Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Dog-law emphasis on owner rights is barking mad

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Following another spate of serious attacks, Chris Tremain refused to reinstate the review, saying legislation would not guarantee public safety. Photo / APN
Following another spate of serious attacks, Chris Tremain refused to reinstate the review, saying legislation would not guarantee public safety. Photo / APN

To protect the innocent and the stupid, we ban hand guns, fence swimming pools and frown on the idea of crocodiles and lions becoming part of the suburban petscape. But with dangerous dogs, we're as wacky as the Americans and their constitutional right to bear arms.

As a result, another 7-year-old gets ripped apart by four bull mastiff-type dogs at a "friend's" home in Murupara. Like many past savagings, it wouldn't have occurred if politicians had dared stand up to the dog lovers. But instead of taking the side of humans, politicians have wimped out and let the epidemic steadily grow. Ten years ago, when 7-year-old Carolina Anderson was savaged in an Auckland park, 7638 dog-related compensation claims were made to ACC that year. For the year to June 31, 2013, the victim count had jumped to 12,406. The actual casualty figure could be closer to double that.

The Animal Control Institute put it at 20,000 a couple of years back, claiming many attacks were covered up by families scared their pet could be put down if reported.

Chance would be a fine thing. In 2013 there were 525 prosecutions under the Dog Control Act, and only 61 dog destruction orders.

As a result of the uproar after the 2003 Auckland park attack, changes were made to the dog control legislation. Microchipping was introduced and dogs classified as menacing or dangerous had to be muzzled in public. It also became illegal to import American pitbulls, Dogo Argentino, Brazilian Fila and Japanese Tosa breeds - but, ridiculously, those already here could be kept and bred.

The "harsher" laws changed nothing. The epidemic in dog attacks continued unabated. A Department of Internal Affairs Dog Safety and Control Report 2009/10 suggests why, saying: "There has been little systematic information collected or monitored on the incidence and characteristics of dog attacks. It is therefore difficult to build an overall picture of the effectiveness of the dog control regime and any changes made to it. This situation can also make the targeting and monitoring of measures to mitigate problems difficult."

In other words, the politicians and the bureaucrats were flying blind. In January 2012, after three vicious attacks on young children in quick succession, then-Local Government Minister Nick Smith promised to take "a fresh look at the laws".

A look is all he did. In August, following another spate of serious attacks, his successor Chris Tremain refused to reinstate the review, saying legislation would not guarantee public safety.

He claimed ACC dog-bite injury figures showed a stable pattern over the past 10 years. This was not true. Victim numbers had jumped from 7638 claims in 2003 to 12,406 in 2013 - despite the microchipping and the muzzling.

The flaw in the current policy is highlighted in the "What you need to know about dog control law" blurb on the Department of Internal Affairs website. It begins: "Dog law focuses on improving dog control and increasing public safety around dogs. At the same time, the right and ability of people to enjoy owning dogs is protected."

In other words, the "right to enjoy owning dogs" has to be protected, even at the cost of 20,000 human victims.

Imagine the commotion if 12,406 people had filed ACC claims for gunshot wounds received while delivering the mail, or walking along a suburban street minding their own business. Would the bureaucrats resort to learned papers debating the competing interests of public safety versus the gun-owners' right to enjoy their deadly toys? Would the politicians wipe their hands of the problem a la Mr Tremain and say tougher gun legislation would not guarantee public safety?

In 2004 the importation of the four breeds mentioned above was banned because they were a known threat to humans. But because those already here were allowed to remain and proliferate. As of 2010 there were 6727 American pitbulls of which 5269 were registered, 138 Dogo Argentino of which 88 were registered, and four Brazilian Fila.

Councils can also classify dogs as menacing by either breed (the four listed above) or by reported behaviour. In May 2010, 7299 dogs were classified menacing, including American Staffordshire terriers and American bulldogs.

Another 644 dogs were classified dangerous or worse than menacing. These are dogs that have attacked or been aggressive to people in the past. In other words, they're hand grenades, ready to go off at any time. Like lions and hyenas, they shouldn't be living among humans at all.

The four dogs in this week's mauling were, according to the police, registered and microchipped family pets. The local school principal said: "These were family pets under control at their home, and something has happened."

But they weren't under control and as a pack of killer dogs reverted to type, deciding to do what their genes tell them to do. No doubt dog lovers will blame the innocent child for wearing the wrong coloured clothing, or staring into their eyes, or running away or whatever.

I blame the owners of the dogs for putting the young child at such terrible risk. I also blame the politicians who sit back and do nothing, preferring to protect dog owners' "enjoyment rights" over the safety and wellbeing of up to 20,000 victims a year.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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