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Mark Buehrle’s dogs – pit bull Slater, second from left, and Vizslas Drake, Duke and Diesel – are staying with his family in the St. Louis area. (HANDOUT)
Mark Buehrle’s dogs – pit bull Slater, second from left, and Vizslas Drake, Duke and Diesel – are staying with his family in the St. Louis area. (HANDOUT)

Tom Maloney

New Blue Jays ace takes aim at Ontario’s pit-bull ban Add to ...

As the Toronto Blue Jays open the baseball season on Tuesday against the Cleveland Indians at the Rogers Centre, the team is an odds-on favourite to win the American League East and move on to the World Series for the first time since 1993.

Key to a turnaround in the team’s prospects is a 12-player trade with Miami in November that netted Mark Buehrle, a four-time all-star as a starting pitcher, a World Series winner, and the maestro of a perfect game for the Chicago White Sox. For athletes, all sports trades have human consequences that many fans cannot appreciate, and in the case of Mr. Buehrle, he has decided to spend the season alone in Toronto, rather than separate the rest of his family from their beloved dogs.

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The first two Vizslas, Diesel and Drake, came from a breeder and the next two, a Vizsla named Duke and a pit bull, Slater, are adopted. Slater had been scheduled for euthanization when Mark Buehrle’s wife, Jamie, pulled him and a dozen other dogs from the kill pen and brought him to the Hope Animal Rescues compound, a shelter for homeless dogs.

The Buehrles had met Jackie Spiker, the director of the facility, about four years ago and have since donated and raised more than $1-million to move it onto a 14-acre plot of land in Godfrey, Ill.

Slater is the reason that Jamie and their children, Braden, now 5, and Brooklyn, 4, won’t be joining Mr. Buehrle, who is scheduled to pitch Thursday, in Toronto. Ontario has legislated against pit bulls, the only province or state in North America to do so, since 2005 after a 7-year-old girl was killed in a pit bull attack.

Mr. Buehrle promoted a dog adoption program while with the Chicago White Sox and Mrs. Buehrle has actively advocated for pit bulls; to return Slater to the homeless shelter or even to leave him with a foster family over the summer would have been hypocritical, in their minds.

Due to their experience with the shelter, they have decided to adopt future dogs rather than purchase from a breeder. One day, Braden heard a friend talking about getting a dog. As Mr. Buehrle recalled the moment: “He’s 3- or 4-years old at the time and he heard somebody say, ‘We’re going to go buy a dog.’ And he said, You don’t buy a dog - you rescue them. My wife was like ear-to-ear grinning.”

Mr. Buehrle rented a condominium in downtown Toronto rather than a house with a backyard, and the rest of the family will stay home in the St. Louis area. Mrs. Buehrle plans to join him on the road here and there, and the family will visit Toronto occasionally this summer. Until now, they hadn’t been separated.

“It’s going to be different but it’s something we have to do,” Mr. Buehrle said recently, during a conversation at the Blue Jays spring training home in Dunedin, Fla. “We had to sacrifice something to keep our family together.”

After being pulled from kill pen, Slater was adopted by another family that already had a dog in the house, a female who attacked Slater for three weeks before the family returned him to the shelter as a matter of compassion. Ms. Spiker said Slater has a beta personality; he will succumb. Mrs. Buehrle had previously pleaded with Ms. Slater to dissuade her from bringing a fourth dog home, but Slater and Mrs. Buehrle had formed a bond and Mr. Buehrle says, without elaborating, that “Jamie didn’t rescue Slater; Slater rescued Jamie.”

“She’d been talking about the dog non-stop,” Mr. Buehrle recalled. “I said, ‘Jamie, just get the dog. It’s meant to be.’ So she brought him home.”

Mr. Buehrle disagrees with the ban in Ontario as unjustifiably discriminatory, believing that pit bulls in general are discriminated against because of their intimidating appearance. He believes owners ought to be held responsible for their dogs no matter the breed.

“If you’re going to throw the dog in the backyard, keep it tied up, not show it love, not bring it inside, then that dog is going to be aggressive,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s a pit bull or a Lab, they’re going to react to the way you treat them. Why have a dog if you’re not going to cuddle with them, play ball with them? Ours are always climbing on the bed, almost suffocating you because they’re loving you so much.”

The 2005 amendment to the Dog Owners' Liability Act, outlawing the breeding, sale and ownership of pit bulls, has survived an Appeals Court challenge by lawyer Clayton Ruby. Bill 16, sponsored by Randy Hillier (C-Lanark-Frontenac-Lennox and Addington) would have restored the Act to its original state but it died on Oct. 15, 2012 at Queen’s Park, after passing through the Legislature on second reading with all-party support, when former Premier Dalton McGuinty prorogued Parliament. Mr. Hillier is petitioning to have it reintroduced.

“There have been horrific attacks involving pit bulls, not only in Ontario, but across the country – around the world,” Attorney General spokesman Brendan Crawley stated in an email, emphasizing the permanency of the ban. “Men, women and children alike have been seriously injured or maimed. Sadly, young children have even been killed in vicious attacks by pit bulls. We introduced this legislation because we heard very clearly from Ontarians that they wanted to be protected from the menace of pit bulls.”

Mr. Buehrle acknowledges that people have been injured and killed in attacks from pit bulls, while pointing out that incidents involving other dogs do not generate mass media publicity. Cathy Prothro, spokesman for the Dog Legislation Council of Canada which objects to the Ontario ban, says huskies have caused more human deaths in Canada than pit bulls. Dangerous dogs exist in all breeds and ownership is the primary issue, and 95 per cent of attacks occur in the home or neighbouring yards, she said.

Ms. Spiker said a pit bull’s dog bite is no worse than another 80-pound dog’s bite. Told of an incident in Calgary recently where a pair of pit bulls injured a small dog so badly it had to be put down, Ms. Spiker said she’s also seen Labs “tear apart” Yorkies, likewise German Shepherds and Rottweillers lethally injure other dogs. She said pit bulls, like any other dog, become tamed if they are fixed.

“There are pit bulls that are bad, but there are German Shepherds and Labs and Chihuahuas that are bad too,” says Mr. Buehrle. “If people don’t raise their dogs the right way, they are going to be aggressive and mean.”

Ms. Spiker said a trial visit was arranged for Slater with trainer in tow, to ensure he would be compatible with the Vizslas, also males. She said the dog rolled over submissively, with no indication of challenge. Mr. Buehrle said Duke, the adopted Vizsla, has been the “project dog” as he’s skittish with people and suspects the dog was beaten by a prior owner.

Given a hypothetical opportunity to appear before a hearing regarding the Ontario legislation, Mr. Buehrle said he would bring Slater alongside.

“Be with him for a couple of days, see if this changes your mind on how these dogs are,” he said. “Make your decision that way. It comes down to the owners, how they treat their dogs. Don’t ban them because of the way they look.” 

Ms. Spiker has heard a ream of excuses from people for giving up on their dogs, from ‘it grew bigger that we thought it would’ to moving to a place that won’t accept dogs.

“If people thought more like Mark and Jamie did, there wouldn’t be a homeless dog problem,” said Ms. Spiker. “They don’t want somebody else taking care of their dog, because then it’s not their dog.”

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