Last year, a walk on a beautiful beach ended in horror and heartbreak. This weekend, a beloved pet will pay the price.
A dead seal pup and a woman ordered to destroy the dog she describes as her "best friend" are among the terrible consequences of a walk on the beach that turned into a gruesome nightmare.
Last August, Gillian Sims' dog Milo bolted away from her during an off-leash beach walk in Mount Maunganui.
The dog attacked a seal pup near the entrance to Moturiki - a protected reserve and dog-prohibited area also known as Leisure Island. The seal pup died.
Sims, 39, was prosecuted by the Department of Conservation (DoC) and pleaded guilty to a charge under the Dog Control Act 1996 of being the owner of a dog that attacked protected wildlife.
In the Tauranga District Court last week, Judge Paul Geoghegan fined her $2000 and made an order for the dog to be destroyed, according to information the Bay of Plenty Times obtained from the court after the hearing.
According to a DoC summary of the incident, the attack happened just after midday on August 16 in the Moturiki Recreation Reserve on Leisure Island.
Sims and Milo, who was off-leash, had been for a walk and were heading back to a beach access when he bolted away from her towards something in rocks on the island that turned out to be a seal pup.
She gave chase and tried to call him back but as she approached, he attacked a seal and had it in his mouth.
Sims intervened and he dropped the animal, but it was badly injured.
A DoC ranger called to the scene later found the seal pup dead in the reserve.
The ranger estimated the New Zealand fur seal was 7-9 months old and weighed about 8kg.
"The DoC ranger then buried the seal pup. A no-dogs sign was in place immediately adjacent to where the seal pup was attacked."
According to the summary, Sims admitted responsibility for the dog when interviewed by an animal control officer.
She also said she had not realised a bylaw had recently changed requiring dogs to be on a leash in the area where she had been walking Milo south of Leisure Island.
Sims told the Bay of Plenty Times this week that it was a "horrific" incident.
"What started out as any other dog walk down to Tay St escalated very quickly into a nightmare of a situation."
She believed Milo initially tried to play with the seal - a creature he had never seen before - but when the animal became defensive and moved towards her to get away from the dog, Milo leapt on it.
"This was a tragic outcome for all of us, the events of that day left me shaken for some time afterwards and I have accepted total responsibility from the moment it occurred."
She said she adopted Milo from an SPCA as a puppy. He was a "gentle giant" who apart from this incident was a good-natured and well-behaved dog.
She said her "heart broke in half" when Judge Geoghegan announced his decision last week - one she had been dreading for 11 months.
She had attempted to fight a previous destruction order, supported by family and friends, but said she would not appeal again as she did not believe the verdict would change.
"I am a local business owner and an otherwise responsible person who now has a criminal record as a result of what happened on that walk," Sims said.
"Despite doing everything in my power to save Milo, I am absolutely heartbroken to be laying my best friend of six years to rest this weekend."
More signage needed
The incident happened five months after Tauranga City Council changed its bylaw to require dogs to be on a leash in the area 255m south of Moturiki - locally known as Shark Alley.
Sims said she was one of several people walking dogs off-leash in the same area of beach that day.
"I don't know that any of us were aware of the recent change in bylaw as our dogs were playing freely together and I don't recall any of them being on leads."
She was certain there was no signage visible from the shoreline, which was a problem for people who approached from further down the beach where dogs could run freely.
"Increased signage around the beach itself seems the obvious response to a situation such as this.
"Had I had any awareness of seal pups being present in that part of the beach, I would not have been there with Milo at all and I have no doubt that other dog owners would also appreciate increased efforts from local authorities to facilitate this type of awareness."
A council spokeswoman said as part of new rules in the Dog Management Bylaw that came into effect on April 1 last year, signage in the area was changed.
"Since then we've reviewed signage in this area and increased it."
The bylaw changes were normally communicated through a media release, website updates, social media and, in this case, via the Animal Services e-newsletter, she said.
"It's everyone's responsibility to control their animal, especially when there is wildlife around."
Dog ban extended
On Tuesday, the council's Policy Committee voted to ban dogs from Shark Alley for half the year, August to January, to protect vulnerable wildlife. It would be a temporary, 12-month restriction.
The attack on the seal was not discussed, but council staff said those months were a breeding season for two New Zealand native shorebirds - New Zealand dotterels, which are endangered, and variable oystercatchers.
From February to July, dogs on a leash will be allowed in Shark Alley.
In a report to the council, the Western Bay Wildlife Trust said that since the leash rule was first introduced in Shark Alley, dogs had still been frequently seen chasing birds there.
Dog owners approached had tended not to understand where the leash rule applied or had not seen the signs. The trust also commented on the lack of enforcement.
The council also decided to review its signage and consider, during Long-Term Plan discussions next year, putting more money into beefing up enforcement and education of the rules, as well as into signs.
In 2018, Mike O'Neill was among Mount dog owners to oppose the council's then-proposed extra bylaw restrictions on beaches.
Contacted after Tuesday's meeting, however, he told the Bay of Plenty Times the half-year dog ban in Shark Alley was a "fair call".
He said it was a popular spot with little kids, and, in any case, most dog-walking residents preferred to use the area between Tay St and Shark Alley.
"It's a fair call to keep dogs out up to that first rock."
"A timely reminder"
Responding to Bay of Plenty Times questions about the case this week, DoC Tauranga operations manager Jeff Milham said it should be a timely reminder for people to control their dogs and protect wildlife on local beaches.
"Dogs disturb and can kill wildlife and are a particular threat to local species who call Moturiki and Mauao their home.
"It's an offence under New Zealand legislation, to harass, harm, injure or kill wildlife.
"Any dog owner whose pet attacks a seal could face prosecution so all dog owners need to be considerate of wildlife."
He said the issue of disturbance, harassments and attacks on native wildlife had been increasing with growing numbers of people and their dogs in the Bay of Plenty.
Seal populations - hunted out of the Bay of Plenty coastline in the 19th century - were also increasing slowly, and returning to breed in low numbers.
They came ashore to rest or because they were sick or injured, putting them at risk from dog attacks.
"Numerous seal injuries and/or fatalities have been reported over the last few years," Milham said.
DoC advised people to keep dogs on a leash around seals, stay at least 20m away and avoid getting between a seal and the sea.
Seals were not the only wildlife threatened.
"Species like little blue penguins are part of our coastal community and have lived on our beaches for many thousands of years. They need somewhere to live too.
"Shorebirds like penguins, gulls, petrels, and oystercatchers use the beaches and rocky outcrops around Mauao and Moturiki for shelter and nesting."
By the numbers: Dogs in Tauranga in 2019/20
14,246 - dogs in Tauranga
60 - people attacked by dogs
9 - attacks on people on or near beaches
127 - domestic animals attacked by dogs
7 - domestic animals attacked on or near beaches
21 - complaints of dogs in banned beach areas
What to do if you encounter a seal on the beach
Leave them to rest and follow a sensible code of behaviour:
- Keep dogs on a leash and under your control around seals
- Stay at least 20 metres away from seals.
- Keep small children at a safe distance and under your control.
- Do not disturb seals, make loud noises or throw things at them.
- Do not feed seals. They don't need the food and won't eat it, and it encourages seals to approach people.
- Do not get between a seal and the sea
Risks posed by seals
- Seals can and do bite when threatened. They have sharp teeth, and incredibly strong jaws which are three times as strong as an average dog.
- They are surprisingly agile on land and can move very quickly if startled.
- Never attempt to touch or handle a seal. They can be aggressive if threatened.
- They also carry diseases that can be passed to humans and people have diseases that can make seals sick.
Normal seal behaviour
- Most seals reported as injured or sick are simply resting.
- Regurgitating, sneezing or coughing is normal behaviour for seals.
- Seals can appear to be "crying". These are natural moisture secretions.
- Young seals are often left alone on land for days while their mothers are at sea feeding. They do not need help so do not try to move them.
- Seals often drift in the waves.
- Seals often flap their flippers in the air to regulate their temperature. It's not a sign they are stranded.
When to call DoC about a seal
- Call DoC if a seal is severely injured, entangled in net or rope, in danger from dogs, vehicles or any other human activity.
- 0800 DOCHOT - 0800 362 468