My response to the Pontiac MRC animal control by-law

As I mentioned earlier, the Pontiac MRC is planning a new animal control by-law. It has come up with a draft for each of the 18 municipalities to approve. I have laid hands on a copy of that draft, in all its typo-ridden glory, and made a PDF of it; you can download it here.

It’s the kind of law that makes dedicated animal lovers nervous because it makes illegal activities that have been going on for a long time, and that may be perfectly legal elsewhere. Reptile keepers are used to these sudden changes in fortune — though not, as you will see from this entry, in Quebec. But in addition to restricting animals that are legal elsewhere in Quebec, the by-law would also ban dangerous dog breeds — something that is only starting to happen in larger city centres — and fix a maximum limit of five animals per household. Not five dogs or cats. Five animals. You can see where this is going.

When I first heard about the by-law, I freaked. But once I got my hands on the draft, I was able to see how I might be able to address my concerns without going ballistic, mobilizing public opinion or waging a media campaign. So I drafted the following letter, and sent it to my mayor:

Shawville, February 11, 2008

His Worship Mayor Albert Armstrong
Municipality of Shawville
P. O. Box 339
Shawville, Quebec   J0X 2Y0

Dear Mayor Armstrong and Councillors:

I am writing with respect to the proposed animal control by-law. While I support animal control by-laws in principle, and can appreciate the desire to have a standardized by-law for all municipalities across the MRC, I have some serious concerns about the by-law as it presently reads.

As you may be aware, I and my spouse, Jennifer, who teaches science at Pontiac High School, keep exotic animals — namely, harmless reptiles. We have made no secret of this; indeed, we have presented educational demonstrations, including at the Shawville RA Centre and at John Paul II High School, that have been very well received. I have always taken great care to ensure that we have been in compliance with the law as I understood it.

We would not, however, be in compliance with the proposed by-law, which puts us in a difficult situation. We would be forced to choose between divesting ourselves of animals that we have looked after for years and that would be legal everywhere else in the province, defying or challenging the by-law and risking fines or seizure, or leaving the Pontiac altogether. None of these options is particularly pleasant!

But in reviewing the text of the proposed by-law, I have come to believe that the provisions that would force this choice on us may well be accidental or unintentional, or could be changed without affecting the overall thrust and purpose of the by-law. In this letter, I will outline our issues with this by-law and the changes that can be made to address them. In doing so, I will be drawing upon my past experience as a legislative revisor for the Department of Justice, where I assisted lawyers in the drafting of laws, regulations and other statutory instruments; while I am not a lawyer, I do know something about how laws are written and how to interpret them.

Here, then, are our concerns. (It’s lengthy, but I do sum it up on the last page!)

Paragraph 4.1(c) sets out the kinds of exotic animals that are permitted in a municipality. The list differs from the list of exotic animals that may be kept without a licence in Schedule II to the Règlement sur les animaux en captivité, made under the authority of the Loi sur la conservation et la mise en valeur de la faune.1 This creates some problems. I have been relying on Schedule II to the Règlement to ensure my compliance with provincial law, as have other exotic animal keepers in Quebec. Because of the Règlement’s existence, exotic animal keepers do not expect that municipalities will try to regulate the kinds of exotic animals as well — neither Gatineau nor Montréal do so, for example. Municipalities in Ontario regulate exotic animals because the provincial government does not, but in Quebec, the provincial government does. A municipal by-law that overlaps with a provincial regulation will cause confusion.

Apart from the unexpectedness of Quebec municipalities regulating something already regulated by the province, there is a real issue of precedence. I am given to understand that when they are in conflict, provincial regulations overrule municipal ordinances. For example, the City of Ottawa prohibits the keeping of snapping turtles,2 but if someone had a licence to keep one under Ontario’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, 1997,3 they could still keep one in Ottawa: the province trumps the municipality. I am unsure myself whether the wording of section 8 of the Règlement (“No licence is required to keep an animal of a species listed in Schedule II …”) is an implicit granting of permission to do so that trumps lower-level restrictions, but that is strongly suggested by the absence of exotic animal restrictions in the municipal animal by-laws in Quebec that I have consulted to date.

In sum, setting out the kinds of animals that may or may not be kept is not only redundant, but also quite likely unenforceable. The province already does it. This is why Gatineau’s animal control by-law does not list animals that may or may not be kept, but rather refers to animals allowed or prohibited by provincial law.4 I recommend that the municipalities of the Pontiac MRC do the same.

(As an example of the above, we are directly affected by subparagraph 4.1(c)(i) of the proposed by-law: we have two boas and a python; all three are small, harmless and tame, and may be legally kept without a licence under provincial law.)

Paragraph 4.2(a) limits the number of animals that may be kept to five. This is without precedent. Most municipalities limit the number of dogs and cats that may be kept within a dwelling, and for good safety, animal welfare and public health reasons, though the precise number allowed may vary from place to place. But no municipality, to my knowledge, presently limits the total number of animals, not just dogs and cats.

If the intention is to regulate the numbers of dogs and cats, then that should be said explicitly, and I would recommend that article 4.2 be revised to that effect. But at the moment, this provision refers to “animals,” which are defined in article 1.2, which states that “animal” “[r]efers to animals of all kinds and of any origin.” Which means that small rodents are included. Birds are included. Fish are included.

We are affected by this restriction, but we are admittedly an unusual case. But many other people will also be affected — more than you might think. I know several people, who are neither crazy cat ladies nor crazy reptile keepers, who would be in violation of this provision. If you have a dog and a couple of cats, along with a few caged animals such as gerbils or a couple of small birds — not an atypical scenario at all for many people — you are in violation of this by-law. Even an aquarium of tropical fish would be in violation if the number of fish in that tank is greater than five.

The care of small animals is different because they do not have the run of the place like dogs or cats. A typical house or apartment can only contain so many dogs and cats, but small and exotic animals are kept in enclosures (i.e., cages or aquariums). So long as each animal is receiving proper care in a properly sized and equipped enclosure, the number of small or exotic animals (or their enclosures) is not the same issue. Articles 4.4 to 4.6 of the proposed by-law address the issue of proper care. Gatineau has similar provisions in its animal control by-law, as do other municipalities. Section 3 of the Règlement sur les animaux en captivité also sets out care requirements, so it could be argued that such provisions at the municipal level are redundant. In any event, I would much rather see people prosecuted for neglecting their animals, no matter how few they keep, than see people prosecuted for keeping more than five animals, no matter how well they take care of them — especially if I’m the one being prosecuted!

Surely the MRC had other things in mind for its animal control officers than counting fish in tanks or small animals in cages. And some may well say that that is not what would happen, or that that is not what was intended. But I do not know how much discretion animal control officers or the S.Q. will have if they receive a complaint. The law would be on the books. And as the spouse of a teacher who has been receiving prank phone calls from anonymous students for the better part of a year, I am quite sensitive to the possibility of someone phoning in an animal complaint on a lark, or to settle a private score. Moreover, we’re simply too high profile — what we do is too well known in the area — to do what many other exotic animal keepers do, which is to keep their heads down and their animals’ existence private.

There are other concerns with this by-law that do not affect us, such as an exemption for dogs that give birth but not for cats (or other animals under the present five-animal limit), or the requirement to give any dead animal to animal control (will you be cited for flushing a dead goldfish?). And believe me, the by-law, at least in its English version, needs proofreading. It would be a mistake to treat its text as unalterable.

Aside from that, addressing the above concerns will not only keep us within the law, but it will also allow us to remain in, and contribute to, a region we have adopted as our new home, while continuing to work with animals we are passionate about. It would also prevent a ridiculous situation in which animal control in a rural area of Quebec is more restrictive and inflexible than it is in cities like Gatineau and Montréal.

To reiterate, and for greater clarity, I am requesting the following:

  • that article 4.1 of the proposed by-law be rewritten to allow animals permitted under the Loi sur la conservation et la mise en valeur de la faune, rather than providing a list of its own; and
  • that article 4.2 be changed to limit the number of dogs and cats, rather than all animals, to five.

These really are minor changes and I hope you won’t mind making them.

As this animal control by-law is an MRC-wide initiative, I am forwarding a copy of this letter to Mayor Mike McCrank, Warden, Pontiac MRC, for his information.

Thank you for your consideration.

Yours sincerely,

Jonathan Crowe


c.c. Mayor Mike McCrank

(Links added. Footnotes removed.)

No response so far. Will keep you posted.