THE City of Winnipeg has proposed a progressive suite of changes to its Responsible Pet Ownership bylaw that could make Winnipeg "One Great City" for companion animals and wildlife. The proposals are wide-ranging, and address a number of key issues when it comes to the well-being of animals in the city.
Predictably, it is the city’s proposal to regulate the types of exotic animals that can be kept as pets that has garnered the most attention. Arguments against the proposal from the exotic pet industry and private animal owners tend to focus on the pleasure humans derive from keeping certain animals, or the money that can be made by breeding, importing or selling them. But restrictions on exotic animal ownership are sorely needed.
The sad reality is that every year millions of wild animals are taken from their natural habitats or bred in captivity to become exotic pets, with many dying during transport or surviving and spending their lives suffering in captivity under conditions that do not even meet their basic needs. Most species of exotic wild animals are simply not well suited to life in captivity, despite their human guardians’ best intentions.
For example, in the last 20 years Canada has imported more than 78,000 ball pythons — a complex snake species from the grasslands and forests of Africa. Most are doomed to spend their lives in small containers in someone’s home, entirely unable to engage in natural behaviours. And enormously social, wide ranging macaws, cockatoos and other parrots, their wings clipped to render them flightless, may be kept alone, suffering from boredom and deprivation, sometimes for years.
The city is proposing a positive list of animals that are allowed because they satisfy certain criteria, including that they present no human safety hazard, and that their basic biological and social needs can be adequately met in captivity. A positive list is simpler, more effective and less expensive to enforce than the current negative list approach, which allows tens of thousands of animal species to be kept by default, even if they suffer in captivity or are threatened in the wild.
In addition to traditional companion animals such as cats and dogs, the city is proposing to allow dozens of reptiles, birds, fish and small exotic mammals. In fact, the list might even be too long as drafted, as it includes several wild animals that are not particularly well suited to life as pets. Animals already living in the city would be grandfathered under the new law, so city officials will not be knocking on doors and confiscating Winnipeggers’ beloved parrots and pythons.
Aside from regulating exotic animal ownership, the city is also proposing to introduce a suite of changes aimed at stopping irresponsible cat and dog breeders, who contribute to the city’s overpopulation problem, and often place profit over the well-being of animals in their care. Requiring breeding permits and restricting the number of litters an animal can be made to have is a necessary step in the right direction.
Winnipeg is also proposing to ditch its unscientific and ineffective ban on pit bulls and pit bull-type dogs. This move may sound dangerous, but evidence shows banning dogs based on their appearance does not improve community safety or reduce the amount or severity of dog bites. To truly protect companion dogs and the public, the city is wisely proposing to focus on irresponsible guardianship and the individual personalities and behaviour of dogs that may pose a risk to community safety, as well as creating new tools to protect dogs from neglect and mistreatment.
The city’s proposals would also protect wildlife from cruel and unnecessary products that cause prolonged suffering and death. This includes a ban on the outdoor use of some rodenticide poisons, as well as lethal snare and leghold traps that cause tremendous suffering in animals — including companion animals.
It also includes banning horrendously cruel glue traps, which cause animals to suffer long, agonizing deaths caused by starvation, dehydration and exhaustion as they struggle in vain to free themselves from strong adhesive.
Mahatma Gandhi astutely observed that "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." The same can be said of cities. With city staff working on a report to present to the mayor and council this winter, now is the time for Winnipeggers to speak up and let our councillors know we support the proposed bylaw changes and want to live in a progressive, compassionate city that is a model for others to follow.
Kaitlyn Mitchell is a Winnipeg-based staff lawyer with Animal Justice. Michèle Hamers is a wildlife campaign manager with World Animal Protection. Rob Laidlaw is the executive director of Zoocheck.