Calls are growing in the Far North for stricter dog control – and more prosecutions of owners who flout the rules – after two deaths in little more than a year.
Neville Thomson, who was 69, was mauled to death by a lodger’s dogs at his home in Panguru in August last year, while 78-year-old Elizabeth Whittaker, better known as Auntie Effie, died earlier this month in her backyard in Moerewa.
The exact circumstances of her death are still under investigation.
Both attacks sent shock waves through their communities, and now a dog attack survivor is organising a petition calling for tougher action by the Far North District Council.
Chris Radich, 77, said he almost bled to death after an attack near his Awanui home last October.
He was familiar with the dog, which was usually tied up, and had spoken to its owner about a month earlier.
“I told the owner: ‘Cuz, I’m frightened of that dog. It’s tied up day after day after day. If it gets off the leash it’ll be dangerous’,” Radich said.
“One day I was walking with my dog. It [the other dog] was off the leash, it got me on the ground. It was on top of me, I was holding it and it was going for my throat … just as well I was strong enough to hold it off.”
A man working nearby rescued Radich’s pet, then used a spade to fend off the attacking dog.
“It just ripped my legs to smithereens. It was a bloodbath,” Radich said.
“We had the police, the fire brigade, the ambulance. They even called a farmer with a gun to come and shoot the dog. That’s how dangerous that dog was.”
Now the retired mill worker is organising a petition urging the council to ensure irresponsible dog owners are prosecuted, to bar dogs from places frequented by children, and to do more to promote responsible dog ownership.
Radich said he had so far collected more than 600 signatures.
A year on he still had a bandage on his injured leg and struggled to walk.
Radich said it was not the dog rangers’ fault – they did the best they could with the powers they had – or even the animals’ fault.
“The dog owners need to be made responsible. They know they can get away with it.
“We need more accountability for the owners. The dog gets shot, and the owner gets another dog. Over and over again,” he said.
“The kids around here, they don’t bike any more, they don’t run on the road any more, they’re afraid of the dogs. We’re sick of it. This has got to stop.”
Also calling for change is Kohukohu man Wally Hicks, who said he was driven by the two recent deaths and a horrific dog attack he attended when he was a volunteer ambulance officer.
In that incident a child was left with severe facial injuries and her parents were badly injured in a crash as they tried to race her to hospital.
Hicks made an impassioned plea to councillors at a recent meeting in Kaikohe.
“For heaven’s sake people, two people have been killed by the dogs in the Far North District in the last two years. This situation is morally untenable … as a volunteer ambulance officer I have dealt with these injuries,” he said.
Hicks called for a “sinking lid policy” for the breeds disproportionately responsible for attacks.
That would mean people could keep dogs of those breeds they currently owned, but could not replace them with any of the same type.
He realised that would have to be done at a national level, but the Far North – which bore the brunt of fatal dog attacks – could at least advocate for it.
Hicks also wanted a clampdown on “puppy farming”, breeder licensing, and the council to “go hard” on promoting good ownership.
After each dog attack people would argue whether the problem lay with the owner or the breed, but Hicks believed any solution had to focus on both.
The severity of attacks had increased after 1987 when the then-government permitted the import of breeds such as the American pit bull, he said.
“We just can’t go on with this carnage. I remember a terrible dog attack around 1990, about three years later, and I thought, ‘Well, we’ll stop now’. But we didn’t. It’s up to us and we have to call a stop to it.”
The coordinator of dog advocacy group Bay of Islands Watchdogs, Leonie Exel, agreed on the need for effective dog control, but believed breed-specific regulation would fail.
“There are three things that research tells us are really important in any community that wants to manage the dog population,” she said.
“The first is, as many people as possible need to get their dogs desexed. Second, there needs to be very effective community education, where everybody is taught not only how to treat and raise a dog properly, but also how to be wary of what can go wrong. The third arm is effective animal control. All three of those put together will ensure a safe community.”
Exel said de-sexing had increased dramatically in recent years, though there were still too many entire dogs, but the other two requirements had been lacking in the Far North for a long time.
She understood why people called for breed-specific regulations, but evidence from overseas showed they did not work and could even be counter-productive.
“You can spend a lot of time and money implementing breed-specific legislation instead of doing the things we know that work.”
She agreed, however, with calls for more effective animal control.
“The animal control department at the Far North District Council does need to take a good long look at itself – not the junior staff, but the management – and decide what they want to do for the future, because this has been a failing for a long time, for decades now.
“Having effective animal control when people continue to let their dogs wander or continue to have dogs which act dangerously towards other people, that is critical.
“We need to follow up on people who are repeat offenders and make sure they don’t keep having dogs that put other people in danger.”
Dog totals on the rise
Council figures show the total number of dogs in the Far North increased sharply in the past year.
The number of dogs known to be in the Far North in the 2022-23 year was 12,214, of which 8618 were registered – leaving at least 3596 unregistered dogs across the district.
In 2019-20 the number of unregistered dogs was 2835, but that dropped to 2120 in 2020-21. The figures for 2021-22 were 10,917 known dogs, of which 8347 were registered and 2570 unregistered.
The number of attacks reported to the council had increased steadily, from 172 in 2019-20, to 257 in 2022-23.
Reports of straying dogs followed a similar trajectory, from 318 in 2019-20, to 526 in 2022-23.
Council compliance manager Rochelle Deane said the key reasons for higher numbers of roaming and unregistered dogs last year were an increase in the district’s population, more people acquiring dogs who were not responsible pet owners, and proactive work by council staff to find unregistered dogs.
She expected the number of dog registrations would be significantly higher this year due to an advertising campaign encouraging people to register their animals before 1 September to take advantage of reduced fees.
The council did not respond to questions about whether any specific action had been taken in Moerewa in the wake of the fatal dog attack on 12 October.
Deane would say only that following up on roaming or unregistered dogs was part of the daily work carried out by animal management officers across the district.
“They respond promptly when notified of dog-related concerns by the community and will step up patrols where roaming dogs are reported,” she said.
“Another key part of an animal management officer’s role is to educate dog owners about their responsibilities to keep their dogs confined to their properties and under control in public places.”
A police spokesperson said enquiries into the death of Elizabeth Whittaker on behalf of the Coroner were continuing but there were no updates at this point.
Two children were injured in another dog attack on the same stretch of Ōtiria Road as they were walking home from school in 2019, leaving an 11-year-old girl in hospital with serious leg and back injuries.
In the same year, a 71-year-old woman in nearby Kawakawa had to have a leg amputated after she was attacked by one of her own dogs.
Whatever is done to tackle the problem, it can’t come soon enough for Chris Radich.
“I can still see that dog’s face in front of me,” he said.
“Every time a dog comes at me I just shake. This has got to stop.”