Man's best friend in the doghouse

The act, originally inspired by former attorney general Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, was passed in June 2000 but was never proclaimed. It requires owners of dangerous dogs to be at least 18 years old, carry $250,000 insurance, adhere to special containment requirements, sterilisation and registration, and to apply and obtain a $500 annual licence per dog.

The act categorises as dangerous dogs the pitbull terrier or any dog bred from a pitbull terrier; Fila Brasileiro or any dog bred from a Fila Brasileiro and; Japanese Tosa or any dog bred from a Japanese Tosa.

Dog owners’ cries for a review of the act have so far fallen on deaf ears, although they insist the act in its current form is discriminatory as it does not consider several other breeds of dogs which are also dangerous. The events which have led to the current situation, however, may have been what forced the State to act in the first place. Over the years there have been several attacks by pitbulls on people which led to serious injuries and in some cases death. The latest incident involving a dog attack was that involving five-month pregnant mother of three Kurleen Cooper, who was attacked by three mixed-breed dogs while returning to her home in Point Fortin on May 15. Cooper had to undergo seven and a half hours of surgery following the attack.

Her case again brought calls from the public for the immediate action and another staunch defence of the animals from the dog lovers.

Contacted on Friday, Maharaj said it had taken too long to have the act implemented as law.

“It was passed in 2000 after extensive consultation with the entire population and interest groups. The PNM administration took too long to implement it, and this administration took about two years to implement it,” he said.

“I think it’s sad because a lot of people have been killed and a lot of people have been injured. I am just hoping that they would have the necessary infrastructure to make the legislation work effectively, because passing a law is one thing but really implementing it is another because the act calls for steps to be taken to monitor where these dogs are, where they are being kept, in what condition they are being kept to prevent them from reproducing, prevent importation, and so therefore you need proper infrastructure to make the law effective.”

Maharaj added that insurance for the dogs must also be checked because if the law is passed and it provides for enforcement, but there is no machinery to enforce the law, then the law could become very ineffective.

Already, however, some owners of these breeds of dogs have indicated that they will abandon the dogs or have them put to sleep because of the high insurance costs. Some owners hve already started abandoning their dogs in rural areas.

Animal behaviourist Kristel-Marie Ramnath believes the act is doomed to fail.

She said the act was actually modelled after a similar act in the United Kingdom, but was currently being reviewed there because it had failed, while several similar type acts have been repealed in many countries. “In the UK it failed on two counts. First, they actually had an increase in abandoned pitbulls and second, the number of dog attacks on humans actually increased since that act came into power because remember, it’s not just pitbulls that attack humans, any breed of dog can bite humans,” she said. Ramnath said Government did not have the infrastructure in place and there also will not be enough resources to actually keep these dogs if owners decide to abandon them. Even adhering to other aspects of the act would be problematic.

“A lot of the vets have actually said that they are not going to put healthy animals down and I think that is the ethical thing. According to their code of ethics you are not supposed to put a healthy animal to sleep. An estimate of pitbulls Trinidad right now is 400,000 and there are 300 registered vets in Trinidad. There is no way 300 vets working from Monday to Friday, doing five spays a day within the space of three months are going to be able to neuter 400,000 dogs, so it’s inconceivable,” Ramnath said.

“And once people realise they can’t afford to pay the registration and licencing fees or they cannot afford to pay insurance, if they decide not to put their animal down but decide to give them up to the local authority, they don’t have anywhere to actually keep these dogs. The only pound I know currently in existence is the San Fernando dog pound and I think they have something like 50 kennels.

“If people start to abandon their dogs en masse there is nowhere to put the animals. And if they start getting rid of these dogs, putting them down, how are they going to get rid of the carcasses. Are they going to burn them? Are they going to dump them somewhere? So the disposal of carcasses is something that should be looked at also.”

“If the local authorities decide to keep the dogs temporarily who is going to feed the dogs? Is the staff trained to handle pitbulls? Do they know how to prevent themselves from getting bitten?” Ramnath questioned.

She said rather than the current proposed act, there is need for a dog control act where all breeds of dogs should be registered. Ramnath said owners who kept dogs as just pets should pay a minimal fee of $50 a year, ensuring that the animal is micro-chipped so in the eventuality the dog did attack someone, it could be traced back to its owner. She said those who used the dogs as a source of income, such as breeding or for security services, should pay higher rates and insurance.

“Therein lies another problem. As far as I know, the insurance companies have not come up with any policy for dogs. One of the mandatory conditions of the act is that you have insurance for your dog. If the insurance company is not offering insurance, how is that going to work? You cannot proclaim an act that people cannot comply with,” Ramnath said.

She noted that while one of the regulations was that the fence securing the dogs must be six feet tall, she has seen dogs jump much higher than that.

Ramnath said each individual dog needed to be assessed and should have a behavioural or temperament assessment, since not every dog was potentially aggressive.

“You need to have a better definition as to what the Dangerous Dogs Act really is. You don’t define what is a dangerous dog just based on breed, because little pompeks and mixed breed dogs bite people all the time, but they are often not recorded,” she said.

Referring to Cooper’s attack, Ramnath said owners should not have dangerous dogs at if they do not have proper fencing or security measures for animals.

“If you don’t have somewhere you can actually keep a dog securely, then you should not own a dog at all. Apart from tying them they can actually burst the chains and get away and you also have to think about the psychological impact on a dog. If a dog is restrained on a leash it actually becomes frustrated, which turns into rage, and that’s expressed by aggression. Tying up a dog is actually cruel,” she said.

Ramnath said she visited the dogs allegedly involved in the attack on Wednesday and noted that she saw no signs of aggression. The dogs, she said, were in fact quite friendly.

“They were grossly underfed and the owner did tell me sometimes the dogs were teased by children. I don’t know if somebody was actually teasing the dogs and angered the dogs. If somehow they happened to be loose because to me, it doesn’t make sense that more than one dog burst its chain at the same point in time. That’s not coincidence. Those dogs had to have been loose in that yard and if they were angered in some way then, yes, that would have triggered an aggressive attack,”Ramnath said.

President of the Trinidad and Tobago Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (TTSPCA), Sita Kuruvilla, meanwhile said they were concerned that the regional corporations, which will play large roles in the legislation, do not seem to have the capacity to deal with the implementation of what the act entailed.

“It requires that they deal with unwanted dogs that owners wish to give up. It implies that they need some kind of holding facility and capability to handle the animals properly, transport them, and also to deal with euthanasia, possibly on a large scale.

“We have no idea of the figure because numbers are being thrown around, but there was a number of unregulated breeding of these dogs (back yard breeding), so we assume there are a lot of them out there,” Kuruvilla said. She said there has also been no public awareness programme on the part of the Government to indicate to the public what they would need to put in place, whether they chose to keep their dogs or not.

“We are concerned that a lot of animals will be abandoned on the roads, or if people are willing to comply and give them up, there is really nowhere for them to take these animals. This would lead to more animals being abandoned and the suffering of these animals on the streets,” she said.

Kuruvilla said over the past weeks the TTSPCA has been responding to calls about abandoned pitbulls roaming the streets. She feels the situation could get a lot worse, as she understands a number of people have said they will just abandon the animals.

“Some of the dogs will not manage at all. We picked up one about two days ago in Cocorite, a female and obviously it had been used for breeding. A lot of people make a lot of money off these dogs because of their popularity. I don’t know if somebody threw hot water on it or what, but we found it in a terrible state. She would be euthanised because given the situation, nobody will want to adopt these dogs now, and we don’t have the money to rehabilitate these dogs. The most humane thing would be to put her to sleep,” Kuruvilla said.

“So some of them are not going to be able to cope if they’d been confined in kennels, or used for breeding or whatever it is. They will have no skills to manage on the street, so they will starve and die. If people release aggressive dogs I suppose potentially, the dogs could be aggressive out there as well. It could be a mix of things–the dogs could suffer and die, or there could be attacks of other animals or possibly people. We have a stray dog problem as it is and the last thing we need to compound that is the release of pitbulls on to the streets.”

President of Dog Lovers Association, Keino O’Neill, said they were not totally against the act, but there were some factors that needed to be taken into consideration.

“The banning of the dogs does not really make complete sense. We are more concerned about public safety and dealing with the owners, not the dogs. And the spaying and neutering of a breed, that is madness,” O’Neill said.

He said four pitbulls were sighted in the St Augustine area recently, as people were already starting to abandon their dogs.

Referring to Cooper’s attack, O’Neill said he wished he could assist her family, even in her legal costs, but noted ultimately it is the dogs’ owners who must pay for not securing their animals properly.

“Yes, Government will want to move with haste because of that incident and other incidents, but that will not solve the problem, it is not a long term resolution of this. It is not to ban the dogs, it is to put serious penalties to negligent dog owners, simple,” he said.

O’Neill said a total ban of the breeds would have serious repercussions for legitimate breeders, people who imported pet food and other items and security firms who depended on these animals.

“We want to curb the back yard breeders. People have the dogs for different reasons. Drug dealers have them because they don’t want the police running into the yards every minute.

Then there are businessmen like myself with big compounds, these are the dogs that bandits respect,” O’Neill said.

“Then everybody feels that he is a breeder. A little fella come and he buys two pit bulls, male and female, and all of a sudden he becomes a breeder and he would sell them to anybody. When you are a responsible breeder who has a registered kennel, you would want to know that your dogs are placed in good homes, you would cater for good clientele. The back yard breeders don’t care, they just breed and sell and everybody has a pit bull, and is mas.”

The Dangerous Dogs Act:

4. (1) No person shall import into Trinidad and Tobago a dangerous dog, or the semen or embryo of a dangerous dog.

(2) A person who contravenes subsection (1), commits an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a fine of one hundred thousand dollars and to imprisonment for two years.

5. (1) A person who owns a dangerous dog shall ensure that the dog is spayed or neutered by a

veterinary surgeon within three months of the coming into force of this Act.

(2) No person shall:

(a) breed or breed from a dangerous dog;

(b) sell or exchange such a dog or offer, advertise or expose such a dog for sale or exchange;

(c) make or offer to make a gift of such a dog or advertise or expose such a dog as a gift.

(3) A person who contravenes subsection (1), commits an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a fine of $100,000 and to imprisonment for two years.

14 a)

(1) An owner or keeper of a dangerous dog shall not abandon the dog.

(2) A person who contravenes this section commits an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a fine of $50,000 and to imprisonment for one year.

15. Notwithstanding section 13(6), where a dangerous dog escapes from any premises, the owner of that dog shall be liable for any injury or damage caused by that dog.

16. (1) A person who owns a dangerous dog or keeps a dangerous dog on his premises shall cause to be displayed in a prominent place on the premises, a notice indicating that there is a dangerous dog on the premises.

(2) A person who contravenes this section commits an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a fine of $10,000.

17. (1) Where a dangerous dog injures a person, the owner or keeper of the dog commits an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a fine of $100,000 and imprisonment for five years.

(2) Where a dangerous dog kills a person or causes the death of a person, the owner or keeper of the dog commits an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a fine of $200,000 and to imprisonment for ten years.


"Man’s best friend in the doghouse"

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