In June, a Quebec man named Farid Benzenati arrived at his house in Montreal’s east end to see a dog outside, wrestling with a large object. The dog was new to the Pointe-Aux-Trembles neighborhood, and Benzenati at first dismissed the tussle in the neighbor’s backyard as playful. But then he saw human hair.
“It was hard to see, but I knew it was a woman’s body,” Benzenati told CBC. “I saw blood, and the dog was still attacking her.”
Police found Benzenati’s neighbor, 55-year-old Christiane Vadnais, mauled to death. Responders pronounced Vadnais dead at the scene. Officers shot and killed the animal, which they described as a pit bull.
Vadnais’s family demanded a response. Serge Vadnais, her brother, asked the Quebec government to ban dangerous dog breeds: “As soon as possible, not in two years, now,” he said in a June 11 interview with CBC. Since 2005, the nearby province of Ontario had banned pit bulls, and Quebec was also considering similar legislation.
At the time of Vadnais’s death, the city of Montreal had also been mulling possible restrictions on “dangerous dogs,” though it was unclear which breeds would be affected. The tragedy spurred the city to action. On Tuesday, the city council voted 37 to 23 in support of a bylaw put forth by the Montreal mayor’s office.
It will be illegal for anyone to adopt or otherwise acquire a new pit bull in the city. If the pit bulls are not grandfathered in, they face euthanasia.
The new bylaw, which will go into effect Oct. 3, included rules about registering cats and large dogs. If Montreal residents wish to keep their current pit bull pets, they have until the end of 2016 to purchase a permit, which costs about $115 U.S.; the Montreal Gazette estimated this will impact owners of some 7,000 dogs.
Montreal’s pit bulls must be vaccinated, sterilized and microchipped. In public, owners need to muzzle their pits, keeping them on a leash no longer than four feet.
“My duty as mayor of Montreal is making sure I am working for all Montrealers,” said Denis Coderre, according to CBC. “And I am there to make sure they feel safe and that they are safe.”
The law is an example of what is known as breed-specific legislation. Among laws that concern animals, these are some of the most disputed, with emotions running high on both sides of the debate. Supporters of such laws say the rules protect human lives from fatal attacks. Groups like Ban Pit Bulls and Dogs Bite endorse such bans by arguing pit bull breeds are genetically more dangerous than other dogs.
Benjamin Hart, a University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine professor emeritus, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2013 that pit bulls are responsible for 60 percent of fatal dog maulings. It is “quite common for a pit bull to show no signs of aggression,” he said, until the animal attacks. (A comparative study of dog breeds in the journal of Applied Animal Behavior Science concluded in 2005 that pit bull terriers were more aggressive than average toward unfamiliar dogs, but not unusually aggressive toward humans.)
The laws are condemned by those who say the rules are ineffective and unfairly target certain dogs based on appearance.
Both the American Bar Association and the American Veterinary Medical Association oppose breed-specific bans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially recommends against the legislation as well, citing too much uncertainty in dog-bite data to target a specific breed. The Obama administration echoed the CDC’s position in 2013.
In Montreal, animal advocacy groups were swift to criticize the new bylaw. “There’s no evidence that breed-specific laws reduce dog bites or attacks on people, and experts have found that no breed is more likely to bite than another,” the Canadian branch of Humane Society International wrote in a statement. “In fact, no jurisdiction has been able to prove that public safety has been improved thanks to this kind of legislation.”
On Wednesday, the Montreal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals filed a lawsuit against the city. It argued provisions in the bylaw run counter “to article 898.1 of the Civil Code of Quebec, which grants animals the status of sentient beings.” The Montreal SPCA said earlier in September that, if legally forced to kill pit bulls, it would cease dog-control services in the city’s boroughs.
The organization also warned the new rule is too vague in definition of a pit bull. The Montreal bylaw defined a pit bull as an American Staffordshire terrier, an American pit bull terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier, any mix of the listed breeds or any dog with the characteristics of these breeds. SPCA director Alanna Devine told the Canadian Press it was an “arbitrary looks-based category.” A common criticism of breed-specific legislation is that a DNA test, not visual identification, is the best way to accurately determine a dog’s breed or inheritance.
What type of dog killed Vadnais remains in question, three months later. The Humane Society International claimed in July that the dog’s registration papers revealed the animal was a boxer, not a pit bull. Montreal police said Tuesday the results of a DNA analysis are pending.