The year of the dog war

By Catherine Masters

Gordon Levet, with worn hands and weathered face, climbs on to his quad bike like a young fella, knife sheathed to his belt.

"Really, I think if they don't accommodate farmers on this one they're likely to regret it," the 73-year-old says matter of factly, and roars off down the gravel driveway to the woolshed on his Wellsford farm.

"They" are the Government and they are buying another fight with farmers. For the life of them, farmers do not see how getting their working dogs microchipped is going to make the rest of New Zealand safe from attacks.

Farmers are so hopping mad at yet another "illogical" levy imposed from Wellington some are suggesting a campaign of civil disobedience by refusing to comply.

Others are threatening to march once again on the steps of Parliament. It is not an empty threat.

In 2003 farmers marched over the so-called "fart-tax", turning the tractor into a protest vehicle. They marched again last year over public access to their land, carrying coffins symbolic of the death of property rights.

This time farmers say they will take their dogs. Whatever deposits their dogs leave behind would symbolise what farmers think of microchipping.

Their dogs, they say, are not pets. They are indispensable workers and they want them exempted.

Federated Farmers Taranaki president Bryan Hocken, a loud voice in previous marches, insists the Government will have to back down - " I can assure you the last thing Helen Cheeky Clarkie wants is all these dogs pissing all over the steps, cause it stinks."

He does not want to march again, he says. "But if that's what has to happen, them's the breaks."

The new law is a requirement under the Dog Control Act and one of a raft of measures responding to dog attacks on people, including the mauling of 7-year-old Carolina Anderson in an Auckland park in 2003.

After Carolina's face was torn apart by an uncontrolled dog, pressure for tough law change was intense.

From July 1 newly registered dogs will have to have a microchip implanted so information on the owner can be scanned.

Farmers say of course they have sympathy for Carolina, and all attack victims, but dogs are already registered annually - they question how the addition of a microchip would stop an attack. It's a good question.

Federated Farmers says none of the headline-grabbing dog attacks involved working dogs. A lot of attacks involve unregistered dogs and people who don't register them are hardly likely to get them microchipped, they reason.

Agriculture Minister Jim Anderton has been lobbying hard to get working dogs exempted and last week took the farmers' case to Cabinet.

Mr Anderton was not talking afterwards. A spokesman said more consideration was needed.

Rural councils are sympathetic but otherwise it seems farmers are on their own in this latest battle.

The Veterinary Association, the Kennel Club, animal control officers and the SPCA all believe the microchip system would fail if working dogs - 40 per cent of the dog population - were taken out of the equation.

Which brings us back to the farmers' question, how would a microchip prevent dog attacks?

Veterinary Association chief executive Murray Gibbs admits it wouldn't, at least not directly. But 20 or 30 years down the track, it may turn out to be very effective.

The move is partly about improving widespread non-compliance of dog control law - something that has been going on for hundreds of years, including farmers.

"Have you heard of the dog tax wars?" Gibbs asks.

Back in the "dim, dark ages," New Zealand had a dog tail tax and this is one reason why dogs' tails were originally chopped off.

The dog tax wars took place in the Hokianga in 1898, Gibbs explains. In 1888 the Hokianga County Council put a tax of two and sixpence on every dog to prevent or reduce the incidence of marauding dogs attacking livestock.

Ten years later the local cop had trouble collecting the money and a tax collector was employed, but he was run out of town by Maori.

"So in the last act of the land war the constabulary en masse marched up to the Hokianga and arrested some locals for civil disobedience and put them up for trial."

Today's farmers are not innocents either. Gibb says cockies blindly ignore the requirement to get dogs registered at three months, registering them only after the dogs have proven useful - there's a reasonable wastage, he says.

Nationwide there are 700,000 dogs - but only 500,000 are registered.

A circuit breaker is needed and Gibb says this is microchipping.

New South Wales introduced the system seven years ago and compliance has improved, he says, so much so that Victoria now requires cats also be chipped.

Improving compliance is the key, he thinks, "because while dog attacks will always be with us, eventually if we get better compliance with dog control statutes the activities of those people who had that mongrel dog that attacked Carolina Anderson will be come less socially acceptable and there will be less of them. And that's the rub."

The explanation does not wash with the farmers spoken to - they have a special relationship and respect for the dogs they work alongside all day.

They simply could not manage thousands of head of stock on often inhospitable land without them.

While farmers are practical people who view their dogs differently to city folk, many spoken to also admitted deep affection for these staff members.

Back in Wellsford on 607ha Kikitangeo Farm, Levet says no, he won't have a photo taken, offering up son-in-law and shepherd Greg Ward instead.

Four-legged Milly races like a mad thing after Levet's quad bike trying to lick the tyres.

She's an eye dog - they're the ones that round up the sheep - and sweet and loyal, but not his smartest.

Earlier at the kitchen table Levet talked gruffly about not getting round to "disposing" of her yet.

He then confessed he probably wouldn't. He hasn't got rid of Sue either. She's about 18 and no longer of any practical use. But she's his favourite and is sleeping away her well-earned retirement outside in the morning sun.

"Ah, she was a good dog."

Some dogs are naturals and she instinctively knew what he wanted her to do. She could guide a ewe with lambs through the middle of a mob of sheep and deliver them to his feet.

Neither love nor money would separate them. Death will, though, and Levet has been known to say that when she dies he will give up farming.

It's clear he's mighty fond of the old girl who's reached a hell of a good age despite the hard life of a working dog.

Twelve dogs live on Kikitangeo farm just outside Wellsford township, an idyllic spot with smooth rolling hills once covered in Kauri and native bush. Kikitangeo hill is a towering backdrop to the graceful farmhouse begun by Levet's grandfather in the 1800s and added on to over the years.

His dogs are not pets and are not optional, he says, pointing at the steep hills. Without them it would be "impossible" to run the farm with its 3000 to 5000 sheep and 500 cattle.

"The sheep know when you haven't got a dog. They'll just stand there and be difficult. As soon as a dog turns up they come into line."

The farm is a Romney stud and today Levet is mating ewes. The dogs have put in a hard morning's work already, collecting a mob of sheep from a high paddock from which Levet will choose the animals to mate.

"Then Greg [the son-in-law], he's been up the back of the farm, just below the big hill, and he's brought down a mob of lambs to clean up. They've had a few dags and the odd maggot on them, then he'll go up and get another mob later in the day."

The dogs are lean and their ribs show, but Levet says they are fit like athletes. Perhaps part of the dog attack problem in cities, he ventures, is because city dogs never get enough exercise and are treated as humans.

Estimates vary for microchipping. Federated Farmers says it could cost anything from $50 to $110 for each dog and will add up to $3 to $7 million annually, although Murray Gibb says farmers are wildly exaggerating the one-off cost per dog.

Levet insists the farmers' objection is not so much the cost, but the principle. This is just another unnecessary fee imposed without adequate consultation. The sentiment is echoed up and down the land. King Country farmer Ian Corney has 1416ha of wild terrain and runs 15 to 20 dogs.

"You want me to name them? Now?" He sounds a little startled.

But the Federated Farmers meat and fibre chairman passes the name challenge, rattling off Ben, Page, Lassie, Norm, Meg, York, Mack, Jess and so on.

Pups are expensive. They cost $400 to $500 each and some a lot more. On top of the annual registration fee, microchipping is just another pointless cost.

Ian Corney reckons he's a reasonable man, but no matter how hard he tries he cannot see logic in microchipping. "If a dog on this property showed any tendency at all to attack a sheep let alone a human, I can assure you it would get chipped all right, and this is exactly what I told Jim Anderton - it would get chipped with a bullet."

Corney is not a great believer in marching but says there are plenty who will. Even the quietest of farmers are saying this is "bullshit", he says, "and I can't think of another word for it".

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