Victoria, Australia: Officials to “search and destroy” dogs that resemble “pit bulls”

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.

Background

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.

Further reading:
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)

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17 responses to “Victoria, Australia: Officials to “search and destroy” dogs that resemble “pit bulls”

  1. Belinda Barritt

    Well written article- a couple of notes, though.
    The head of the RSPCA has actually changed his tone in recent years and is now supportive of anti BSL legislation. He was quoted that ‘pit bulls’ are “ticking time bombs” many years ago, and sadly they are still quoting this now, even though he recently publicly announced that we should be assessing all dogs individually based on their merits and not on their appearances.
    It was actually the head of the Lost Dogs Home, Dr. Graeme Smith who publicly attacked the RSPCA for rehoming “potentially dangerous dogs”- the LDH has been under a lot of scrutiny lately about their high kill rate, and it has not come to light that they put down approx 1/3 of the large number of dogs that come into the shelter because they resemble ‘pit bulls.’

  2. RSPCA President Hugh Wirth was told by his organisation to STFU about his personal views on ‘pit bulls’ back in 2009.

    In this video from 2010 Hugh clearly states that the RSPCA’s position has changed.

    http://goodfordogs.org/blog/2011/08/26/pit-bull-hysteria-in-victoria/

  3. This is the best article I have read on the insanity of Victoria’s new knee jerk legislation. So well written. I find it just baffling how the Victorian public seemed to have fallen for it all hook, line and sinker. Fortunately (or not, because it makes me infuriated) I am not one of them. I will spread the word for how ever long it takes to whom ever wants to listen (or not) that BSL does not work and that pit bulls are not born dangerous dogs. That proper socialisation and training is the key and the government needs to tackle the issue of making the public aware of that.

  4. Hi StopBSL

    I’m a Canadian living Down Under with two imported Bully Breeds. Email me when you get the chance, and I’ll send you some contacts and other information. But Belinda’s bang on, best article I’ve read yet on AUS’s BSL from someone overseas

  5. agree with everything you’ve written! my girls are registered as american staffordshire terriers but i fear with the appalling lack of knowledge in identifying ‘pit bull types’ correctly that my staffs and many other dogs are going to be classed at pitts and put down too if given the opportunity. can i even trust my vet now? or will they go out the back and return saying ‘sorry, pitbull, we had to put it down’.. i would also like to leave a link for petition currently under way to put an end to bsl in australia, anyone can sign. http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/end-breed-specific-legislation-in-australia/

  6. Please do not ban a whole breed due to incompetent owners. As the owner of a pit here in the states I must say he is the most cuddly dog I have ever owned (and theres been many) I also am an active weekly volunteer here at our local animal shelter. You know as well as I do, you can take a sweet dog and beat it till its mean…people are the problem bottom line. Prosecute these people who should have never owned a dog in the first place. As a dog owner a pit isn’t for everyone, neither are a lot of other dogs. But with the right training, love and care these dogs are the same as any others. There are at least 15 types of dogs that get stereo typed as pits!!! That’s racial profiling, it hasn’t ever worked in the past and it wont work now. You ban pits, your drug dealers and fighters will use rotts or shepards and so on. You cant ban everything beside poodles. Please take a step in the right direction and blame this on the humans they deserve it. A dog is a dog they learn wrong and right from people..some one should be teaching them! In the states they are doing things instead of bsl that is working…. Stricter adoptions for pits must have a fenced in yard mandatory sterilization………not death by ignorance….. Thanks for your time do the right thing!

  7. Brian of Ballarat

    Dogs do things by instinct and humans do things by ignorance. Any well trained and socialised dog, irrespective of breed, isn’t a problem, but ignorant humans are. It is apparent hysteria and hyperbole is now being used instead of common sense. The answer is quite simple – go after the bad owners – big time. Make it impossible for them to own/keep a dog and either fine or jail them heavily if they choose to operate outside these tough restrictions. Please don’t point the finger of blame at innocent animals who just behave the way us humans have taught them to behave.

  8. Fantastic article especially the part about the BSL restriction being so detrimental to the socialisation of these dogs. It’s not rocket science. Most people are aware that dogs need to be socialised from a young age, if they are contained all the time then how can they? In my experience “pitbull” types are the most loyal, loving and friendly dogs I’ve known.

  9. Hi, just a quick note Blue Heelers are NOT Australian Shepherds

    Blue heelers are: http://www.dogbreedpicture.net/dog-image-b-592-blue-heeler-104-blue-heeler-lz.jpg-961.htm

    Australian Shepherds are: http://www.pets-news.com/australian-shepherd-2/

    • Good point! The breed name I meant was Australian Cattle Dog. I have corrected, thank you very much.

  10. Just a note (from an Australian) for accuracy’s sake…
    You said “German Shepherds and Blue Heelers (Australian Shepherds)”.
    A Blue Heeler, like a Red Heeler, is just a blue or red coated Australian Cattle Dog – they are Not an Australian Shepherd!
    If you google “blue heeler” and “australian shepherd” you’ll see just how different they are.
    If you replace “(Australian Shepherd)” with “(Australian Cattle Dog)” you’ll be correct.

    • Thanks, M! Another reader noted this mistake ten minutes prior and I have made the correction. I promise, I really do know the difference between these breeds. My brain was just pulling the wrong name out of the hat. It seems I’m particularly prone to word mix-ups when I’m churning out material at 1 AM. :) I definitely appreciate the alert eyeballs of my readers to help me catch these errors.

  11. Pingback: Saving Pets » Blog Archive » Positive pit bull role models

  12. “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.”

    Our legislators are not interested in rational thought. This is a knee jerk reaction to an unfortunate incident. I agree that that dog in question was rightfully destroyed however there hasn’t been a great deal said about the owner and their lack of culpability in this situation. That dog was at large – why? Also missing from the hysteria is the truth as to what triggered the dog – sadly and important factor ignored by the legislators when they decided to put a band aid on the wrong issue.
    Loved your article but sadly the only people that will read it are those passionate about BSL being so wrong!

  13. Great article, if only a lot more people shared your views.

  14. i just think its the same as any dog a bloody labrador could do the same as i know i was attacked by a black labrador as a kid. I rember everything that happend that day and now i have a scar under my throat were it bit me .the bite was 2mm away from my jugler vein it could of killed me and i would of die from blood loss so its goes to show any dog can be dangerous not just 1 breed can kill/attack.