or was) behaving in a manner deemed to be a danger to people or other animals. The fine for allowing a restricted breed to be found stray was raised to $4,885. If a restricted breed dog was to kill someone the owner could be jailed for up to 10 years (registered or non-registered), or for up to 5 years if the dog endangers someone’s life.
Since the deadline for registrations has passed, Councils cannot register any new ‘pit bull’ dogs. Councils can refuse to transfer registration of a dog deemed to be a restricted breed to a new premises. Councils can destroy an unidentified dog deemed to be a restricted breed any time after its seizure. Councils have been given authority enter the premises of any person they suspect of having an unregistered dog and, if deemed to be a restricted breed, seize and destroy it. They also have begun to investigate those dogs that may be misidentified restricted breed dog (ie. a staffy which looks like a pit bull), or those dogs ‘dobbed in’ on the new dangerous dog hotline.
When pushing these laws through parliament the government began echoing the Lost Dogs Home chief executive Graeme Smith by saying there were as many as 5,000 pit bulls across the state. By the time the laws were passed, they claimed there was up to 10,000 unregistered dangerous dogs in Victoria.
The government has split $135,000 across eight councils experiencing a spike in work dealing with the laws, to help offset the costs of hiring additional staff and for putting down dangerous dogs. Hume and Casey received $30,000 each, grants of $15,000 were allocated to Melton, Whittlesea and Wyndham. Brimbank, Cardinia and Banyule councils received $10,000 grants. The Government is now in talks with the Municipal Association of Victoria about hiring dedicated animal officers to enforce the new restrictions. $100,000 was put towards the ‘dob in a dangerous dog’ hotline.
With all this money being pumped into identifying the ‘thousands and thousands’ of unidentified ‘pit bulls’, how many have they found?
The hotline had received 565 reports of suspected dangerous or restricted breed dogs, as of November (around 4 a day). There are now 495 dogs registered as restricted breeds in Victoria, compared with 368 in July last year, according to the Department of Primary Industries (an increase of just 127).
The City of Casey (one of the major grant recipients of $30,000 and identified as one of two councils in the state to be “most affected”) now has 19 American Pit Bull Terrier and 6 Pit Bull Terriers registered. In the legislation’s first month, the council received 56 reports of suspected restricted-breed dogs (47 of them from the state government’s Dangerous Dog Hotline). Of the resulting 32 inspections, just four dogs were identified as restricted breeds. These four dogs were destroyed.
Hume City Council (the other major grant recipient of $30,000) has 13 American Pit Bull Terriers, 27 Pit Bull Terriers, 13 Pit Bull Terrier crosses, 6 Pit Bull x English Staffordshire crosses, 1 American Pit Bull x English Staffordshire and 2 American Pit Bull = or 62 ‘restricted breed’ dogs registered.
Hundreds of people are waiting to have their dogs breed-assessed and according to Municipal Association of Victoria chief executive officer Ron Spence, Hume “need six additional staff to manage what they are doing”. Council officers have visited 1,867 residences in Hume to identify dogs that could be deemed as restricted breeds, with the process of identifying restricted breeds posing a risk to council employees. “Due to the risk involved, four staff members are required to attend to inspections, once or twice a week for a full day, with three police officers,” he said.
Whittlesea City Council ($15,000) has investigated 53 reports of dogs suspected of being American Pit Bull Terriers since the registration amnesty ended. Officers have not identified a single dog as being a ‘pit bull’. Only five dogs were registered as restricted breeds with Whittlesea council before the amnesty, while one dog had been surrendered to the council and put down because complying with the new containment laws was too expensive. Council officers are now inspecting properties and assessing dogs registered as American staffordshire terriers. Four suspected pit bull terriers or pit bull cross dogs have also been dumped at the Whittlesea pound.
Wyndham Council ($15,000) have assessed 26 dogs and found 23 dogs to be restricted breeds. Council still have 160 to evaluate.
Brimbank Council ($10,000) has 82 ‘pit bulls’ and pit bull cross dogs and 50 dangerous dogs registered, making it one of the highest concentrations of registered restricted breeds. It is looking to assess 350 of its registered dogs against the new standards, and estimates the cost to be around $100,000.
Cardinia Council ($10,000) has 6 American Pit Bull Terrier and 2 Pit Bull Terriers registered. Since the introduction of the Dangerous Dog Hotline there have been four reports to Council and all have been false. Council continues to receive enquiries on a daily basis from the community.
Banyule Council ($10,000) saw fifteen restricted-breed dogs registered with Council before the amnesty ended.
Rather than “thousands” of dogs being identified under this legislation, a couple of hundred dogs have fallen foul of the new laws. Millions of dollars are being pumped into councils, pounds and shelters to have them identify a handful of animals and judge them on how they look. This enormously expensive and administration heavy effort does little to make the community safer and dog behaviour experts, the veterinary and scientific comunity condemned this legislation and unfair and ineffective, yet it still received the support of the major pound in the state, the Lost Dogs Home… why could this be?
It’s no coincidence that the LDH provide pound or animal management services to Casey, Hume, Wyndham, Brimbank and Cardinia – five of the eight councils given grants by government to implement this legislation (and more than 20 Victorian councils all total). If not the recipient of one of these grants directly, each time a council seizes a dog suspected of being a restricted breed, it mean extra administration charges and accommodation fees for the organisation, as the impounded dogs waits for an appeal by their owners – which can take up to three months. If the dog is found to be not of ‘pit bull type’ – the pound is paid. If the dog is found to be of ‘pit bull type’ – the pound is paid, AND is paid an extra amount for disposal. It’s win/win for the pound; lose/lose for the community.
Anyone in the council animal impoundment business is set to profit handsomely from this bloated, inefficient use of resources – it’s no wonder the biggest killer of ‘pit bulls’ in the state, the Lost Dogs Home, has thrown its weight behind the legislation – it’s laughing all the way to the bank.