Dog’s Best Friend

Calgary revolutionized its approach to animal control. On a recent visit, Bill Bruce explained how Vancouver might do the same

January 7, 2011

By C.L Caulfield

Asked to recall his worst day on the job, Bill Bruce, director of Calgary’s Animal & Bylaw Services, doesn’t hesitate. “It was five years ago, a hot summer. The shelter was overrun with cats. We had more coming in and nowhere to put them. I asked my staff to choose 16 animals to euthanize. To make a trained vet tech choose which animals will live and which will die, that’s a horrible thing to ask. I promised my staff it would never happen again.”

Bruce was at a dog-training facility in East Vancouver, explaining how he’d turned Calgary into a model-the model-of canine control. He’d used three simple principles: educate people on the benefits of dog licensing; remove barriers; and reward compliance. Calgary now has 108,500 licensed dogs out of a canine population of 122,325-over 90 percent compliance, one of the highest figures in North America. In 10 years, dog bites have become statistically insignificant even as that city has grown. Dog aggression and property damage incidents are more than half what they were in 1999. As a result, Bruce-an unassuming fellow who embodies the dog-training mantra of “calm, assertive energy”-is in demand as a speaker worldwide.

The audience in East Van, which included animal control workers from across Metro Vancouver, listened intently as he explained how he’d addressed Calgary’s cat issue.

Bruce fast-tracked a cat licensing program he had in development. It led to 10,000 licences being issued in the first few months ($10 if the cat was spayed or neutered, $30 if not) and 20,000 in the first year. Today, Calgary has 49,500 licensed cats, which equates to 50 percent compliance (he knows because he conducts an annual census). The resulting revenue funds the state-of-the art Animal Services Centre Clinic, which, in turn, not only increases business efficiencies (for treating adoptable animals), but also subsidizes a no-cost spay-and-neuter policy for low-income Calgarians.

Calgary Animal Services has an annual budget of $5.4 million, generated not through tax dollars but through licence and penalty revenues. Bruce’s program developed over years of asking the right questions before proposing solutions, enacting rigorous measurement and accountability standards, and-most importantly-regulating “the right end of the leash.”

“One of the first things I did when I started this job was visit a lot of shelters,” said Bruce, the son of a police officer, who grew up with German shepherds in the house. “Even though many of the shelter dogs were stressed or scared, if you asked them to sit, they’d sit. These were someone’s pets. In North America we do not have a problem with pet overpopulation, stray animals, nuisance or vicious animals-we have a problem with responsible ownership. Virtually every animal that ends up in a shelter or on the street is there because a human relationship failed them.”

A city’s dog population is generally about 10 percent of the human population, so Vancouver has about 60,000 dogs. Only about 21,200 are licensed, which leaves millions in revenue on the table. The city’s animal control budget is $1.7 million; about half comes from fees, the other half from tax dollars. Cats are unlicensed, and there are no specific bylaws governing cat ownership or behaviour. (Chickens, yes; cats, no.)

Metro Vancouver comprises 17 cities and district municipalities, each with its own approach to services and bylaws. In this mishmash of regulations, one of the most polarizing issues is breed-specific legislation, by which “vicious animals” are defined by breed or, even more controversially, mere resemblance to a breed. “Bull breeds,” such as American pit bull terriers and Staffordshire terriers, are heavily restricted in some municipalities. These restrictions were generally knee-jerk reactions to media-bred hysteria or the result of political “defender of safety” posturing. About half the Metro Van districts-including West Vancouver, Richmond, and Burnaby-have breed-specific legislation. Vancouver did, too, until it was struck down in 2005; and Delta did until November, when council voted to replace it with non-breed-specific definitions of “vicious dogs.” (In the document circulated prior to the Delta vote, Calgary’s practices were repeatedly cited.)

“Is the issue really the breed,” Bruce asked, “or is it aggressive canine behaviour? Once you think in those terms, you can find common ground with the people it affects and create fewer behavioural incidents.

“Breed bans don’t work-it’s been proven time and again. Ontario conducted a five-year study and its ban hasn’t significantly affected dog-bite incidents. When you point fingers at a breed, you force people to take sides. And you alienate responsible owners.”

Almost every credible body, including the BC SPCA, opposes breed-specific legislation. Yet New West, one of the most regulated municipalities, lists five variations of Staffordshire or pit bull terrier (which, many experts say, isn’t even a recognized breed), as well as five obscure ones (including Argentinian dogo).

“It’s useless,” volunteered an animal control officer from New West. “Pit bulls are not the problem. We see more problems with German shepherds and rottweilers.” Bruce, who keeps detailed statistics (and makes them available at Calgary.ca), added that most dog bites in Calgary are caused by small dogs, and that most deaths in Canada have been attributed to husky-type breeds.

Tom Hammel, Bruce’s counterpart in Vancouver, called the presentation “inspiring” and “the right way to go.” Despite a budget cutback in 2010, Hammel is determined to implement some of Bruce’s strategies. He will stress licensing compliance, hoping to become self-funding. “Animal services touches every citizen. Their tax dollars support it, whether they have a dog or not. And our main mission is to protect people from dogs.” Or, rather, from dog owners? Hammel chuckled: “Right.”

When Bruce, who’s about to celebrate 30 years of city service, was asked to name the best day of his career, he paused. “When I hear positive adoption stories. When our aggressive animal reports are down. When our return-to-owner rates are up. When I walk through our kennels and they’re half empty because the animals went home. I’ve had many good days.”

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