The situation in Australia, and particularly in Victoria, has deteriorated rapidly over the last several weeks after a St. Albans (Victoria) child was killed by a dog described as a “pit bull”-mastiff cross. Officials have rushed to pass a new law that ends restricted breed registration and to increase seizures and killing of any unregistered crossbreed that resembles a “pit bull.”
Update 9/2: Bless the Bullys has further details from the Victorian Parliament, as well as a link to the new breed standards passed. Update 8/30: Good For Dogs has some details on the Victorian Parliament’s discussions today as they rushed passage of the new law.
This is my American perspective on the situation in Australia, which may not be totally accurate since I’m drawing conclusions from sources rather than firsthand knowledge. If you are an Australian who has better knowledge, please leave corrections / details / etc. in the comments section.
Australia has nationwide breed-specific laws that prohibit the importation of American pit bull terrier (pit bull), Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino, Fila Brasiliero, Presa Canario, or any dog that is a crossbreed containing one of these breeds. Note that this does not amount to a ban. Also, unlike the common definition of “pit bull” in the United States, the Australian definition does not include American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, or (English) Bull Terriers.
Restricted breeds generally are required to be registered with the local government, and this registration subjects the owners to special restrictions like mandatory neutering, muzzling, special containment, and so forth. Some Australian states and municipalities have passed more restrictive laws, including bans, on these restricted breeds. Victoria in particular has been extremely heavy-handed.
Dog owners (of all breeds and mixes) have naturally wanted to avoid being singled out by the restricted breed regulations, and as a result, owners of dogs without pedigrees typically register their dog as a nonrestricted breed—or don’t register their dogs at all. The news media and government officials have framed this “problem” as an intentional act of fraud or deception by dog owners who wish to shirk the restricted-breed laws. It is more likely a natural consequence of Australia’s BSL, which punishes restricted-breed dog owners; people who obtain an unpedigreed dog are free to guess their dog’s breed makeup and will naturally guess a breed designation that does not rain discrimination down upon them.
The Australian RSPCA, for example, has labeled some adoptable dogs “Staffordshire Terrier cross.” These are stray dogs with no known pedigree, and the shelter is labeling adoptable dogs the only way a shelter can—based on appearances—yet also labeling with awareness that certain breed labels, if overapplied or misapplied, will senselessly condemn an innocent dog to death. In Australian news media, Lost Dogs Home director Graeme Smith, rather than acknowledging the ambiguity and subjectivity of breed-labeling an unpedigreed dog, accuses the RSPCA of “renaming potentially dangerous dog breeds,” thus framing a perfectly reasonable choice as an intentional act of fraud that is endangering the public.
Australian vets have recently stated that they believe that the restrictive breed-specific laws are making the public less safe. BSL makes it difficult for dog owners of certain breeds to properly socialize and train their dogs. The social isolation that is mandated by law for restricted-breed dogs in fact may create dangerous dogs. That is, the breed-specific laws in Australia have created a self-fulfilling prophecy or vicious circle whereby certain breeds are believed to be dangerous; are subsequently restricted from normal and healthy social interactions; develop inappropriate behaviors and are ignorant of social norms and expectations; and in the case that this untrained, unsocialized, unprepared dog accidently becomes un-isolated, it may very well be unable to cope and therefore a danger to the community.
Deaths by Dog in Australia
Like most other countries, Australia does not track severe dog bites and dog deaths by breed. However, a few sources have gathered data that suggests 33 total deaths by dog in Australia since 1979, or a rate of about one per year—a much lower rate than seen in the U.S. About one third of the fatalities appear to have occurred in Victoria. The same sources note that there have been very few fatalities by dogs described as “pit bull cross” (one or two at most). Similarly, some Australian governments have attempted to tabulate dog bites by breed; the somewhat questionable results of these tabulations show that German Shepherds and Blue Heelers (Australian
Shepherds Cattle Dogs) are more often involved in a bite incident than other breeds, and American Pit Bull Terrier and crossbreeds of such are implicated only very rarely.
Despite the fact that “pit bulls” and “pit bull crosses” apparently do not pose a significant danger to the Australian public, as demonstrated by their very low ranking in terms of bite rates and bite fatalities, when one such dog does commit an injury, the Australian news media, officials, and the public go into a frenzy about “evil” pit bulls and (apparently equally insidious) crossbreeds.
The hypocrisy becomes even more evident when examining the public reaction to deaths by dogs that were not described as “pit bulls.” The difference is stark. The most recent deaths by dog that occurred in Australia, prior to the August incident involving a “pit bull-mastiff cross” (almost exclusively referred to as a pit bull terrier), were committed by dogs of breeds not considered “pit bull”-like in any way. The news coverage of those deaths was minimal, sadly forgettable (you will be hard pressed to find news articles about these deaths), did not generate any significant public comment, and brought about no calls for wholesale elimination of certain breeds or their crosses.
By contrast, this month’s death by a “pit bull-mastiff cross” has resulted in sustained media coverage (articles still appearing two weeks after the incident), public outrage and obsession about the clear and present dangers posed by “pit bull cross” dogs, official actions to seize and kill pit bulls and crosses, lawmakers rushing legislation through, establishment of a “dangerous breed” hotline so that people can report/accuse others of owning a dangerous breed, and so on.
Official Reaction and Legislation in Victoria
For some years, officials in Victoria have been trying to kill “pit bulls” and crosses. In 2009, Premier Brumby wrote a law that gave local councils permission to kill unregistered stray “pit bulls” without giving owners an opportunity to appeal. Some time in 2010, the news media reported that the law had passed, although I was unable to confirm this directly.
The RSPCA president, Hugh Wirth, has been quoted numerous times in the news media as saying that pit bulls are “ticking time bombs” and that no one should have them as pets. He has vocally urged a total ban on pit bulls. **Wirth’s position appears to have reversed and he has publicly opposed breed-specific measures in recent years (see info from first commenter in comment section). Unfortunately, his public pro-ban, anti-pit bull statements from 2009 have created damage and hysteria that won’t be easily undone—as we can see today.
The director of Lost Dogs Home, Graeme Smith, has similarly advocated a total ban on pit bulls and crosses, and has asserted that any dog that has even the smallest fraction of pit bull in it should be considered a pit bull cross. Recently, he went so far as to say: “If it looks like a pit bull, it should be treated like a pit bull,” thereby confirming that breed labeling of a “pit bull” is being done based on subjective, personal ideas about what a pit bull looks like.
News media has used the phrases “search and destroy” and “it’s the end” to describe the new efforts being put forth by government officials to seek out, seize, and kill unregistered dogs. The RSPCA reports many calls from citizens who are afraid that their dogs will be labeled as “pit bull cross” and killed. The RSPCA is correctly warning that breed identification is not easy, and “mistakes could be made.”
The current obsession in Australia with “pit bulls” and crosses makes no sense to this observer, especially in light of the comparatively small numbers of bites and deaths that pit bulls are purported to have caused. Rather, it seems that the myth of the “dangerous breed,” synonymous with “pit bull,” is fixed in the public consciousness, through a combination of sensationalistic news media coverage, existing Australian laws, and local government officials’ statements and actions. It is wholly unfortunate that government officials and the public are not focused on preventing irresponsible dog ownership regardless of breed, and on promoting dog owner education, which would doubtless reduce dog bites and dog deaths more significantly than a narrow focus on total elimination of a type of dog that does not even account for the largest portion of incidents. It seems, however, that “pit bulls” have become a scapegoat.
As I am unfamiliar with the process by which Australian laws are created and passed, I do not know who would be appropriate to contact, or at what point, in order to attempt to inject some rational thought into a dialogue that has thus far been riddled with emotion, hyperbole, and myth. Readers who may have some insight as to the appropriate officials to contact, kindly leave this information in the comments.
It’s the end for unregistered pit bull terriers in Victoria (Herald Sun, Aug 30)—Note the URL of this story, which reads: “New laws to cull evil dogs”; also features a perplexing and misleading “dangerous dogs” interactive map that attempts to link two unrelated numbers (number of dog bites reported; and number of “declared” dogs, which presumably includes all restricted breeds regardless of whether they have bitten anyone), essentially leaving the reader with the impression that the “declared” breeds are causing the bites.
Victoria issues dangerous dogs deadline (ABC news Australia, Aug 30)
Victorian pet owners fear dangerous dog law (Herald Sun, Aug 30)
RSPCA renames potentially dangerous dog breeds (Herald Sun, Aug 28)
Vet warns on banning dangerous dogs (Courier-Mail, Aug 20)
News articles on Australian regions not in a “pit bull” panic
Lucas rules out attack on problem dogs (Courier-Mail, Aug 30)
Moreton Bay Council refuses to ban pitbull terriers until they prove to be a problem (Redcliffe and Bayside Herald, Aug 26)