GUNGAHLIN father and businessman John Hynes has had enough. And he’s ready to take matters into his own hands.
“I don’t care what happens. I will kill the dog and I’ll go after the owner with a baseball bat if they come near my kid again. I’ll absolutely butcher the dog without a second’s hesitation.”
The outburst was prompted by his account of an incident earlier this year when his 10-year-old daughter was baled up by an unleashed dog while she was doing athletics training at a public park in Charnwood.
The girl had been running on a designated training track at the oval when the large, “pit bull style” dog ran at her.
“She’s 38 kilos and the dog was a lot bigger, 60 or 70 kilos. I yelled at her to stand still. If she hadn’t, it could have kept running at her,” says Hynes, who grabbed a hurdle and started chasing the dog away only to be confronted by the owner claiming he was within his rights to have an unleashed dog on the oval – and that it was the girl’s fault for running!
“The dog was unregistered, untrained, unchipped – uneverything!
“My kid is still scared of dogs.”
To demonstrate his anger, Hynes displays a couple of lethal-looking knives and a baseball bat, which he’s determined to use should he see the need to.
His frustration is also directed at the authorities, having endured the all-too-familiar bureaucratic merry-go-round of firing off complaint emails to the Chief Minister’s office, only to receive motherhood statements back for his trouble.
Hynes stresses he is not anti-dogs. For about 27 years he owned german shepherds and says he’d be horrified if he ever got into the situation where his animals caused any discomfort to people, or other animals.
From a neighbourhood perspective there are few issues that excite – and polarise – the Canberra community more than the Territory’s dog issue, or more accurately, dog-owner issue.
The well-documented and highly disturbing incident at Yerrabi Pond earlier this year sadly highlights the flaws of the present legislation that for all intents and purposes looks tough on paper, but appallingly lacking in follow-up action.
Dubbed the Toscans’ case, it happened when the Gungahlin family was walking their small dog at a popular recreation venue where it was set upon by three arab bull, or pit bull, dogs ripping the smaller animal apart. The three large dogs were being walked by two men, not the owner, when the attack occurred and, despite all efforts by Mr Toscan to separate them, their beloved animal had no chance of survival.
“The mental effect on that family has been horrendous,” says shadow minister for Urban Services, Steve Doszpot, who’s largely been driving the efforts to have the legislation amended.
He is appalled by the events that unfolded in subsequent weeks after the attack.
“Initially the (pit bull) dogs were impounded by Domestic Animal Services. But after about four to six weeks, they (the Toscans) were notified that the dogs had been given back to the owner.”
To add insult to anguish for the Gungahlin family, the dogs, when they were returned, were not classified as dangerous dogs.
And in a farcical twist resembling a script from “The Pink Panther’s” Inspector Clouseau, the two men walking the offending dogs were fined about $300 for having the dogs in their possession. No action was taken against the owner.
That shocking attack, and its equally hideous sequel, occurred before the current amendments were finally drafted, which will hopefully become law sooner rather than later.
Transport and City Services Minister Meegan Fitzharris acknowledges the input to the amendments submitted by Steve Doszpot and has vowed to review the Yerrabi Pond incident.
“(It’s) currently being re-looked at to make sure the decision was right.”
Well, yes, minister, the decision should be revisited. But no, the decision to return the pit bulls to their owner without them even being classified as dangerous was patently wrong.
According to Fitzharris, it’s all about balance. And to be fair, she is absolutely right.
“I have to find the right balance between the government’s role and the right legislative settings and people’s right to own a dog – and people’s responsibility to the community.
“I don’t want to solely focus on the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. I want to stop these things happening in the first place. It’s my responsibility to get the right balance between all of those.”
Doszpot says the amendments don’t go far enough – and he again points to the Yerrabi Pond incident as a classic example.
“The legislation has been strengthened to some extent. But to not even categorise (the dogs) as being dangerous, I find reprehensible,” he says.
“It’s not until the media picks up on these stories that pressure is put on the government.”
Undoubtedly, the vast majority of dog owners are responsible people who love their animals and will go to great lengths to ensure they are kept under control at all times. It’s not unreasonable for those owners to want prescribed recreational areas where they can let their dogs off leashes for a healthy romp and for the most part this works perfectly.
Official figures show there were 360 reported dog attacks in Canberra last year of which 124 animals were impounded. The number of people treated for dog attacks in emergency departments was 155, an increase of 50 per cent in the past five years.
Disturbingly, the second-highest number of injuries treated in emergency departments was to patients’ heads.
The RSPCA inevitably has a close interest in any changes to the Domestic Animals Act but by nature of its operation does not have any active role in its administration.
According to RSPCA CEO Tammy Ven Dange, there’s adequate available research about effective animal legislation, but it should be focused entirely on the individual, not the animal.
“Animals operate on instinct. It’s not the animal’s fault whatever it’s done because animals are animals,” she says.
“What I can talk about are things that people have tried to introduce into legislation that doesn’t work, that’s specifically targeted at the animals, oftentimes around breeds.
“We’re very firm in our view that breed-specific legislation doesn’t work.
“There’s plenty of research to say ‘we’ll ban this or that breed’. What’s proven is that every irresponsible pet owner is going to be irresponsible regardless of what you give them. If people are going to neglect that animal, it doesn’t matter what breed it is.”
Tammy Ven Dange echoes the sentiment that reinforcement of whatever legislation comes into effect can only work – if it’s enforced.
“My question would be; is the current legislation as it stands being enforced. If not, what needs to be done to reinforce it? And how do you make sure the people know it’s being enforced?”
This is clearly the challenge for government – enforcement combined with education. And this would appear to be the direction in which Meegan Fitzharris and the government is heading.
The sad news is that it’s taken a concerted campaign of media and Legislative Assembly opposition pressure, combined with an alarming number of dog attacks on people – and other animals – to finally awaken the sleeping giant in London Circuit to the fact that, yes, there is a problem!
John Hynes holds the view that nothing tangible will happen until a politician’s child or grandchild becomes victim to a dog attack.
Steve Doszpot goes a step further.
“There’s been a lack of understanding in the government that we have a problem,” he says.
“My concern is that it’s a tragedy waiting to happen. I just hope it’s not a human tragedy waiting.”