It’s great to see that our current administration has decided to address the national concern about dangerous dogs. The recent passage of a ‘Dangerous Dogs Act’ has come with plenty of talk and bacchanal. For all the passionate emotions and reasoned arguments coming from all sides, everyone seems to agree on two points. First, there are serious issues with dogs in Trinidad and Tobago and second, something needs to be done. Most people seem to agree that legislation of one form or another would help.
A Lot of Opinions
From that point, opinions fly all over the place. People disagree about the problem(s). People disagree about the solution(s). People disagree about disagreeing.
The Trinidad and Tobago Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (TTSPCA) and the Animal Welfare Network (AWN) are both non-governmental national animal welfare organisations. They are concerned about the uncontrolled growth of the dog population, and the scale of irresponsible ownership, neglect and cruelty to animals in T&T. They respond to all of this on a daily basis with limited resources. These organisations have been advocating for many years for legislation to regulate dog ownership and breeding in T&T. Obviously therefore, TTSPCA and AWN are not, as some claim, against legislation for dogs. However, in their extensive experience with T&T’s roaming and stray animal population, they hold the view that the current Act, focusing only on certain breeds, is narrow and limiting. They also feel that current government and civil society infrastructure and resources (including trained personnel, physical space and finances) are inadequate to cope with its implementation. For example, the TTSPCA’s facility can only house 150 dogs. Dumping of dogs occurred when the Act was discussed in 2000 and will inevitability occur again, overwhelming existing resources. TTSPCA & AWN see this Act as addressing only a part of the wider dog issues we face. As part of the Advisory Committee to the Attorney General this group has put forward a very sound, factual position paper that is certainly worth reading.
Advocates for the victims of dangerous dog attacks feel passionately that the pain and suffering of these individuals and their loved ones is not currently acknowledged or appreciated. They are legitimately concerned about accountability, restitution and preventing anyone else from suffering such a horrid experience, or worse, fate. Some see a direct line of cause and effect between principally pitbulls, and dog attacks. They see one breed of dog as an unconscionable risk to public safety and use blanket statements such as “All pitbulls are killers,” or “We should purge ourselves of this particular breed”. In their opinion, breed-specific legislation will effectively deal with this.
The sale and training of dogs are legitimate sources of income. In T&T, there are conscientious breeders and trainers who take pride in their animals. Unfortunately a lack of enforced standards, training and education among breeders and trainers means that unscrupulous practitioners can exploit this situation. These bad apples deliberately breed and train for uncontrolled aggression in a range of breeds. However, legitimate breeders and trainers have a significant stake and their concerns should be on the table.
Owners of ‘dangerous’ breeds have many concerns. Some feel passionately that large and intimidating dogs are their only viable source of security in a time of increasing crime and violence in our country. Some owners are effusive about the joy and benefits of canine companionship. Some owners mistakenly get dogs as status symbols. Consequently, a typical owner of a ‘dangerous’ breed can be easily identified as a ghetto-fab, privileged, drug-dealing, frightened, Indian, black, single mom, white, dougla, rich, rude-boy granny. In short, people own large dogs for many reasons, and, with so many dogs of these breeds in T&T, it is very difficult to stereotype a particular type of owner.
People concerned with the breed specific legislation voice a series of concerns about whether the Act will have its intended effect. They maintain it will not minimise violent encounters between dogs and the general public in the short, middle or long term. For instance, they point out that breed specific legislation has had limited or no success, and unintended, unfortunate consequences in other countries. Programmes in other countries that have been successful target responsible ownership. They have also outlined their concerns in a position statement on Facebook.
Vets are at the Centre
At the centre of this hurricane are the Vets. These varying perspectives all walk through our clinics, meet us in the field, or stop us on the street, “Aye Doc! I have a question!” Vets are on the front line, working with these issues on a daily basis. We deal with the unfortunate consequences of outdated or misguided legislation, such as the euthanasia of unwanted dogs. We are also the only profession that is specifically trained to provide comprehensive recommendations to improve the relationship between humans and dogs. We can advise owners how best to meet their dog’s needs for health, nutrition, exercise, training, supervision and housing. As we all know, good advice can often fall on deaf ears. Effective legislation will encourage owners to take this advice regarding responsible ownership. Where appropriate, we can refer owners to other specialists (trainers, nutritionists etc). When dogs’ needs are met, the chance of a violent encounter between a dog and a member of the general public is negligible.
Some Other Voices
As professionals working with people and animals every day, we hear a lot of stories that have not made the newspapers and that illustrate the broader scope of this challenge. We hear about the primary school child who is scared to walk to school because of the neighbourhood’s unrestrained pothounds (owned and stray), or the young woman who freaks out around any dog because she was bitten as a child by her neighbour’s overexcited pompek. Although these encounters are rarely life-threatening, and rarely reported, they are negative and can stick with people throughout their lives. For the record, if Vets were to report all the times we are bitten, the vast majority would be from LYD’s (little yappy dogs). By focusing on certain breeds, the current discussion dismisses the legitimate negative experiences of many people from all walks of life who have been bitten, menaced or threatened by all kinds of dogs, often unrestrained, misunderstood and/or poorly cared for.
Another set of stories come from rural communities where livestock are too often attacked by stray or owned roaming dogs. Within the last week unfortunately, we treated severe bite wounds on a lamb and her mother where such dogs were the culprits. Can this farmer be compensated under the new law? Are his concerns and livelihood not valued? Should these mongrels be classified as dangerous? Where is the owner of these dogs? Who is responsible? What if their next victim is a child?
The reason there is so much discussion and passionate disagreement around the Dangerous Dogs Act is because it touches on one aspect of the much broader dog issue.
Like it or Not, Dogs are a Part of Our Lives
Whether we care to acknowledge it or not, dogs (mangy, aggressive, healthy, yappy, old, sick, puppies and pompeks) are a part of our society. Until now, in T&T, the relation between humans and dogs has been an afterthought. Our last legislation is from 1918, and T&T has changed a bit since then (women can vote!). In working to secure the health of both people and animals, Vets realise that what we are really trying to do is manage our relationships with dogs. Like other relationships in our society, for example between employers and employees, sharing the road while driving, or even a marriage, our relationship with dogs needs work and managing. It should be subject to legislation, regulation, monitoring, education, appreciation and funding. Our dogs should be a legitimate source of protection, companionship, income, joy and pride. They should rarely cause fear or pain, and never to the general public. This should happen across the board, not just for ‘dangerous’ breeds.
The Veterinary View
President of the Trinidad and Tobago Veterinary Association (TTVA), Dr. Curtis Padilla points out that breed specific legislation is not workable in its current form. The problem with many ‘problem’ dogs is not their chromosomes it’s their owners and their environment. If the legislation does not address responsible ownership of all dogs then we’re just scratching the surface of a deeper issue. Many Vets are concerned that the unintended consequences of enacting this Law will have us in canine chaos, where Vets, animal welfare organisations, other concerned citizens and limited government resources will be left trying to do disaster management. ‘Dangerous’ is a combination of behavior and circumstances, not a breed characteristic. To sum up, in the words of an esteemed colleague, Vets are of the opinion that this current piece of legislation was probably pushed through by the nefarious and powerful cat lobby. Meow.
As Vets, we are all happy that this dialogue has finally come to the fore. No-one is against legislation. We look forward to charting a future for humans and dogs in T&T that keeps us all healthy and happy.
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