Restricted dog breeds

Domestic Animals Amendment (Restricted Breed Dogs) Bill 2017

06 September 2017

Ms RYAN (Euroa) — It is a pleasure to rise today to speak on the Domestic Animals Amendment (Restricted Breed Dogs) Bill 2017. The bill that is before the house is really quite a serious one. The issue around trying to balance this legislation has been difficult for many, many years, and this is the latest iteration of it. The bill removes the prohibition on the registration of keeping restricted breed dogs, and it allows councils to actually register those dogs. In Victoria there are five breeds of dogs that are restricted. We have the fila Brasileiro, the Japanese tosa, the dogo Argentino, which is also known as the Argentinian fighting dog, the perro de presa Canario and of course the one that causes perhaps the most contention in Victoria, the American pit bull.

I have to say at the outset that I do not believe pit bulls in particular should be allowed in our state. That is the view that this legislation has traditionally supported. When the act was amended back in 2010 by the then Brumby government, the purpose of those amendments was to ensure that the pit bull breed in particular would be bred out of existence in Victoria. That is a position that the coalition government continued to support. When Joe Helper removed those amendments back in 2010 after yet another horrific dog attack, the government put in place a two-year amnesty to enable people to actually register their restricted breed dogs. That was done in light of the fact that the government recognised that people already did own these dogs, but they wanted them to be housed under appropriate conditions and to be controlled in a manner where they would not present a danger to society. So I think those amendments which were introduced in 2010 really reflected the fact that we understood that pit bulls in particular had become too much of a risk to society.

I go back to Hugh Wirth's comments at the time of that attack, and I know that the Leader of the Opposition also mentioned them. At the time when a small dog was killed and a man was injured — the attack that precipitated those 2010 changes — Hugh Wirth actually described pit bulls as 'time bombs waiting for the right circumstances'. He said:

The American pit bull terrier is lethal because it was a breed that was developed purely for dog fighting, in other words killing the opposition. They should never have been allowed into the country. They are an absolute menace.

I will come back to his quote that is around the fact that they are a breed developed purely for dog fighting. This issue has been at the crux of this debate and of the effectiveness of this legislation, but it is important to understand the context around the many amendments that have been made to this legislation.

In 2011, as other speakers have said, we had the tragic death of Ayen Chol. I was working as a senior media adviser for the then minister for agriculture at that point in time. Receiving the phone call about Ayen Chol's death is something I will never forget. It was one of those moments where you feel quite shaken, and it was the most tragic set of circumstances. That little girl should never, ever have been put in the situation where her own home was invaded by a pit bull. She was clinging to her mother's leg and fatally mauled to death. It was absolutely horrific and sparked further action from the government of the day. We then made changes to the Crimes Act 1958, to drastically increase the penalties surrounding dog attacks and to ensure that owners would be held accountable under the Crimes Act if their dog attacked people. As part of that we also drastically shortened the two-year amnesty to ensure that anybody who had a restricted breed dog that was not registered and desexed would face having their dog put down.

The Leader of The Nationals in his contribution mentioned that this is one of the most amended pieces of legislation we have. That is because governments have tried over many years to strike the right balance. That was again acknowledged by the Economy and Infrastructure Committee, which undertook the investigation that actually precipitated the legislation that we have before us today. Its report notes that:

… during the course of the inquiry there were differing, and sometimes conflicting, viewpoints presented by various stakeholders.

I have to say that that sums up the many years of this debate. In short, it is a very vexed issue, and people fundamentally have different views about whether or not restricted breed legislation works. One of the reasons why opinion is so divided is that it is very difficult to determine the identity of a pit bull through genetic testing.

This is where I return to the comments of Hugh Wirth when he said that the pit bull was bred for dog fighting. In other words, the pit bull is a mongrel. It is not actually a defined breed, which means that when you undertake genetic testing you cannot conclusively say that the dog is a pit bull. As a consequence of that we now have a scenario where it is quite open for people to contest council rulings about whether or not a dog is a pit bull. We attempted to resolve that issue through the introduction of the restricted breed standard which gives physical classifications for pit bulls for councils to use and say, 'This dog meets a certain percentage of those physical characteristics, and therefore it is a pit bull'. Fundamentally the pit bull is not a breed; it is a dog that has been bred to have particular physical characteristics of various other breeds, and it has been bred specifically with the purpose of fighting. It is for that reason I firmly believe the pit bull does not have a place in Victoria and should not have a place in Victoria, because it has been bred for a very, very specific purpose.

I note that a number of members in the house today have talked about the merits of responsible dog ownership versus restricted breed legislation and the difficulties in finding the balance, because from many people's perspectives it is often the owner and not the dog that is at fault. I think in many cases there is a lot of truth in that, but I have to say that when it comes to pit bulls I do not believe it is about the owner. I believe the dog has inherent characteristics for which it is bred which are about fighting and attacking. We do not need to see any more lives lost in this state as a result of those dogs being on the loose.

I do appreciate the difficulties the government is trying to resolve. The committee recommended this change to legislation to enable councils to overcome what has presented them with significant difficulties in terms of being dragged to VCAT and the cost burden on ratepayers and the like. At the end of the day I think when it comes to these dogs, as Hugh Wirth said, they should not have been allowed into the country. We now need to make sure that this legislation is enforced properly so that the standards which still exist around the keeping of these dogs are properly policed and properly maintained to ensure we do not see any more tragic loss of life. With those comments, the opposition is not opposing this bill, but I do put on the record that I think this legislation needs to be dealt with very carefully. It is not a joke. I appreciate that dogs can be a fertile field for jokes, but this legislation really is very important, and it is important to make sure we get that balance right.

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