Recently the Calgary Human Society rescued numerous dogs in the neighbourhood of Acadia. This is a really sad story, and many people were shocked that this "house of animals" happens in our city. All too frequently, we are discovering a house where someone is housing over 50 cats, or a house with 30 or more dogs. It seems to be that only after abuse or neglect has been clearly established that the authorities can get involved and rescue the animals.
I immediately recognized the Acadia situation—I bought the house right next door to this person and lived there from 2000 to 2006. Simply put, it was awful. If I was a renter, I could have put in my notice and left—but I was a home owner. And as any home owner can attest, you are "married" to the property, at least for a while. I can say from experience that there are no laws currently on the books that protect neighbours, or the animals, from anyone in Calgary owning any number of dogs or cats.
When I lived in Acadia, there were eleven dogs permanently housed next door. I know this exact number because I talked with several Animal Services Bylaw Officers during the time that I was there.
It was very frustrating. I would never hurt an animal, so I couldn't get mad at the dogs—they were constantly barking, yipping and running around—basically being dogs. It wasn't their fault. One dog barking once in a while is no big deal. Two can be a bit annoying, but hey, life happens. But eleven? It was literally a "barknado" of noise—one leaf would blow by and the dogs would wind themselves up into a frenzy. One dog would excite the others, and it was incredibly loud. Even when the dogs were all inside, and the windows and the doors were closed, I could hear barks. I never slept in late during the five years I lived there. From 7:00 am until midnight, every day, there were dogs scurrying around and barking. Often they were crated up in the basement for most of the day. What kind of life is that for these animals?
I don't blame the Animal Bylaw Officers—I asked them what they could do, and they can basically enforce the law. The law in Calgary says that you can't neglect or abuse an animal. So the bylaw officer would offer their sympathies to me—I was unlucky. (Life lesson: if you are ever going to buy a house, peek over the neighbour's fence first!) However, there was no crime against owning an unlimited number of dogs. I would stack up the noise complaints, and every few months, they would knock on her door and talk with her. The bylaw officer would then come over and explain to me that the dogs were all licensed, and that there was no neglect—and then they would leave.
What can a neighbour do? I was aware that the situation wasn't good (by my standards, anyway) but the house where the dogs lived wasn't my house. It was only when there was excessive noise (barking that lasted for an "extended period of time") that I could complain. I can totally sympathize with the City of Calgary Bylaw Officers—they have to enforce the law as written.
My contention would be now that this has happened, yet again, I think that most people would agree that we need some sort of common sense legislation. Whether or not there was abuse or neglect, I think that most people would think it is unusual (and possibly unhealthy to the animals and even other neighbours) to have a certain number of dogs. Whatever the number is, there is a number in most people's minds that would be "the maximum number" that makes sense.
Currently in Calgary, there are no laws that prevent any of us from owning an unlimited number of domestic animals (like cats and dogs). I can own ninety cats if I wanted to. Farm animals are generally not allowed as property within city limits—I cannot own a cow or a chicken and keep it in my background or my basement. I can understand why (from a health & safety standpoint, or an ethical standpoint, or a noise / pollution standpoint). However, dogs and cats are generally exempt from this law. Why do we have laws for one type of animal and not for the other? Wouldn't that same logic apply to any animal, if the number is eventually high enough? Why can I own thirty cats, or eighteen dogs, but not one chicken?
I am generally not a fan of the government telling me what I can and can’t do on my own property—I should be allowed to stack my entire living room full of old newspapers or empty jam jars if I want. If I have 800 Sports Illustrated magazines in my basement, I’m not hurting anyone. That makes sense. But when there are living, breathing animals at risk, there is a moral responsibility to protect those animals not just from neglect and abuse, but from generally unacceptable living conditions.
If a cat or a dog owner suddenly dies, the pet living at the house might also die too. If the owner is gone, the poor animal might go for a week without water and eventually die. As sad as that is, imagine if you had ninety or one hundred cats all depending on you (and only you) for their lives. Is this ethical? Is this necessary? We can argue that we have the right to do it—but is there not also a responsibility to have an animal’s welfare also taken into consideration? How many dogs can we ethically stuff into a bungalow?
It's not just the animals who suffer. I'm sure that the bylaw officers are frustrated—they are seeing people living in dilapidated houses, surrounded by an extreme number of dogs and cats, and yet don't have the legal authority to do anything about it until abuse or neglect is clearly evident. It's also a drain on public resources to have taxpayer money involved to now inspect and certify that the house where the dogs were taken from is healthy enough for human (and animal) habitation. And from a property owner and neighbour's standpoint, this is like having a grow-op next door—the house is basically condemned. Fellow neighbours cannot be happy about that. It's an eyesore and a drain on the community's property values.
Montreal has a maximum animal bylaw. Winnipeg has a maximum animal bylaw. London, Ontario has a very detailed maximum animal bylaw. Lots of cities are doing it.
Regardless of what the number is—three animals, four animals, seven animals—we need to at least get the discussion going. We need a maximum number. Any number. Infinity is not an acceptable number of animals to house in a residential property within the City of Calgary. Having a law would at least give the Bylaw Officers something on the books so that they can remove cats and dogs from an owner when the number reaches a dangerous amount from a sanitary and animal-welfare standpoint.
What can we do? Write your City of Calgary Councillor and explain that you care about the welfare of the animals, you would like to help give our Bylaw Officers a law with some teeth, and help stop these situations from going south very quickly. Here is our chance to get involved and voice our concerns. If we don't, it is a virtual certainty that this tragedy will happen again.