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Pit bull restrictions begin on Monday Owners could face big fine and jail time if their dogs bite or attack anyone

Owners could face big fine and jail time if their dogs bite or attack anyone

As the last hours of unbounded freedom tick by for Ontario's pit bulls, Arthur Joseph allows his 10-month old dog Bella to roam in an Etobicoke park without a muzzle.

Mr. Joseph is a 29-year-old mechanic who keeps his head shaved close, wears camouflage combat pants and owns two pit bulls. He's also a sensitive animal lover who is deeply troubled by Ontario's new dog licensing law.

"It just doesn't make sense," Mr. Joseph said. "The ban is not going to accomplish anything. All the ban is going to do is hurt good people who obey the law. All these gangsters who have these dogs and breed them illegally and fight them illegally -- guess what? They do illegal things. They're criminals."

The law, which comes into effect Monday but provides for a 60-day grace period, bans pit bulls born after Nov. 27 and all those brought into the province starting next week. Those dogs can be confiscated and destroyed by municipal licensing officers.

The law contains a grandfather clause to allow dogs such as Bella, and Mr. Joseph's five-month-old male pit bull Jimi, to live out the rest of their days under certain restrictions. These "restricted" dogs must be leashed and muzzled when off their owner's property, and they must be spayed or neutered by Oct. 28. If they have offspring, the puppies must be surrendered to the pound. If they bite, attack or are deemed to pose a threat to the public, their owner could face a fine of up to $10,000 and six months in jail.

The law is designed to protect citizens from violent dogs and is the first of its kind to be passed by a province or state in North America.

The city of Windsor moved on its own to ban pit bulls last October, and it was through Advocates for the Underdog, an agency that rescued pit bulls and smuggled them to other jurisdictions, that Mr. Joseph acquired Bella and Jimi.

He said he couldn't bear the thought of dogs dying needlessly. Although he understands the need for dangerous-dog legislation, he can't see why pit bulls are the only breed to be banned.

"There's lots of dangerous dogs out there that aren't pit bulls," he said, adding that he is a responsible owner whose pit bulls pose no threat.

He believes the pit bull legislation was proposed as a way to win popularity for Attorney-General Michael Bryant. He has read through pages of the committee hearings on the matter earlier this year, and said he's baffled that the Attorney-General concluded a breed-specific ban was the best way to proceed.

"Maybe we weren't emotional enough," said Steve Barker, Ontario director of the Dog Legislation Council of Canada.

While the Attorney-General's office produced harrowing testimony from bite victims, those opposed to the pit bull ban restricted their arguments to facts, he said.

Tomorrow night, he and Mr. Joseph will join a group of fellow dog owners in a candlelight vigil at Queen's Park for the thousands of dogs they predict will be euthanized under the new legislation.

But they haven't conceded yet. On Monday, a coalition of dog groups known as the Banned Aid Coalition will launch a lawsuit aimed at derailing the new law. Civil-rights lawyer Clayton Ruby is taking on the brief and, Mr. Barker said, is going to base his argument on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Mr. Ruby was not available for comment.

"We feel we have no choice but to challenge it legally because we couldn't get through to the government in a logical manner," Mr. Barker said.

For Mr. Joseph, the new law has already meant a major change. He has bought a new house at the edge of Pickering with a large backyard and a high fence that will allow his dogs to run free without muzzles. That way, they won't be singled out on the street and treated as dangerous pariahs. He's already had Bella spayed, and will have Jimi neutered when the dog matures, and he feels only a little regret that they won't be able to reproduce.

"There's people out there that don't like dogs, and this ban is going to make those people happy," he said.

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