Off-leash dog debate out-of-hand at Cadboro Bay beach

Whether dogs should or shouldn’t wear a leash has become so contentious at this neighbourhood beach, police have gotten involved

By Ryan Hook
May 10, 2022

Off-leash dog debate out-of-hand at Cadboro Bay beach

Whether dogs should or shouldn’t wear a leash has become so contentious at this neighbourhood beach, police have gotten involved

By Ryan Hook
May 10, 2022
Ryan Hook / Capital Daily
Ryan Hook / Capital Daily

Off-leash dog debate out-of-hand at Cadboro Bay beach

Whether dogs should or shouldn’t wear a leash has become so contentious at this neighbourhood beach, police have gotten involved

By Ryan Hook
May 10, 2022
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Off-leash dog debate out-of-hand at Cadboro Bay beach

Tammy has been taking her dog, Bailey, for walks down the beach at Cadboro Bay for close to four years. Bailey is a golden labrador retriever, and since she’s recall-trained, Tammy prefers to keep her off leash, since Bailey’s not harming anyone. According to her, most people enjoy their interactions with Bailey. “That dog is my world,” she says. 

That decision, though, has folded Tammy into an ongoing controversy on the neighbourhood beach. The beachfront is not a designated off-leash area for dogs, and there are many signs telling dog owners to leash up. But Tammy, who has lived in Cadboro Bay for more than four decades, says it’s not necessary. 

“It’s how you train your animal,” Tammy says. “She’s trained, and she’s well-behaved. This should be a beach for everyone. If I didn’t trust my dog I wouldn’t have her off leash. Nobody owns the beach; why restrict it?”

Tammy knows she is breaking the rules, and so far, all she has had to endure is some dirty looks as she and Bailey stroll around the beach. 

But whether dogs should or shouldn’t wear a leash has become such a contentious issue in Cadboro Bay that Tammy feels unsafe providing her last name or her dog’s real name, for fear of the backlash she might receive. “I’ve got strong opinions on this issue,” she says. 

Her fear isn’t unwarranted. In other cases, there have been accounts of online abuse, verbal threats, and, again and again, bags of dog feces littered on a resident's property. In one extreme case, Saanich police confirmed they intercepted a dead rodent that was being mailed to a resident of Cadboro Bay. The victim tells Capital Daily they were told by police to remain anonymous, and to be cautious with their social media presence. 

The debate over unleashed dogs is not an uncommon one on Vancouver Island, home to five of BC’s seven migratory bird sanctuaries.

The Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary stretches 30km along the southeastern tip of Vancouver Island, along traditional Lekwungen territory, covering the shoreline throughout Victoria, Oak Bay, Esquimalt, Saanich, and View Royal. As per federal regulations, “no person who owns a dog or cat shall permit the dog or cat to run at large in a migratory bird sanctuary.”

Source: Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Since three of the oldest migratory bird sanctuaries are in the Capital Region District (CRD), the environment ministry requested that Victoria, Saanich, and Oak Bay tighten up its rules on off-leash dogs last October. “Over the past few years Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) has received numerous complaints from the public regarding the negative interaction of off-leash dogs with migratory birds within Migratory Bird Sanctuaries in the greater Victoria area,” the request read. 

Before that request, Victoria city council voted to remove Gonzalez Bay beach as an off-leash dog area in September, after Canadian Wildlife Services requested the city do so.

Two more migratory bird sanctuaries are designated on Vancouver Island: one in Qualicum beach, and another in Tofino. This winter, due to a mass migration of geese returning to the areas around the Qualicum National Wildlife area in Nanoose Bay, Parksville and Qualicum chose to close some of their beaches to dogs entirely.

Rathtrevor Beach in Parksville was closed from Feb. 15 until April 30, and all public beaches in Qualicum were closed throughout the winter until the end of April. Last month, Tofino council banned dogs on its most popular beach, Combers Beach, in a similar bid to protect Pacific Rim National Park Reserve’s migratory shorebirds.

At Cadboro Bay beach, the conversation and conflict around whether one should leash or unleash their dog has spanned more than two decades—in the past two years, it’s gotten out of hand, and the latest string of events suggests the conflict is only getting worse. 

Confusion at Cadboro Bay

Signs near the entrances to Cadboro Bay beach clearly indicate that dogs are required to be leashed. But it hasn’t always been that way.

For 42 years, dogs were prohibited from the park and a large section of the beach in the summer months after 9am. In 1998, that rule changed, and dogs were allowed off leash at all times from September through April, and on the east side of the beach in the summer months.

Last year, in a compromise between the Cadboro Bay Residents Association—which wanted to remove the summer prohibition—and the federal government—which requires leashes on the site of migratory bird sanctuaries—Saanich council approved a bylaw amendment on Nov. 1, 2021. The bylaw now permits dogs, so long as they are leashed.

Still, the conflict continues, and dog owners will flout the rules. Even federal wildlife enforcement officers and animal control officers have been at the receiving end of verbal abuse.

In 1996, a Saanich police report said animal control officers experienced verbal abuse from dog owners on Cadboro Bay beach, and more recently, a police report to Saanich council from July 2021 noted that there were at least four aggressive incidents involving beachgoers and wildlife enforcement officers in the past two years. In one instance, an enforcement officer was called a “Nazi.”  

“The concerning actions of some park visitors resulted in Saanich Police officers being present at Cadboro Bay-Gyro Park to support Animal control officers whenever possible,” the 2021 report says.

Tony Gage, a beachfront homeowner who doesn’t mind the sight of off-leash dogs running on the beach, says he thinks the conflict has gotten out of hand. “I’ve definitely seen the bylaw officers come through more frequently,” he said. “[The conflict] is way overblown.”

Despite his house looking out onto the migratory bird sanctuary, Gage says he doesn’t see much diversity of birds throughout the year. “The only birds I’ve seen are the blue herons that come to fish, and the geese who migrate to the point,” he says.

On the other side of the debate, letters, attributed to “Cadboro Bay Dog Guy” Jerry Donaldson, have been posted around Cadboro Bay in support of off-leash dogs.

On three separate occasions, different signs quoting Donaldson’s social media posts have been posted throughout Cadboro Bay.

“I’ve tried to resist pointing the finger at the beachfront owners and at bird people who never visit the East Beach,” the signs say. “But I’m afraid that’s who is driving the present effort.” 

Photos submitted.

At the end of one poster was a phone number. Capital Daily called the phone number multiple times and no one answered, but reached out to Donaldson on Facebook. He admitted to having written the social media posts in favour of off-leash dogs, but said he didn’t put the signs up. 

"I had absolutely nothing to do with putting them up,” he tells Capital Daily. “I did, however, take a bunch of them down.”

When asked about what responsible dog ownership looks like, Donaldson says, “No matter where you walk, start out on a leash, and don't unleash until there are no other people or birds around; if anyone expresses discomfort about your dog, warranted or not, leash up immediately, don't stand around and argue.” 

Restoring the Migratory Bird Sanctuary

When the sanctuary was established close to a century ago, in 1923, it was the first of its kind, and the goal was to control bird hunting. At that point, there was market hunting, and alongside the rapidly dwindling numbers of geese and ducks, the ecology of the space deteriorated.

Jacques Sirois has been a longtime advocate for the migratory bird sanctuary, and has been working on its preservation and restoration with the Greater Victoria Naturehood (GVN)—a non-profit organization dedicated to nature conservation in collaboration with the Canadian Wildlife Service.

Sirois is in full support of the “leash before you beach” policy for dog-owners. “We have some of the best natural environments in urban Canada,” he tells Capital Daily. “And it needs to be taken care of properly.”

Over the past decade, cleanups, ecological restoration, and wildlife recovery programs by several governmental, private, non-governmental, and volunteer organizations, such as GVN, has seen this area return to clean waters and wildlife not seen in more than half a century. Even so, he says, “A lot of people fail to appreciate it.”

The area spanning Cadboro Bay beach, Willows beach, and Gonzalez Bay beach is one of a number of regionally important wintering grounds for migratory birds, and is also an area where many dog owners will let their dogs roam free. “The birds need the beaches even more in the wintertime,” Sirois says.

Parks Canada reported that low numbers of birds remain a concern today. One reason for the decline is that dogs can disturb migratory birds by chasing them and disturbing them. “The presence of dogs can also contribute to the habituation of wildlife such as wolves who frequent beaches to access coastal food sources,” Parks Canada said in a statement.

Sirois has noted the hostility on Cadboro Bay bubbling up these past few years. He thinks that if the behaviour continues, Cadboro Bay beach will come to a point where dogs aren’t allowed on the beach at all. “A lot of people don’t want to see any dogs on the beaches. I don’t want that,” he says. “If you want to be part of the solution, it's easily done: leash your dog.”

For Tammy, she says she finds it “ridiculous” that her dog would be blamed for disrupting migratory birds. “Why are beachfront housing developments OK, but not my dog running around?” she says. “You’ve also got derelict boats leaking oil into the ocean.”

Tammy doesn’t think the solution is as simple as leashing her dog, and she’s willing to accept the fines if Saanich bylaw catches Bailey without a leash.As she speaks, shouting construction workers fill the echoes as they build the frame of a new beachfront property on Cadboro Bay, and a loud radio fills the silences in between. “To me, it’s obvious,” Tammy says, “dogs aren’t the problem, humans are.”

Article Author's Profile Picture
Ryan Hook
Food, Arts & Culture Reporter

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