By ROSALEEN MacBRAYNE
Smokey, the 15-week-old pitbull terrier who had the tops of his ears hacked off with a razor blade to make him look more "Macho", has pierced the hearts of the nation.
Settled into a foster home in a secret location out of Rotorua yesterday for his own and his carers' protection, Smokey is still on antibiotics. But the pain is fading and he is being a playful puppy again.
There have been plenty of offers to take the disfigured pup, but the Rotorua SPCA has to be assigned ownership of him through the courts before he can be placed permanently.
A man is to be charged with failing to seek veterinary care for Smokey - who, inspectors say, must have screamed during the mutilation, suffered "horrendously" and shed a lot of blood.
The case has outraged animal lovers, and calls of dismay have flooded in from all over the country.
But Smokey is not alone. Docking pitbull terriers' ears has been going on in New Zealand for years, says a senior Auckland SPCA inspector, Bruce Wills.
During seven years in the job, he has often seen pitbulls brought in with cropped ears - some sliced right back to the head, leaving only open holes.
"It is a fairly haphazard process, with a dog struggling and screaming away. The ears can get quite uneven," the inspector said.
An Auckland case under investigation involved a young adult dog whose ears had been docked with scissors.
The practice has been condemned by animal rights groups around the world. Mr Wills said it was difficult to get enough evidence to prosecute successfully, particularly if the damage had been done more than a year earlier.
Some owners pruned the ears for fighting (so opposing dogs could not hang on to them) but it was done mostly for "aesthetic" reasons - to make a pitbull look meaner and more alert.
In the United States, the practice of removing the upper section of a pitbull's ears is legal if performed by a veterinary surgeon, but in this country it is not.
Veterinarians are prohibited under the Animal Welfare Act from docking dogs' ears, which are particularly sensitive..
Rotorua SPCA inspector Nicola Martin said she was told little Smokey's torture was "for cosmetic reasons", apparently to make him look more macho.
The pup was picked up from a Ngongotaha property two weeks ago after a complaint. His ears had been slashed three days earlier and infection was setting in, although his hearing had not been affected.
Smokey's father still lived at the same house, but his ears were intact.
Ms Martin said the pup would need a lot of love and reassurance after his ordeal. He was friendly but not keen on being picked up.
If he felt he was being held down he "went off his face" - behaviour that would have to be corrected before he was fully grown.
Several pitbull owners had been to visit Smokey and all were disgusted with what had been done to him.
"More than one person knows who did it and I hope they are going to tell us," said Ms Martin.
She said the society was grateful for the donations that had come in for Smokey, because he still had to be fed in foster care and the charitable organisation also faced legal costs.
One person in the South Island had couriered a $50 donation yesterday.
The procedure for making a dog's ears stand up is known as "cropping".
First the ear cartilage is cut during surgery under general anaesthetic, usually when the dog is eight to 10 weeks old.
Immediately after surgery, the ears are taped into position so they stand up straight. The tape is removed and reapplied over a period of some weeks.
The practice has been condemned by animal rights groups around the world. It is illegal in New Zealand, Australia and Britain.
In New Zealand, dogs with cropped ears cannot enter dog shows, although dogs with cropped ears have been brought here from overseas, particularly from America.
The registrar of the New Zealand Kennel Club, Colleen Begg, said the association did not support cropping "in any way".
By ROSALEEN MacBRAYNE