OPINION: The fate of Punky the death-row dog has a much broader impact

Jan 17 2020, 4:38 pm

Written for Daily Hive by lawyer Rebeka Breder, who specializes in Animal Law and is a founder of the UBC Animal Law program. She was voted in Canadian Lawyer’s top 25 most influential lawyer in Canada, winning the Changemakers category.

You may have heard about an Australian Cattle dog, named Punky – this was not one of my cases.

Contrary to what had been generally reported in the media, this case is about much more than one dog. It’s a case that affects all dogs in British Columbia – it is a devastating loss for Animal Law.

Punky made news after he injured a woman at Locarno Beach, and the City of Vancouver then applied to court to have him euthanized. At trial, the judge found that the dog’s owner, Susan Santics, had been an irresponsible dog owner; the dog had previously bitten and acted aggressively on multiple occasions, and veterinarians could not even treat him because of his aggression.

The facts also revealed that Santics was unable to afford proper training for her dog. The trial judge ultimately found that given there was no evidence to suggest Punky could be properly managed, he must be euthanized. Santics lost her appeals at both the BC Supreme and Court of Appeal levels.

She then applied to the Supreme Court of Canada, but the court recently denied her request to hear her case. After being locked up in the Vancouver pound for over two years, Punky will now be euthanized.

As part of my Animal Law practice, I have defended dogs for the past 15 years. I have never lost a case to save a dog’s life under the old system. One of my cases at the BC Supreme Court, Smith v Central Okanagan, was a precedent where the court confirmed that generally good and manageable dogs can be released on conditions, even if they caused some harm.

I have always argued that just because a dog may meet the technical definition of “dangerous,” it does not mean the dog should be killed, if there is a responsible dog owner who is willing to properly manage her dog in the future, including to follow the recommendations of an animal behaviourist. Conditional orders were a way to truly protect the welfare of the dog and public safety by ensuring conditions such as proper training, diet, correct handling of dogs, and proper containment on public and private property.

Conditional orders were never routine. A lot of work, knowledge, creativity — only achieved from countless hours of courtroom experience — and research went into arguing for and making these orders is how I was able to save all dogs on death row in my cases.

We had a workable and good system in BC for defending dogs. When I discovered that Santics was appealing, I warned both sides of the risk that this case could set a very dangerous precedent at the highest court.

I completely appreciated that Santics wanted to save her dog, but I was extremely worried about the bigger picture. Specifically, I was concerned that the Court of Appeal would rule against the making of conditional orders, and if that happened, it would reverse the past 15 years of hard-earned, good case law (many of which were mine) that helped dogs and public safety in BC. Unfortunately, I was right.

My heart goes out to Punky and Santics. However, my heart goes out even more to all dogs in BC. I also generally agree with taking risks in Animal Law litigation, but this was not one of those cases. As a result of the Santics decision, dogs that are manageable and generally good can now be ordered killed if a judge finds that the dog meets the definition of “dangerous” under the Vancouver Charter or Community Charter.

Conditional orders are no longer allowed in BC. Does this mean that a dog who has injured another person or animal will be automatically killed upon a finding of “dangerous”?

Time will tell. The judge will need to be convinced that the dog “does not pose an unacceptable risk to the public” and that “given the totality of evidence, the dog will not kill or seriously injure in the future.”

There may also be other creative ways to deal with this decision, such as with the use of probation orders. I will continue to vigorously defend dogs and to ensure that dogs on death row still have a chance to life and that public safety is not compromised.