There is a scene from my favourite movie The Horse Whisperer, when it is suggested that a traumatized horse named Pilgrim be put down.
“He’s beyond hope” the veterinarian says to Annie, played by Kristen Scott Thomas. But instead of agreeing, Annie clenches her jaw, sets her lips in a firm line and with a look of determination, resolvedly says “NO!” She then sets out on a journey to rehabilitate Pilgrim, come hell or high water.
That was the image that came to mind after I spoke with Victoria Shroff, Animal Lawyer and UBC Law Professor who also happens to be the lawyer for Punky Santics, the four-year-old Australian Cattle dog that has been in dog jail for two years waiting to be “humanely” euthanized due to being deemed dangerous by B.C. courts.
I use the term “humanely euthanized” rather than destroyed because I believe, as many dog owners do, that dogs are sentient beings and they deserve to be treated humanely, even when we’re choosing words regarding their death.
In fact, it is their sentience, their ability to feel emotion that makes them such good servants to humans – be it in law enforcement, therapy, assistance to the disabled and as emotional support dogs. It is also their sentience that should be considered before the dog is sentenced to death. We should ensure all available options for rehabilitation have been exhausted.
In provinces other than British Columbia there are laws in place that allow dogs deemed a threat to continue living while still maintaining a good quality of life, as long as the owners take responsible rehabilitation measures to ensure the public’s safety. Ontario, Saskatchewan and P.E.I. all have rehabilitation programs in place to give dogs a second chance, measures such as ensuring secure containment at home, wearing a muzzle and leash when in public and continued education and training.
But British Columbia law does not have the same language, therefore it cannot issue these types of orders of condition if a dog is deemed dangerous. This means that it must be destroyed, no other options allowed.
It is unfortunate and ironic that B.C. does not have the option to rehabilitate a dog deemed a threat, because as a province we tend to pride ourselves in animal welfare, even going so far as chasing conservation officers down a street to prevent the murder of a bear family.
But in reality, we have fallen behind in many areas when it comes to our most beloved and treasured animal, our best friends, our companions ... our dogs. And as Shroff says, “I think it’s an opportunity lost, not to have a rehab plan for dogs while they are locked up in the pound beyond a few days. Education is a cornerstone to understanding.”
As leaders in animal welfare and environmental conservation we owe it to our most beloved companions to give them the chance for rehabilitation when we humans get it wrong.
Make no mistake, Punky is the result of human error as all dogs have the potential to bite and be a threat to society regardless of breed or size. It is our job as their guardians, their owners and their leaders to educate ourselves and to continue to educate and train our dogs to keep them social, well behaved and safe in public. It is our dog owning duty to the rest of society. Our dogs and other members of society should not have to pay the price for a dog owner’s poor choices and incompetence.
We also must understand that if you think that having your dog seized and deemed dangerous can’t happen to you ... think again.
It can happen to any one of us. The more dog owners continue to disregard by-laws, allow dogs to run off-leash in areas they are not supposed to, to continue to make excuses for their dog’s inappropriate behaviour and their own lack of responsibility, to selfishly shout: “Oh my dog is friendly!” as their dog invades the space of another dog or person uninvited and causes conflict, to not understand that training is lifelong not just a six week course at the rec centre, the more they are likely to end up in Punky’s situation.
The more irresponsible you are as a dog owner the greater your chances of it happening to you! Punky’s plight is everyone’s plight.
Joan Klucha has been working with dogs for more than 20 years in obedience, tracking and behavioural rehabilitation. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.