Barking up the wrong tree

There is a duality that exists within our perception of animals. On one hand, we desire their companionship, and on the other we are fearful of their animal nature.

This is the dilemma that Maureen Riche, a Liberal Arts & Sciences professor at Humber College, poses to students in her class Rethinking Animals.

“We want elements of wild nature in our lives and in our homes, but we want them on our terms,” she said. “I guess it reminds us of how successful we have been in conquering and taming nature.”

Riche has a background in animal studies and indigenous studies. Her PhD dissertation was about dogs in indigenous cultures in Canada, specifically northern dogs.

Naturally, she had a lot to say about breed-specific legislation in the wake of the Sept. 27 Montreal pit bull ban, that has received nation-wide attention.

Those who promote the idea of breed-specific legislation, Riche joked, are “barking up the wrong tree”.

“These laws don’t work. They don’t reduce bites or attacks,” she said. “They only result in shelters full of blacklisted dogs who will have to be euthanized.”

Rather than placing blame on the breed, Riche said it’s really the owners who should take responsibility.

“It is impossible to define with any clarity what is a dangerous breed,” she said. “Any animal can be dangerous if the owner is negligent.”

Riche herself has two dogs at home: a Shih Tzu named Bernie and a Shih Poo named Belly. Although she loves them both, she admitted the domestication of pet animals becomes harder to justify as animal rights becomes more prevalent.

“I struggle with this question all the time,” Riche said about owning animals. “We control what they eat, where they pee. We collar and leash them [and] train them to amuse us and to behave for us.”

Domination, Riche said, is closely related to domestication. What different animals have come to mean in our culture depends on how they benefit us.

Barbara Cartwright is an award-winning leader in animal welfare and CEO of the Ottawa-based Canadian Federation of Humane Societies.

Last Wednesday, she addressed Humber journalism students regarding breed-specific legislation. There is a divide, she said, in perceptions on pit bulls in Ontario.

“We have turned [pit bulls] from being good pets to vilifying them,” she said.

When pit bulls are criminalized, it sends them into criminal pit bull rings and effectively fails to solve the problem legislators believe it does.

The Canadian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is an old agreement created in 1869. The outdated language, Cartwright said, poses problems.

“Because the laws were written in the late 1800s, cows were the most important animal,” she said. “When a person is charged with neglect, it must be proven to be willful, which is hard to do.”

Being humane is a core Canadian value, Cartwright reminded students, and as such we must all work to create safe spaces for our animals.

Photo from WikiMedia Commons


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