British Columbia

The battle over Bronx: condemned canine's fate at stake in Victoria court fight

There's little doubt Bronx has been very bad. He's killed another dog and drawn human blood - and the City of Victoria has the video evidence to prove it. But does Bronx need to die?

Dangerous dog's original owner has adopted animal out to 'dog whisperer' in bid to keep pet alive

Bronx has been designated a dangerous dog by the City of Victoria, which is now seeking his destruction. An array of defenders is trying to keep him alive. (Submitted by Lisa Warden)

There's little doubt Bronx has been very bad.

The Dogo-Argentino Rottweiler cross has killed another dog and drawn human blood — and the City of Victoria has the video evidence to prove it.

But does Bronx need to die?

That's the question a provincial court judge will consider in the coming weeks in a case that pits the city against an array of characters fighting to save a condemned canine.

Bronx's defenders include his original owner, who says he lacks means for legal representation; his advocate, a woman the city has labelled an "animal rights activist"; and Ken Griffiths — a man known as the Comox Valley Dog Whisperer — who has agreed to adopt Bronx in the hopes of securing his release.

Rick Bonora says he's raised Bronx since he was a puppy. He failed to keep the five-and-a-half-year-old dog muzzled and controlled after repeated warnings from animal control officers.

But he says Bronx shouldn't die for his master's sins.

"I just want him to live," Bonora told the CBC after a recent court hearing.

"It would not be fair for him to be put down because of a mistake that I made. There should be mercy for the dog. We all make mistakes in life and that was probably the biggest mistake I've ever made."

'Dogs cannot speak'

The various players in the Bronx drama will face off in court Thursday for a hearing over the conditions in which Griffiths — a dog behaviourist — can assess Bronx as a counter to the city's expert evidence.

The case highlights the law surrounding the destruction of dangerous dogs following a precedent-setting 2019 B.C. Appeal Court decision upholding a death sentence for an Australian cattle dog named Punky.

Rick Bonora and Bronx together in happier times. Bonora has relinquished ownership of the dog in a bid to save Bronx's life. He says the dog shouldn't pay for his mistakes. (Facebook)

It also raises questions about access to justice for defendants like Bonora, who lives on a disability pension and says he finds the judicial system overwhelming.

Lisa Warden, the founder of a non-profit group dedicated to the plight of Indian street dogs, offered to help Bonora after meeting the 52-year-old and Bronx at the Mustard Seed church and food bank, where she works part-time.

She found a law student to act for free, but the student withdrew from the case abruptly in July. Warden — who is not a lawyer — stepped into the breach.

At a brief hearing Monday, city lawyer David Giroday raised concerns about Warden's involvement after reviewing her website, which describes her as a "passionate defender of animals." 

"She is an animal rights activist and has significant personal interest in the subject matter of these proceedings," Giroday told the judge.

"We are concerned ... that positions may be taken in this case that are impugned by her own personal convictions rather than in the best interest of Mr. Bonora."

Warden resents being called an activist; she says she acts on her Christian convictions.

"Every living being, when they're accused of something, deserves a fair defence," Warden says.

"It's a right under the legal system. Dogs cannot speak. They need humans to come and speak for them. And there are marginalized people who have trouble speaking for themselves. These are the people who are most at risk of the justice system going awry."

'Always the last resort'

The city's application for Bronx to be destroyed cites five incidents dating back to August 2018, when Bronx — who weighs nearly 100 pounds — was labelled a dangerous dog after killing a four-pound dog in a public attack.

"It was definitely unprovoked and it was a single bite," the animal control officer's notes read.

"Unfortunately, the extreme difference in size was a major factor in the outcome."

Ken Griffiths, known as the Comox Valley Dog Whisperer, has agreed to adopt Bronx in the hopes of securing the dog's release. He wants the ability to assess Bronx according to his own methods. (Ken Griffiths/Facebook)

According to court documents, Bronx attacked and seriously injured two more dogs and two people while unleashed and unmuzzled in attacks dating between June 2019 and March 2021, when he was seized and taken to Victoria's pound.

A case file notes Bonora's "physical deformities" as a possible reason for his inability to control Bronx; Bonora was born without thumbs and one arm shorter than the other.

A court-ordered assessment found Bronx an "extremely fearful" dog whose behaviour could be predatory, concluding it would be "nigh impossible to responsibly re-home a dog with a severe bite history" without considering "ethical and legal liability."

In a statement to the CBC, the City of Victoria said its primary concern "is and always has been related to public safety" and an application for a dog's destruction is "always the last resort."

Likely to kill or seriously injure in the future

The appeal court decision resulting in Punky's death took away a judge's ability to release dogs like Bronx on "conditional orders" that might include calls for a dog trainer, muzzling, increased security or adoption.

Post-Punky judges decide only whether a dog is dangerous and whether "it is likely, on a balance of probabilities and given the totality of the evidence, to kill or seriously injure in the future."

Australian cattle dog Punky was ordered destroyed in a case that climbed all the way up to B.C.'s Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court of Canada would not hear the appeal. (Susan Santics/Facebook)

The final hearing on Bronx's fate is in late September, but first Griffiths wants to assess Bronx in his own fashion, using two of his own dogs to test the accused's reactions — as opposed to the stuffed dogs and a plastic doll the city's expert used to reach her opinion.

The city told Griffiths he can't bring any other animals into the facility, insisted he be masked at all times and that a pound employee hold his video camera.

That response set up this Thursday's hearing — and a reunion of the principals in another Vancouver Island dangerous dog case where Griffiths proved pivotal to a Nanaimo man's fight to save his German Shepherd.

'For my dog's life, I have to fight'

In the Nanaimo case, a provincial court judge released the dog, Macey, in 2019 after finding the prosecution's assessment — done by the same expert who assessed Bronx — was done in a "completely stressful environment."

The judge noted that "the field of dog behaviour and dog training is less a science than an art" and relied on a video Griffiths posted on YouTube showing his peaceful interactions with Macey.

In court documents, the City of Victoria suggests Bronx is more dangerous and unpredictable than Macey and that allowing Griffiths to bring outside dogs into the facility puts staff members in the "uncomfortable situation" where a dog attack may occur in their own facility. 

Warden's application accuses the city of "stacking the deck against the dog before the hearing even begins."

She plans to call Macey's owner and Griffiths as witnesses in her bid for a "full and unhindered assessment" of Bronx which she claims is "integral to a full and fair assessment of the case."

The city questions Griffiths' status as an "independent" assessor, given that he's also now Bronx' adoptive owner.

Giroday — the city's lawyer — told the judge Monday he'll call the owner of the private company contracted to operate the pounds in both Nanaimo and Victoria as a witness Thursday.

He said he feared the proceeding was threatening to balloon out of control given the number of parties who have taken an interest in Bronx' fate.

It's all a bit much for Bonora, who says he suffers from agoraphobia, a fear of crowds. Walking Bronx used to provide him with a reason to leave his home. He'll be there Thursday regardless.

"Being in this situation, it's traumatic," he says.

"I want to step down, but for my dog's life, I have to fight. I have to do it for him. He can't speak for himself, so he needs somebody to speak up."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.

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