Owen Laukkanen is an author and dog rescuer based in Vancouver. He has worked with animal welfare agencies across Canada and around the world.
Long after dark on a chilly night in February this year, a cargo plane landed at Vancouver’s International Airport and taxied to the facility’s south terminal. There, outside a nondescript hangar, workers unloaded nearly 300 dogs and cats from the aircraft’s hold. The animals were evacuees from Afghanistan, rescued from the streets of Kabul or left behind by families fleeing the Taliban. Some had been rendered blind or deaf by bomb blasts; many had lost limbs. Some had been rescued from dogfighting rings, others abused in unspeakable ways. Nearly all carried some kind of trauma.
They came out of the plane scared, confused and exhausted. They came desperate for love and compassion. And they came here, to Canada, because they had nowhere else to go.
In June of last year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control announced a “temporary suspension for dogs entering the United States from high-risk countries for dog rabies.” The restrictions, which included rescue dogs as well as animals belonging to American citizens who had lived and worked overseas, were widely decried as unduly harsh and reactionary. They left animal welfare groups around the globe scrambling to find other paths to safety for the many dogs in their care.
Canadians stepped up to fill the void. The country welcomed dogs in need from war-torn countries such as Afghanistan and Ukraine; from mainland China, where the dog-meat trade results in the slaughter of an estimated 10 to 20 million animals annually; and from nations where a lack of veterinary infrastructure and cultural indifference leads to rampant overpopulation problems and often shocking cases of cruelty. Led by scores of grassroots, volunteer-driven, non-profit rescue organizations coast to coast, Canadians saved the lives of thousands of animals. But our country’s time at the forefront of global animal welfare will soon be over.
Beginning Sept. 28, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency plans to implement its own ban on the importation of dogs from more than 100 countries. But the CFIA decision isn’t simply a copycat response to our neighbours to the south; it’s worse. Where the CDC merely crippled American animal rescue organizations’ ability to save lives, the CFIA is outright ending the show. This is a nearsighted, draconian decision that will have a devastating effect on animal welfare both abroad and here in Canada. There is no evidence that the agency consulted with any rescue organizations before making its decision.
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The CFIA’s aim, as with the American CDC regulations, is to prevent the reintroduction of “dog rabies” into the country, though dogs are just as susceptible to much more common strains of rabies carried by wildlife such as raccoons, skunks and bats. The CFIA’s own literature states that there are no known cases of dog rabies in Canada. Moreover, the ban targets “commercial” dogs, but as per the CFIA, “commercial dogs can include but are not limited to dogs for resale, adoption, fostering, breeding, show or exhibition, research and other purpose.” Where the CDC regulations allowed Americans to apply for exemption permits contingent on, among other things, proof of valid rabies vaccination, the CFIA’s ban is blanket, outright and complete. No dogs, whether vaccinated or not, will be allowed entry into Canada from “high risk” countries beginning on Sept. 28.
Let’s get one thing straight: Animal rescuers don’t oppose regulation to prevent the spread of rabies. The disease has an extremely high rate of fatality in humans and, as front-line workers, we put ourselves in harm’s way with every animal we try to save. According to the CFIA, dog rabies kills more than 59,000 people globally every year, and though there have been only 25 known fatalities in Canada from any strain of rabies over the previous century, there is not one rescuer here who wants to put that record in jeopardy. The CFIA acknowledges that rabies is nearly 100-per-cent preventable with proper vaccination, and any responsible animal welfare organization – of which there are hundreds in this country – is already working with its overseas partners to make sure those vaccinations are done properly before any dog reaches our shores.
There is room for the government in this equation, and a definite need for regulation and oversight. But the total ban announced by the CFIA is emphatically not the answer.
Earlier this summer, around the same time as the CFIA was announcing its new rules, the Centers for Disease Control was beginning to ease restrictions. While the CDC’s process for allowing dogs from 113 “high risk” countries is lengthy and arduous, it does at least attempt to protect public-health interests without completely closing the door to animal rescue agencies and families and military personnel who may have adopted a dog while stationed overseas.
The CDC’s model requires proof of rabies vaccination, either by a U.S.-licensed veterinarian or verified by a serology titre test from an approved laboratory if the animal was vaccinated overseas. It requires that dogs enter the country at one of 18 airports with a CDC quarantine station, and that the owner or importer be prepared to quarantine the dog at their own expense if necessary.
These regulations are tough. A surfeit of approved laboratories means it can take months to verify an animal’s vaccination status. From personal experience, I can attest that confusion between the CDC regulations and how they are interpreted by Customs and Border Protection can turn any trip across the border with a rescue dog into an unpredictable game of chance. Even in its current iteration, the CDC suspension continues to almost completely choke the ability of animal welfare agencies to bring animals in need into the United States. Obtaining a CDC import permit requires time and resources that most rescue agencies simply don’t have – but at least you can get one, if you really work hard at it. The CFIA ban won’t even give rescuers that option.
Both the CFIA and CDC have been maddeningly light on empirical data in their announcements. Neither agency is willing to publicly quantify the risk of dog rabies, with the CFIA only allowing that an unspecified number of dogs with the disease were imported into Canada in 2021 – though in nearly the same breath they state that the country has no active cases. Moreover, the CFIA doesn’t elaborate about which particular “commercial” activity – out of their maddeningly broad definition – led to the importation of these infected dogs. Canadians have a right to know how many rabies-infected dogs were imported into the country, and for what purpose.
The CFIA decision means that hundreds of dogs will die, plain and simple. But it’s not just dogs that will be affected; canine overpopulation in many of the CFIA’s “high risk” countries poses significant human health risks. Many rescue agencies in Canada turn a portion of their adoption fees back to their dogs’ countries of origin, to pay for spay-and-neuter clinics, vaccinations and other health initiatives. At the end of the day, a significant number of Canadian rescuers may simply be forced to end their work altogether, their ability to affect change almost completely nullified.
For Canadian dog lovers, this ban means a sudden void in the supply of adoptable animals. For decades, non-profit, volunteer-run rescue agencies have long satisfied the demand for healthy family pets. The CFIA ban will leave that demand to be filled by puppy mills instead, condemning thousands of animals to death overseas in favour of unregulated, for-profit breeding operations that carry with them their own vast range of deleterious health implications.
The 150 or so dogs who landed in Vancouver from Kabul on that chilly February night have long since found homes. They sleep on couches, roam backyards and hike in the woods. They have play dates with their new families, and snooze happily in the sun. They’re thousands of miles away from the bombs that deafened and blinded them, from the cruel hands that disfigured them. They are home, safe in Canada, like thousands of rescue dogs before them, brought here by hundreds of passionate volunteers whose dedication to safety ensured each was properly vaccinated and posed no threat to public health.
Canadians have a long and compassionate history of rescue. This CFIA ban – sudden, ill-conceived, extreme – robs us of that history, and of any future in global rescue. It’s time for the CFIA to recognize what the Centers for Disease Control has already tacitly admitted: Blanket bans aren’t the answer, and the responsible way forward includes meaningful consultation with rescue stakeholders. It’s not too late to get this right.
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