I suspect that, like me, the vast majority of Burnaby residents do not tune into the goings on in city hall until there is an issue on the table that they care deeply about. For me, this issue has been the research and discussion surrounding the proposed bylaw amendments to Burnaby’s animal control bylaw, which have since been passed by council on Sept. 30, and which strengthen existing breed specific legislation (BSL) targeting pit bulls.
While I do not own a pit bull, I do own a dog and I am in general concerned with animal welfare. My interest in this issue, however, has less to do with being an advocate against BSL and more to do with being an advocate for rational and responsible governance. I have written previously criticizing the research in the report that was prepared by the director of finance.
What caught my attention was the poor research presented in this report. What held my attention was the mayor and council's insistence of holding fast to the report’s recommendations, despite a bounty of sound evidence that there is much more effective legislation that they could have considered. As a mathematician and academic, I am concerned when innumeracy, bias, poor research and ignorance rear their ugly heads in discussions surrounding important public policy decisions, as I believe they have in this case.
In the interest of full disclosure, my own political leanings align more closely than not with the Burnaby Citizens’ Association, and I voted for the mayor and council during the last municipal election. I have no partisan interest here.
While many residents may be unaffected by or uninterested in Burnaby’s new animal control bylaw, or perhaps may even be happy with the final decision, we should all be aware of the mayor and councils’ handling of this case.
They seem to me to have disregarded sound, scientific reason and instead stuck to their original agenda. If this is common practice, it could well have implications in other areas of governance in Burnaby that we should all be on the lookout for.
There is no doubt that the polarizing debate around pit bulls and BSL made this a very difficult issue for the mayor and council to wade through.
Society as a whole is very risk averse, and there is a great deal of media hype, misunderstanding and hysteria around pit bulls that add to the general public’s discomfort with these breeds. Faced with such a difficult issue, one reasonable approach would be to line up experts from both sides of the debate and listen to what each had to say. Except in this case, the overwhelming preponderance of expert guidance opposes BSL, i.e. veterinary organizations, animal control officers, animal behaviour experts, and animal welfare experts are near unanimity (in fact, I know of no exceptions) in rejecting BSL as an effective way to manage vicious dogs in any community.
In addition, there are no scientific studies that demonstrate that BSL is effective in reducing dog bites and other unwanted dog behaviour, nor that pit bulls are in any way inherently vicious and deadly. This also helps explain why Burnaby is an outlier among municipalities in the lower mainland (only three of 16 — the others being Richmond and West Vancouver — have BSL), and why a number of other municipalities have been revoking their prior BSL bylaws in favour of more rational, owner-based approaches.
Given the dearth of sound, scientific evidence in support of the proposed, breed specific amendments, the mayor and council relied on their own unscientific Googling, personal anecdotes, stereotypes, inflammatory news stories, and hunches about popular opinion (Coun. Pietro Calendino claimed, on who knows what grounds, that “the silent majority” support BSL.)
This might be understandable if there was no other evidence to be had. But what I found most troubling was the way the various delegations that presented against BSL were treated: with condescension and as mere partisans. Many of these delegations were experts in animal welfare and animal behaviour.
All of the delegates gave thoughtful, respectful and very informative presentations. All of them were treated as if they were nothing other than members of a special interest group with an axe to grind.
From watching the two council sessions on TV, I would say that it appeared that the mayor and the majority of the councillors who questioned the delegations had made up their minds prior to the delegations’ presentations.
The questions and the comments made by the mayor, in particular, towards the delegates made it clear that he was acting as an advocate on behalf of the proposed amendments.
While I am sure the mayor’s prior legal background is well suited for much of the business conducted at city hall, what the residents of Burnaby most needed here was sound, open-minded leadership.
In closing, I would like to address the mayor and council's concern that they do not want to remove BSL and then have a child get attacked by a pit bull because they would feel personally responsible.
I would like to ask them this corollary: When it is shown that the city’s bylaws are ineffective in reducing dog bites, and our children continue to be bitten by dogs of many different breeds, and it becomes even more apparent that other legislation would have been much more effective in keeping our children safe, will they also hold themselves responsible?
Mary-Catherine Kropinski, PhD
Associate professor, department of mathematics
Simon Fraser University
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