Montreal·Analysis

Is banning pit bulls moral?

Are pit bulls more like a firearm? Or a child? We offer an overview of the moral questions at stake in the controversy over pit bull bans.

A ban doesn't consider our responsibility to an animal many consider companions

The SPCA refers to pit bull bans as a form of "discrimination." (Stephen M. Katz/The Associated Press)

As municipal leaders in Quebec's two biggest cities move to ban pit bulls, they have invoked their duty to protect the public from potentially dangerous animals. 

"There is a situation regarding pit bulls that demands public authorities to take a stand," Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre said Saturday, announcing he hopes to have a ban in place by the fall.

Existing owners will be allowed to keep their pets under certain conditions. 

Coderre's Quebec City counterpart, Régis Labeaume, felt the threat was so severe that he will force even current pit bull owners to get rid of their dogs by the new year. 

At the source of this most recent wave of concern was the death of a Montreal woman who was mauled by what police believe was a pit bull. 

Much of the discussion so far has been about whether the bans are legal, and whether they're politically wise. 

But so far little has been said about whether they are moral. Or, more generally, about what responsibilities us humans have to the animals we keep as pets.

Are pit bulls more like a gun ... 

In the hundreds of comments CBC Montreal has received on this issue, one way people have made the argument to support the pit bull ban is to compare the dogs to firearms. 

"[A] pit bull owner who does not properly control his or her dog ... is akin to a gun owner who keeps his loaded weapon in easy reach of children," Gundula Baehre posted in response to news of Montreal's proposed ban. 

The argument might also run that guns are dangerous, so we put limits on gun ownership. Certain guns are more dangerous than others, so we ban those outright. 

Dogs, too, can be dangerous, so municipalities pass rules about wearing a leash and having a dog licence. Some dogs are more dangerous than others — like pit bulls — so we ought to ban them outright too. 

... or a child?

Canadian political philosopher Will Kymlicka argues we should treat domestic animals as "co-citizens." (John Truss)

Pit bull bans are opposed for a variety of different reasons. The SPCA refers to them as a form of "discrimination."

Because it can be difficult to tell whether a dog is actually a pit bull simply by looking at it, the animal welfare group worries that dogs will be culled based on their appearance.    

A breed-specific ban, the group said in a statement over the weekend, "supports the false premise that dogs that happen to look a certain way are inherently 'dangerous.'"

A more provocative opposition comes from the well-known Canadian political philosopher Will Kymlicka. 

Kymlicka, who teaches at Queen's University, shot to prominence in academic circles for his work on multicultural citizenship, setting out the duties that citizens of a diverse society owe each other. 

He took this background and applied it to animal issues, co-authoring with his wife Sue Donaldson Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights in 2011. 

The book stood out for making the novel argument that we should treat domestic animals as "co-citizens." 

Co-citizens, you say, like giving dogs a right to vote? They can't even speak.

Not quite, say Kymlicka and Donaldson. But they do point out that the reduced cognitive capacity of children or certain disabled people doesn't prevent us from treating them as co-citizens. 

And even though children can't vote, it's nevertheless understood that we have a responsibility to take their interests into account when making public decisions. 

If we bring animals into our community, don't we owe them the same level of respect as other sentient beings we share our lives with?

Is it the dogs or the owners?   

Quebec Pit bull is an organisation which advocates for the breed and wants owners punished when their animals behave badly. (Elysha Enos/CBC)

Pit bull bans are unfair, on this view, because they fail to address the real cause of the problem. 

"The problem is not that pit bulls as a breed are dangerous, but that humans are allowed to purchase and train animals to turn them into tools of intimidation," Kymlicka told CBC Montreal in an email exchange.

"Pit bulls happen to be a breed that humans have recently chosen to use for this purpose of intimidation, but pit bulls are not inherently violent: as with any breed of dog, their behavior depends on how they have been socialized." 

In their work, Kymlicka and Donaldson suggest owners of domestic animals have a duty to train them to be able to enjoy their partnership with humans. 

We teach children about appropriate behaviour so they can integrate into society and enjoy its benefits; we should have the same mindset when it comes to domestic animals, they argue.

Simply banning pit bulls may just be an easy way of dealing with a problem without asking the hard questions about the responsibilities we have to our companions from the animal kingdom.

with files from Kamila Hinkson

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