By Stephen Dafoe
Morinville – Many area residents were outraged at Morinville Town Council after a Dec. 31, 2010 Global News segment indicated Morinville was looking to ban elephants and other exotic creatures. But the woman who helped draft Morinville’s proposed 56-page Responsible Pet Ownership Bylaw said the list of 130 banned and prohibited animals that has been the focus of so much media attention is but a schedule attached to the proposed bylaw.
“Many municipalities, including some here in the province, have these schedules only so you can keep out the banned and prohibited animals and so that we can work with the federal regulators if something’s going on,” said Donna Tona, Morinville’s interim manager of enforcement services, adding the federal government is strict on the matter of animal importation. “If they’re not concerned about it, neither are we. But if they’re saying, ‘Oh, boy, we just put that one on our list,’ then we’re after it.”
The bylaw drafter said many sources were consulted with respect to the much-talked about Schedule D, including the Canadian Food Inspection Agency who regulates all imported animals, the Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species, Canadian Wildlife Service and Canada Border Services.
“All of those provide the impetus on what animals can be here,” she said, adding the City of Ottawa has a similar schedule to the one she has included in the draft document. “That is our reference to call them and say, ‘We’ve got a problem here – we need your help.’”
But it was the inclusion of elephants in the list that raised eyebrows and drew a lot of ridicule in last week’s Global segment.
“The elephant is just part of the mammal issue,” Tona said. “You don’t want anyone running a private game farm here. That’s what it stops. They have to apply for the proper licences and all that kind of stuff.”
As absurd as the idea of a Morinville Safari experience may be, it is smaller creatures the much-talked about schedule seeks to provide guiding coverage on.
“Sometimes people think a baby coyote is a pet or they find a baby cougar, it now becomes a pet,” she said. “They’re not pets.”
While few may argue with the idea of prohibiting wild animals as pets, many residents were upset that pythons and boa constrictors were included in the bylaw’s attached schedule.
“I don’t care if you have a boa constrictor in your house,” she said. “Is it poisonous? If it’s poisonous, it’s a banned animal. If it isn’t, I don’t care.”
Tona said boa constrictors and pythons have since been removed from the bylaw’s attached schedule, but vipers, adders and bushmasters would continue to be prohibited, along with pet crocodiles. Additionally, the schedule has been revised with respect to spiders, permitting tarantulas and other arachnids that are not dangerous to humans.
Although the schedule includes a variety of animals, the only creatures actually discussed in the body of the proposed bylaw are animals found in the surrounding County. Tona explained the inclusion of goats and chickens is not as ridiculous as one might suppose.
“In talking to other municipalities, there is a lot of push back about town residents wanting to have small miniature horses in town, goats to graze the grass; they want to raise chickens,” she said. “A lot of those experiments have failed miserably in municipalities. That’s why things like antelope and sheep and goats and all that kind of stuff are in here as well.”
More teeth than tusk
Tona is quick to point out the bulk of the 56-page bylaw deals with ordinary pet issues.
“Responsible Pet Ownership bylaws don’t affect most people,” she said. “Ninety-five per cent of the population will never have to worry about this bylaw ever because [most] people are responsible pet owners.”
Tona explained Morinville’s current animal bylaw has no teeth with respect to provisions for dangerous dogs or the quarantining of animals, items that had to be beefed up to fall in line with provincial legislation.
“This wasn’t just something we woke up and dreamed up,” she said. “We had to beef it up according to the health act and the Communicable Diseases Act to give us some bridging power with the Acts. That’s what a bylaw does. If we were just a bylaw enforcement team, it would be different. We’re not. We’re a peace officer team now, so we have to have a bridging bylaw.”
The proposed bylaw restricts the owning of dogs identified as dangerous to persons 18 years of age and older who must obtain an annual licence for the animal. Owners who fail to have their vicious dogs properly muzzled, harnessed or leashed, or who allow the dogs to run free in an off leash area could face an $800 fine.
Tona explained a Morinville Peace Officer recently sat outside a local school for up to three hours because a dangerous dog was on the premises.
“We had a dangerous dog on the loose. We couldn’t catch it. We sat outside the school all afternoon making sure it stayed away and making sure the kids got on safely,” she said. “We had our sights on the dog and the owner looked after the dog.”
In addition to putting tighter regulations on the owning and keeping of dangerous dogs, Tona said the bylaw also seeks to close the loop hole for people who let their pets roam free and then deny ownership when there is a problem.
“Under provincial law we have to provide to that animal if it’s in distress,” she said. “Some pet owners were leaving the Town stuck with the bill.” That bill has been approximately $12,000 over the past four years according to Tona’s research. It is an amount that could be significantly reduced as the bylaw would permit the recovery of vet bills through the tax role if it can be proven the cat or dog belongs to a ratepayer.
But not all of the cats treated over the past four years have been owned by residents. Tona said Morinville has a feral cat problem and she may look at a feral cat round up in the spring where cats are rounded up and spayed or neutered.
“We have to let them go or we adopt them out,” she said. “But at least they can’t reproduce. There are some citizens in town now that we’re aware of that are looking after feral cats. They’re feeding them and assisting them. We’re good with that. If they’re in distress, some of these wonderful residents have taken them into the vet of their own money. That’s amazing. It speaks to the wonderfulness of this town.”
Much work to do before bylaw passed
Morinville Mayor Lloyd Bertschi said he and council have yet to be able to discuss the proposed bylaw as a group.
“The bylaw came to us and it was the first time we’d seen it when it arrived in our agenda packages,” the mayor said of the presentation of the bylaw Dec. 21. “Rightly we deferred it for council discussion at the Committee of the Whole meeting in January.”
Bertschi explained the committee meeting is a less formal gathering of council where councillors have an opportunity to discuss items prior to them being brought to council for decision.
“That’s what council has done; we’ve just deferred this until then so we can have a better conversation around it.”
Bertschi explained the tabled bylaw was covered by a number of news sources and took on a life of its own.
“From that it has just spiralled right out of control,” the mayor said, adding there is no point in holding a special council meeting to discuss the document because nothing has been discussed as yet. “We haven’t done anything. We’ve got nothing to repeal. We haven’t given it first reading.”
The mayor said the situation has prompted council and administration to review how proposed bylaws are presented to council. Bertschi said it is common to bring bylaws directly to council for minor tweaking or revisions; however, more substantial revisions need to be brought to council prior to council being asked to make a decision.
“A wholesale rewrite such as this, council definitely should be more involved up front,” the mayor said.
The bylaw will be a topic of discussion at the next Committee of the Whole meeting, but the mayor does not anticipate it coming before council earlier than February. Morinville’s Responsible Pet Ownership Bylaw is one of a number of bylaws administration has been workin on revising over the past nine months.