British Columbia·In Depth

Dead dog walking: Can Punky ever be a 'good canine citizen' again?

It's a rare dangerous dog whose fight for life makes it all the way to B.C.'s Court of Appeal. But animal advocates fear the case of Punky could threaten the lives of hundreds of otherwise corrigible canines.

Dangerous dog's fight for life has drawn attention from advocates who fear widespread repercussions

Punky relaxes during happier times. A provincial court judge ordered the destruction of the Australian cattle dog for biting someone in a Vancouver park. (Susan Santics/Facebook)

In dog years, Punky has been on death row for nearly half a decade.

A provincial court judge ordered the rambunctious Australian cattle dog destroyed last July for attacking a stranger in an off-leash park. And Punky's been in custody ever since.

But as the dog's owner takes her pet's fight for life all the way to B.C's. Court of Appeal, animal advocates fear Punky's legal battle may inadvertently make it easier to kill more corrigible canines provincewide.

"The decision in this case will have far reaching implications on all dangerous dog matters in this province," animal rights lawyer Rebekah Breder said as she argued Friday before B.C.'s Court of Appeal.

"(It could) essentially mean an automatic death sentence for dogs that are considered dangerous that would really put us back 15 years in where the case law has taken us."

'A devastating effect on dogs'

Breder represents three of five organizations granted leave Friday to intervene in Punky's appeal — the B.C. SPCA, HugABull and RAPS, the Richmond-based Regional Animal Protection Society.

It's rare enough for a dangerous dog case to make it all the way to the province's highest court, but the issues at play in Punky's situation mean the outcome will set precedent regardless.

Animal rights lawyer Rebeka Breder represents three of the organizations granted intervenor status in Punky's appeal court case. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

For more than a decade, provincial court judges have stopped short of ordering the destruction of many dogs deemed by animal control officers to be dangerous, releasing them on "conditional orders" instead.

The order might call for a dog trainer and the rehabilitation of dog, owner or both. It could call for muzzling, increased security or even adoption.

But the ability to grant a conditional order isn't written into the law.

And as the City of Vancouver fights for Punky's death, their lawyers plan to point that out — arguing that technically, judges have no jurisdiction to grant reprieves to dangerous dogs.

If the appeal court agrees, Breder says the lives of hundreds of dogs declared dangerous every year but able to be rehabilitated would be at risk.

"The authorities establish that provincial courts have been releasing dogs on conditions for at least 15 years, with no evidence that doing so has put the public at risk." Breder's argument for intervention reads.

"Reversing this trend would have a devastating effect on dogs as those who would otherwise be able to become good canine citizens would automatically be euthanized once found to be 'dangerous.'"

'This is the every-dog'

Susan Santics says she "rescued" Punky as a puppy four years ago from drunk people who sold him at the Vancouver Folk Festival.

According to the original provincial court decision ordering the dog's death, Punky sunk his teeth into Alyssa Prattas' leg at Locarno Park on Aug. 27, 2017. She was seated on the grass, texting. Punky was jumping up and down.

"When she next looked up she saw that Punky was chasing a bird in the sky," wrote Judge Wilson Lee. "Punky then saw Ms. Prattas and charged at her."

Punky sank his teeth into Prattas' leg and hand.

Punky, seen here as a puppy, attacked a stranger in a Vancouver park, leading to the provincial court order that would threaten his life. (Susan Santics/Facebook)

"Her wounds continued to bleed profusely for a week and some of her injuries did not completely stop bleeding until weeks later," Lee wrote.

"The wounds have left scarring and a loss of sensation in some areas. Ms. Prattas still has ongoing pain and sensitivity."

The court heard from a dog trainer who recommended Punky be neutered and muzzled, a veterinarian who claimed he couldn't examine Punky without being attacked and an animal control officer who said she tried for an hour to get Punky into her vehicle — even using a catchpole — before Santics agreed to drive him to an animal shelter.

A B.C. Supreme Court judge upheld the lower court's destruction order, leaving Santics no option but the appeal court for another stay of execution.

Her lawyer, Victoria Shroff, argues that Punky was condemned on a dearth of evidence and that the onus is on the city to meet a higher threshold where the life of a sentient animal hangs in the balance.

"The case might be about one dog but we're really talking about all dogs," Shroff said outside the appeal court.

"This is the every-dog. This a dog that has been accused of something without any proof at the lower courts about the levels of his dangerousness and the levels of his rehabilitation. That's patently unfair."

'Beloved family members'

One of the issues underlying the whole situation is what advocates claim is a relatively low bar to declaring a dog dangerous — written into both Vancouver's Charter and the Community Charter relied on by the rest of the province.

A dog can be declared dangerous if it has killed or seriously injured a person, killed or seriously injured a domestic animal while in a public place or on private property other than the owner's or if "an animal control officer has reasonable grounds to believe" the dog is likely to kill or seriously injure someone else.

Susan Santics stands outside the B.C. Court of Appeal where her dog Punky's legal battle is drawing attention from a wide variety of groups. (Jason Proctor/CBC)

"The threshold of meeting the statutory definition of "dangerous dog" is too low for the draconian order of destruction (i.e. death sentence) of a person's sentient companion," Shroff writes in her appeal.

"Dogs for most owners, and certainly the appellant, are more aptly described as beloved family members rather than simple property."

Shroff says she doesn't believe the appeal court judges should consider the legal validity of conditional orders, which she believes are accepted law, no matter what the city's position.

But she accepts the fact that Punky's case may have opened up a can of legal worms.

'He is in a small kennel'

Santics meanwhile comes from New Westminster once a week, to visit Punky for half an hour at a time, in his doggie death row cell.

"He is in a small kennel. He is allowed out to play for — I am told — three times a day, but in not a very large area," she says.

Santics, a retired nurse's aide, who testified that she values Punky more than her own home, says she's been getting training of her own, in case Punky wins his appeals.

If need be, Shroff says she's willing to take Punky's case all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Santics shrugs as she sits outside the court. She says she'll follow the dog wherever he takes her.

Even Canada's highest court?

"Where's that?" she asks. "Ottawa?"

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