Bill Speech: Domestic Animals Amendment Bill 2015

Ms SPENCE (Yuroke) — I rise to support the Domestic Animals Amendment Bill 2015 for three reasons. Firstly, the bill implements an election commitment by this government to impose a moratorium on the destruction of restricted breed dogs while a parliamentary committee inquiry is undertaken into the effectiveness of the current legislative arrangements. The committee will report to the Parliament by 30 September this year and the moratorium provided under the act will apply until September 2016 so that there is sufficient time for the inquiry’s findings to be considered and an appropriate response provided.

Secondly, I support the bill because it recognises the difference between a dog that is deemed dangerous due to its actions and a dog that may be destroyed despite its not being involved in dangerous actions and simply as a result of its being determined to be a restricted breed. Currently the legislation provides for the destruction of a dog that is determined to be a restricted breed as well as the destruction of a dog that is deemed to be dangerous, and it may be that in some circumstances both of these criteria apply. The legislation does not affect the provisions regarding the destruction of dogs that are deemed to be dangerous; it relates only to those circumstances where destruction is currently permissible based on breed determination alone. It has been noted by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals executive manager of animal services, Helen Cocks, that breed-specific law does not and has not succeeded in reducing dog bite-related injuries, wherever in the world it has been enacted. Ms Cocks further noted that it is the deed that matters, not the breed.

I do not accept that a dog owner’s failure to register a restricted breed dog should result in destruction of that dog. There are a number of reasons why registration does not occur. Whilst I am not saying that those reasons are good or correct, we have to acknowledge that that is a reality. Just as not getting third-party motor vehicle insurance may seem to be inconceivable — why would anybody not take out third-party insurance? — to the financially overstretched household, where the paperwork is incomprehensible and the so-called minor fees are an impost, animal registration may be the expense that is foregone. Equally there are very strict provisions regarding the timing of registration when moving house and it is not inconceivable that this deadline could be missed, especially when the breed of the dog is not certain and owners do not know that these time frames may apply to them with such significant consequences.

Thirdly, I support the moratorium provided for in the bill because as the owner of an American pit bull terrier, or a Staffie-cross, depending on who you ask, I know that the classification of registered breed dogs as dangerous can be flawed. I was fortunate to have a beautiful dog as a member of my family for many years. She was fortunate to live a happy and much-loved life through to old age. Her name was Hera. She was without a doubt the best dog I have had the pleasure of adopting. She was a treasured member of our family and we were her pack. But I do not make these comments in regard to pit bulls or restricted breed dogs as an advocate for ownership of those dogs per se. I knew when Hera joined our family that she would be a very big and very strong dog, and if I was going to take on the responsibility of owning her, I needed to make sure that the rules of the house were clear and that the house was secure, as her behaviour was predictable within her domain but beyond that was unknown.

What I did not expect was how easy training this dog would be. I am not a dog trainer, but Hera was the best behaved and most easily trained dog I have ever owned. Having a young son, I knew his friends may be intimidated by Hera’s size so one of her first lessons was that if someone covered their face with their hands or squealed and waved their hands in front of their face, this became a command to sit. She would never eat until directed to do so, would never take food from people or beg for food, and I can honestly say that I never felt threatened or scared by her or by how she acted around others. She even slept with the cat. I know that in her later years she enjoyed a happy life. She spent hours by my sister-in-law’s swimming pool watching all the kids and alerting the adults if the play in the pool got too rough or noisy. She saw it as her job to watch over everyone.

If I would force my son to dance with me and he squealed in protest, as young sons do, she would jump up on me and push me away from him, but this probably had as much to do with my dancing as it did her protective nature. She would not hurt me; she would just let me know that I should back away because the most vulnerable member of her pack needed to be checked on. In fact it was more of a challenge to restrict her desire to be like the human family members. If we were sitting at the kitchen table, she would pull out a chair and sit up to join in. There was no point putting her outside because she would just open the door to come in. And when it came to bedtime, lifting the doona and telling my son to go to bed was taken as a signal that she too should hop in and put her head on the pillow and with innocent eyes ask, ‘What’s the hold-up? Fluff the doona and read to us’.

In light of my terrific experience with Hera, my earlier comment that I am not an advocate for ownership of restricted breed dogs may seem strange to some. But I believe more has to be done in the space of responsible ownership. First and foremost a dog’s behaviour and their potential danger to others is determined by their owner, and as a basic first principle, premises should always be secure so dogs cannot get out — and that means any dogs, be they terrified terriers during fireworks or what I consider terrifying German shepherds, Rottweilers or Dalmatians, none of which are restricted breed dogs. It breaks my heart to think that any dog could be destroyed simply because of their breed.

Fiona McDonald, a volunteer for Melbourne-based charity, For Dogs Sake, was recently quoted in the local newspaper as having said:

Breed-specific legislation gives people a false sense of security and zero contribution to public safety.

Well-behaved, obedience-trained family pets have been murdered because they look like a pit bull.

Moreover, it breaks my heart that some people are either completely irresponsible as owners or use the physical traits of a dog to create dangerous dogs. This applies to many breeds that are not designated as restricted breeds but are equally potentially dangerous.

I am glad the current legislation will be reviewed through the parliamentary inquiry. I am glad that a moratorium on the destruction of dogs simply because of their breed is included in this bill, and I hope that the inquiry finds a more sensible and workable solution to dangerous dog legislation.

In commending this bill to the house, I also note Craigieburn resident Michael who owns Brutus. Brutus is a staffie cross or American pit bull, depending on who you ask. Michael was recently quoted in the Hume Leader newspaper as having said:

The breed-specific legislation is killing family dogs. It isn’t working … Killing a dog by its looks is so unfair and wrong.

I agree with Michael. I have had a treasured family pet that was a restricted breed dog. A responsible dog owner leads to a responsible dog, and all valued family pets should be treated with respect.