I was looking to adopt a cat when I visited New York City's animal control facility in upper Manhattan, but what stuck with me were the pit bulls.
It was one of the first warm days of spring in 2014. Staffers were buzzing around the facility, some getting the cutest adoptable kittens and puppies camera-ready for local TV news segments, others interviewing hopeful adopters who had their hearts set on particular animals.
And then there were the pit bulls. There were several rooms filled with them, confined to cages that were roomy by animal shelter standards, but certainly not enough for a high-energy breed of dog. For anyone who doubts that animals have emotions and can suffer from the same symptoms of depression that humans do, a visit to that animal control facility would quickly dispel those notions.
Those dogs were dejected. You could tell which ones had been there in the shelter the longest by their body language and their dead eyes. The only thing missing from the scene was Sarah McLachlan wailing over a melancholy chord progression.
Of course, the sheer number of pit bulls meant reduced chances for any individual dog to find a permanent home. And there were so many pit bulls because, to put it frankly, the people who adopted them were ignorant. Many don't know what they're getting into. They don't realize that cute puppy will grow into a powerful dog, they don't realize that exercise and stimulation are just as important to some breeds as decent food and companionship.
And when a shelter volunteer or animal control officer finds a pit bull or similar dog on the street, it's almost always because the person who adopted the animal didn't do his or her research, wasn't prepared to be a good owner, and simply abandoned the dog instead of doing right by it.
That's a point that seems to be lost on lawmakers in Montreal, who voted on Sept. 27 to ban pit bulls and "pit bull-type dogs."
Like most ill-advised legislation, Montreal's pit bull vote was fueled by emotion, not facts. In June, 55-year-old Christiane Vadnais was mauled to death in her own backyard by a dog that entered through a hole in a fence, according to the CBC.
Police told reporters the dog was a pit bull, but the local Humane Society obtained copies of the dog's registration documents, which identified it as a boxer, says the CBC.
And that's one of the primary problems with breed-specific legislation like Montreal's new law. Animal rights and humane groups oppose breed-specific legislation precisely because visual identification is so difficult, and because a dog's appearance isn't an indicator of its temperament.
In 2006, dog warden Tom Skeldon testified in a lawsuit challenging breed-specific legislation in Ohio as unconstitutional.
“Even if a dog was 50 per cent pit bull, if it did not look like a pit bull, the owner would not be charged," Skeldon told the court. "On the other hand, if a dog did look like a pit bull, it would be classified as a pit bull and the owner would be subject to the ‘vicious dog’ laws.”
Those who advocate for pit bull bans argue that pit bulls are more likely to attack humans than other breeds, and that pit bull attacks are more vicious and potentially life-threatening than attacks from dogs that aren't descended from fighting stock. They also blame pit bulls for fatal attacks on other dogs and cats.
Indeed, Montreal's mayor says he doesn't have a choice regarding pit bulls.
"My duty as mayor of Montreal is making sure I am working for all Montrealers," Mayor Denis Coderre said, reports the CBC. "And I am there to make sure they feel safe and that they are safe."
But pit bull advocates say owners, not the dogs, are to blame when the dogs become aggressive and attack people or other animals. They say pit bulls make great family pets, and describe the breed as loyal and loving. They also say pit bulls have gotten a bad rep, thanks in part to media reports and the way the animals are portrayed in popular culture.
They point to evidence, like a 2013 survey by the National Canine Research Council, that determined a dog's environment, not its breed, is a bigger factor in forming a dog's disposition. They also note a lack of definitive, properly conducted research showing that breed-specific legislation actually has an impact on dog-related attacks and injuries.
"It's becoming more and more obvious that breed-specific legislation doesn't improve public safety," Janis Bradley, director of communication for the NCRC, told USA Today. "Its purpose is to reduce injuries from dog bites, but there is no municipality or state where it's enacted where they've been able to show that it's accomplished this."
A 2015 story by Oregon Live found that, after a decade-long trend of pit bull bans, municipalities were moving in the opposite direction and focusing on dog behavior, not pedigree.
"Governments are beginning to understand it was an idea that seemed to work 30 years ago, but it hasn't," the Humane Society's KC Theisen told the newspaper. "It's an idea whose time is done."
But perhaps the most convincing argument against banning pit bulls is a humane one. Opponents of the Montreal ban say it will result in thousands of animals being euthanized, forcing the dogs to pay for the transgressions of irresponsible owners.
Animal rescues and volunteers in the area are trying to get as many pit bulls out of Montreal as they can before the dogs are killed, and some veterinarians are refusing to take part in the purge. The Quebec Order of Veterinarians has lodged a complaint against the ban, according to The Dodo, a site for animal lovers.
Karen Joy Goldenberg, a Canadian veterinarian, sums up the response: "I, professionally, morally, ethically am not required to euthanize those animals."