/ 9 November 2012

Barking mad laws keep pet owners on a tight leash

Alfred Matywatywa is the man behind a dog show in which David Zihlangu's cross-Alsatian
Alfred Matywatywa is the man behind a dog show in which David Zihlangu's cross-Alsatian

Jean-Pierre Smith, a Democratic Alliance councillor and chairperson of the safety and security portfolio committee in the DA-led Cape Town city council, learned a hard lesson in practical politics when, four years ago, he decided to oversee the process of implementing the city's new animal bylaw.

The product of 81 draft revisions and a spirited public consultation process that unlocked "a towering inferno of opinion", the bylaw, which was approved in October 2010, is an ambitious piece of legislation that is slowly being implemented.

Among other things, it mandates that dog walkers carry "a sufficient number of plastic or paper bags or wrappers" in which to deposit any unexpected doggy pooh. Many walkers and their mutts continue to flout the provision. Similarly, some dogs continue to bark, yelp, howl and whine for more than six minutes in an hour – a patent violation of the new bylaw.

The bylaw's unusual time clause might evoke images of white municipal vans with audio detectors patrolling sleepy neighbourhoods monitoring noise levels. In reality, however, the clause – which derives from a similar Australian city bylaw – simply establishes an objective measure for magistrates dealing with nuisance complaints involving warring neighbours.

The conviction, in September this year, of a Pietermaritzburg man, Nazeer Bux, for murder, following a "free for all" fight between neighbours prompted by warring dogs, highlights the expanded and real-world context for the clause. Closer to home, in his own constituency, Smith is aware of a case in which a Cape Town woman has spent R50 000 defending vexatious dog barking complaints.

"On one level, it is almost petty to the point of preposterousness," Smith said in an interview at his offices. Smith's portfolio, after all, is a serious one: it deals with issues ranging from gang violence and substance abuse to prostitution and human trafficking. However, he admitted to underestimating the extent to which barking, yelping, howling, whining and poohing are cornerstones of the local democratic process.

Health portfolio's task
"I have never got comment as extensively, as widely and as emotionally as this," he said.

The history of the bylaw dates to 2008 when some behind-the-scenes dodging landed the task of drafting the new law on Smith's desk.

"It was supposed to be the health portfolio's task," said Smith. "Its chairperson, who is far wiser and sagacious than I am, saw the storm of faeces on the horizon and said: 'Nay!' I foolishly agreed. 'Don't worry,' I said, 'we'll do it. How bad can it be?' Now I know. Never again."

Two years on, Smith, who is widely known for his blue eyes, short crop of blond hair and occasionally gruff public manner when dealing with graffiti lobbyists, still speaks of being "traumatised" by the experience of drafting the new law.

"I will never ever, ever, ever, ever," – the councillor repeated the word at least a dozen times, his hand making a swift karate chop movement – "in five million years work on a law dealing with animals again."

Taken at face value, Cape Town's animal bylaw, which is still being softly introduced through pet-registration drives, especially in low-income neighbourhoods, is a progressive document. The bylaw, which folds a "long-term vision" statement into an immediately actionable document, consolidated 11 existing bylaws into one, ensuring uniform stipulations and penalties for all urban animals and their owners.

The bylaw does not explicitly use the adjective "urban" or refer to the word "pet" (but for a pet shop). Technically, it encompasses horses, ponies, mules, donkeys, cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, camels, reptiles, dogs, cats and other domestic animals, whether indigenous, wild or exotic. Yes, that would include ornamental koi, Smith said.

New legislation
Principally, however, the bylaw is designed to regulate purring domestic felines, barking mutts and working horses.

"A big chunk of new legislation relates to equines," said Smith. "We realised that cart horses were prevalent in Cape Town, more so than in any other part of the country." Smith and his team worked closely with the Cart Horse Protection Association in Epping to fine-tune the bylaw's equine provisions, a tactic that reflects shifting government  attitudes towards the regulation and protection of urban animals.

"The old bylaws pretty much confined themselves to regulating animal ownership and the nuisance value of animals," said Smith, who owns two cats, Kira and Pratchett. "Animals defecating in public and the noise produced by dogs – basic stuff like that. We went a bit further and started looking at a welfare component."

Animal cruelty is extensively covered and even spectatorship at a dogfight is made a punishable offence. The punishment is a R20 000 fine or two-year prison sentence. The law also introduced animal control units again.

"They are not the dog catchers you see in cartoons," said Mike Job, a member of the safety and security portfolio. "They impound dogs that are complained about – they don't go looking for dogs."

These uniformed units are involved in a drive to register domestic pets in low-income neighbourhoods. This registration drive, which Job described as a "census", will help the council to better assess funding applications from animal welfare groups, especially in relation to the mandatory sterilisation of dogs. Some welfare groups, added Smith, had overstated the number to secure larger state handouts.

"They were utterly dishonest and disingenuous," he said, adding that he had been left with "a permanent contempt for some of the stakeholders".

Colonial government
Despite the ambitious scope of the law, history demonstrates that legislation does not intimidate South African dog owners.

In 1893, Port Elizabeth, then an affluent port city and home to the country's first kennel club, witnessed an outbreak of rabies. In Cape Town, the colonial government responded by passing a new law regulating animal control, which included quarantining imported dogs on Robben Island. Dog owners in Port Elizabeth were unmoved.

"Throughout the outbreak, veterinarians chose to comment on incidences of indifference and noncompliance rather than panic and obedience, as the former weakened their authority and, in their view, caused the disease to spread," writes Karen Brown in Mad Dogs and Meerkats, a lively historical account of rabies in Southern Africa, published last year. "Dog owners of all classes, proprietors of pedigreed breeds as well as those who kept scraggly mongrels demonstrated that they were willing to defy the state and hazard fines."

Little has changed. Despite the provisions of section 11 of Cape Town's animal bylaw, which requires dog owners to remove any mess that their pooches make, dog walkers in the plush neighbourhood of Oranjezicht continue to flout the law. The cement service road leading off Molteno Drive is routinely littered with fresh dog excrement.

This recently prompted an exasperated resident to circle the coiled mounds with yellow spray-paint. A further summarising statement did the necessary maths: "=34 Please!" I counted only 28 mounds.

"I wish I could catch that person because the dog pooh can be removed but his graffiti vandalism can't," said Smith, who also championed the city's much-debated graffiti bylaw. "I'd love to prosecute him or her."

The issue of dog waste is an emotive one. When HG Heugh, a predecessor official to Smith from the 1970s, instituted a R50 spot fine for dogs that defecated in public, John Scott, former editor of the Cape Times, weighed in against the councillor (who also incidentally banned magnesium flashlight photography in the city hall because it constituted a "fire hazard").

Incorrigible breed
"Dogs persist in 'going' when they want to go and not when their owners want them to go," wrote Scott, defiantly flying the flag of dog owners. "We dog owners are an incorrigible breed. No city council will ever train us. The only answer is to breed a dog that does not drop, at least not in public."

To get a sense of what Cape Town dog owners think of the bylaw, especially those who are neither middle class nor, in these times, blog destined, I visited Mdzananda Animal Clinic in Khayelitsha. A neatly organised complex of six recycled shipping containers, Mdzananda started operating in 1996 as a Saturday-only clinic. It now offers full-time, on-site primary veterinary healthcare.

Liquorice, a cross pit bull and one of Mdzananda's resident mutts, lazed in the sun while Khayelitsha resident Nomfundo Ezu consulted with animal care worker Maria Limani. Ezu's beige Maltese cross, Lovey, was losing weight. Worms, she speculated.

While a stoic Lovey received an injection, Prezo, Ezu's other dog, growled and barked at another mutt waiting to be treated. There was neither yelping nor whining.

Although aware of the new bylaw – "I hear we have to pay some fees for the dogs" – Ezu, a hotel worker in the city who lives alone, has not yet registered the dogs.

"They are everything: they are my friends, my kids, everything," said Ezu as she deposited Lovey on the passenger seat of her sedan.

Stray and malnourished
Ezu's simple story cuts across many of the racist stereotypes about dog ownership in former townships – stray and malnourished packs of dogs – that I heard voiced during my research.

"I don't let my dogs out of the yard," she told me. "My hek (gate) is closed. I've got that mess to clean up every day, but I'd rather clean up every day than let them walk around. They could get hit by a car, or get diseases from other dogs."

Brian Bergman, a veterinarian who works at Mdzananda four mornings a week, his salary subsidised by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, has noticed a shift in the role of domestic animals in Khayelitsha, particularly as social conditions normalise.

"The function of animals here is a little different in that most of them are for security," said Bergman, who did a locum stint at Mdzananda as a newly trained vet in 1996. "But that is changing. We are seeing a lot more companion animals; animals that live in the home."

Where reactive treatment (injuries from accidents and fighting) was the standard, the workload now includes a large volume of preventative medicine (deworming, deticking, vaccination). A small consultation fee is levied.

"The people running this clinic are very fair and kind," said Ezu, who previously had to drive to Athlone for pet care. "If you don't have money to pay fees, they don't say that they won't treat your dog."

As a complement to Mdzananda's static presence, the organisation, whose project manager is Jane Levinson, does extensive community outreach. I attended a dog show in Bosasa.

Officially known as Mfuleni TRA (temporary residential area), this community of 384 units off Old Faure Road forms part of a scattered complex of such areas established by the city government for people with emergency housing needs. It is similar to Delft's so-called "Blikkiesdorp".

About 15 dogs and their owners turned out on a Saturday afternoon to compete for prizes (pet food, mostly) in six categories. DJ Vusi, a local resident, supplied bass-heavy musical accompaniment from a laptop. It was organised and sponsored by Mdzananda, but the dog show was largely the doing of Alfred Matywatywa, a Bosasa resident.

Originally from Queenstown, where he owned five dogs, Matywatywa works as a security guard in Sea Point. He now has one dog, a two-year-old pavement special named Bovi.

"I got him as a puppy," said Matywatywa, who received a "hero to animals" award from the local branch of the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals for organising the dog show.

Also a winner on the day was David Zihlangu and his dog Kleintjie, the three-year-old cross-Alsatian winning in the category "happiest dog". Zihlangu, a wood seller, was less than happy with his current living circumstances. "It is not lekker: the house is very cold in winter and very hot in summer."

He had not heard of the animal bylaw.