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The Usual Suspect Tango's Story.

November 29th, 2009, 05:46 PM
NO one is quite sure how Tango the dog managed to escape the electrified fence of his backyard enclosure on the Gold Coast in April 2004. But when council dog catchers came across the brindle-and-white pooch loping around the suburban streets of Parkwood later that day, they bundled him into a van on suspicion of being an American pit bull terrier – an offence punishable by death in certain parts of Queensland. It was the beginning of a five-year saga that has made Tango the poster-boy in the War on Dogs.
A year before Tango went for his unauthorised walk, Gold Coast City Council had introduced the harshest pit-bull crackdown in the country, warning that any unregistered or wrongly registered pit bulls would be euthanased. The zero-tolerance policy had been announced after a 30-year-old woman crossing a street south of Surfers Paradise was attacked from behind by an unregistered pit bull that savaged her face, almost tore off her bottom lip and ripped open a gash in her right calf that required 100 stitches. The victim, Jayne Gair, had hobbled into the council chambers on crutches a month after the attack, her face a mess of red welts, to demand the banning of the dogs.

But as Gold Coast City Council has discovered to its great cost, banning pit bulls is not as easy as it might seem.

Take the case of Tango: council officers who examined the dog decreed that he met the criteria for an American pit bull terrier cross-breed. But the dog’s owners, John Mokomoko and Kylie Chivers, insisted he was an American Staffordshire terrier cross-breed. After hiring a lawyer to get Tango off death row and transferred to a kennel in NSW – where he still lives in exile to this day – they began investigating the council’s identification procedures.

Since then John Mokomoko has become the Gold Coast City Council’s worst nightmare, a relentlessly methodical litigant who has helped humiliate the expertise of council dog catchers in court and amassed a file on 5000 Queensland dogs that he claims were either destroyed or forced interstate on the basis of wrongful identification as pit bulls. In February he aims to convince the Queensland Supreme Court that Tango got a bum rap, and that thousands of dogs like him across Queensland may have been wrongfully dispatched to the big kennel in the sky. The case, he believes, will open a floodgate of *litigation. “I’ve got a list of around 5000 dog owners in southeast Queensland who are waiting for someone to get a win in the Supreme Court,” he says. “Each case could eventually cost the councils at least half a million dollars. Once the precedent has been set, it’ll open a Pandora’s box.”

Bred for savagery
When British noblemen of the early 1800s began mating English bulldogs with terriers to produce a pit-fighting breed of indefatigable savagery, they were not trying to create the perfect family pet. Yet the “bull-and-terrier” dogs that once tore each other’s throats out for the entertainment of the 19th-century gentry have, against all odds, produced an extended family of bull-breeds that now rank among the most popular dogs of the 21st century.
There is little resemblance between the British bull terrier, with its stumpy legs and distinctive, egg-shaped head, and the much taller American pit bull terrier, just as there’s a marked difference between the compact British Staffordshire bull terrier – the Staffie – and its larger and more powerful American counterpart. But when *people talk of “pit bulls” they are often referring to any or all of these dogs, not to mention the dizzying array of mongrel cross-breeds that have proliferated over the past century. The Staffie is now the second most popular dog in NSW and edges closer every year to stealing the crown from the placid labrador.

With their hulking physique and reputation for unpredictable violence – not to mention their popularity among drug-dealers – bull-breed dogs have become the Public Enemy No.1 of the canine world. Last month a pit bull rampaged through a Melbourne suburb, killing a cat and a ****zu-maltese dog, savaging two other dogs, terrifying two young girls and latching its jaws around the forearm of the dead ****zu’s owner, who fought the animal for 15 minutes before paramedics gave it a lethal injection. A day after the attack, Victorian Premier John Brumby announced a renewed crackdown on dangerous dogs, while the president of the RSPCA in Victoria, Dr Hugh Wirth, called for the mass extermination of all American pit bulls.

Wirth’s remarks caused outrage in the blogosphere of pit-bull enthusiasts, who have long chanted the mantra of “deed not breed” – that irresponsible owners and dangerous dogs should be targeted, not entire breeds. Dr Stephen Collier, an anthropologist at the University of New England, says he has found no verifiable deaths from pit-bull attack in Australia since 1986, and he asserts that “there is no specific research to demonstrate that dogs bred for fighting are more dangerous than other breeds”.

“That is rubbish,” retorts Wirth, who says temperament is embedded in different breeds via generations of selective mating. That is why Australian heelers, raised for the dangerous task of herding cattle, have a hair-trigger perception of threat that makes them more prone to biting than, say, a retriever, whose gentle disposition and soft mouths were prized when it came to retrieving downed game birds for hunters.

“When we get to the American pit bull terrier,” says Wirth, “you have here a dog deliberately bred for fighting. Now, dog fighting is a very vicious sport; someone is always going to die. And these dogs know what to do: they know to be on tiptoes; they know to aim their huge bulk at the shoulder of the opposition, to force it to collapse on its back; and once the opponent is down, with one swift turn of 180 degrees, they are on the neck and ripping it apart.”

Few of Wirth’s peers in animal welfare publicly support his call for mass extermination – which is, in fact, contrary to RSPCA national policy – but his reservations about the breed are widely shared. Dr Dennis Smith, a veteran *animal behaviourist based in NSW, once had to use a screwdriver to prise open a pit bull’s teeth from a veterinary nurse’s arm, an experience that convinced him the animal has a locking jaw. (This common conviction, however, is dismissed as a myth by US biology professor I. Lehr Brisbin, who has studied pit-bull physiognomy.)

The popularity of bull breeds does appear to have coincided with a rise in dog attacks. Monash University’s Injury Surveillance Unit reports that hospital admissions for dog bites in Victoria rose 16 per cent on a per-capita basis from 1999-2007; NSW recorded 823 dog attacks in its last quarterly report, 142 of them requiring medical treatment. And while it may be true that a pit bull is yet to kill anyone in Australia, the breed is 10 times more likely to bite than a cattle dog, according to NSW statistics. The Staffie – for which even Hugh Wirth professes a deep affection – is now the leading breed for attacks in NSW, involved in five times more incidents than labradors.

The standard political response to the problem has been bans on “dangerous breeds”. In 1991, the Hawke government banned the importation of four fighting dogs – the American pit bull terrier, Brazilian mastiff, Japanese tosa and Argentine dogo – following a series of attacks, including one in which a two-month-old baby in western Sydney was killed. But of the four breeds, the latter three barely exist in Australia, and none had been implicated in the baby’s death, which involved a bull terrier. Since then, however, “breed specific laws” have proliferated around the world. In 2001, a spate of attacks in Queensland spurred then premier Peter Beattie to introduce compulsory desexing of all four breeds, likening the pit bull to “a loaded gun”. The governments of NSW, Victoria and Western Australia soon followed suit.

“The pit bull is a killing machine on a leash,” said then NSW premier Bob Carr in May 2005. “We want to breed these dogs out of existence.”

At the sharp end
Outlawing “dangerous breeds” is a surefire vote-getter for politicians, but it’s the council dog catchers who have to enforce the laws, and therein lies the rub. Confronting enraged dogs every day can be a thankless job; proving which particular enraged dog is a prohibited breed is not much easier. In Victoria last year, two-thirds of death sentences imposed by councils were overturned on appeal by a review panel of canine experts. Little wonder that councils have shown a marked lack of enthusiasm for enforcing the laws.

The Queensland Government’s anti-dog laws of 2002 defined the “pit bull terrier” and its cross-breeds as a restricted breed requiring compulsory sterilisation and a backyard cage. Faced with the task of identifying such dogs, local councils across southern Queensland formed an expert committee that devised a 22‑point checklist drawn from the breeding guidelines for the American pit bull terrier. Little did councils realise, however, that in taking on pit bulls they would confront an incredibly dangerous, unpredictable and tenacious species capable of fighting to the death. Their owners.

Two months after his dog Tango was imprisoned, John Mokomoko learnt that Gold Coast dog catchers had captured another wandering bull-terrier called Fonzie, owned by a 29-year-old man who’d been left a quadriplegic by a surfing accident. Mokomoko helped the dog’s owner, Justin Taylor, hire a lawyer to challenge the destruction order, and the Gold Coast City Council soon found itself mired in a public-relations disaster. On the opening day of his legal challenge, Taylor arrived at Southport Courthouse in his wheelchair and explained to the waiting media how Fonzie’s companionship had pulled him back from the brink of suicide; in the courtroom, Taylor’s lawyer ripped apart the credentials of the council’s animal control officer so comprehensively that the magistrate ruled that council staff lacked the training to properly identify Fonzie and ordered the dog returned to its owner.

Mokomoko keeps a file on the Fonzie case, which was among the pile of 800-odd pages of documents he had waiting for me when we met one afternoon at his home on a suburban housing estate inland from Surfers Paradise. The documents – a litany of canine persecution divided into neatly bound case-files – sat on his lounge-room table in a big stack. Unfortunately for Gold Coast City Council, John Mokomoko is very, very organised; a stocky 47-year-old New Zealander with a greying goatee, he has an imperturbable demeanour honed by years of providing security to temperamental visiting celebrities, whose autographed photos smile down from his lounge-room wall.

Unlike many people who own dogs capable of great violence, Mokomoko does not underestimate the danger such animals can pose, and he concedes that the sort of people attracted to owning them can be a problem in themselves. “Some people buy these dogs the same way they buy a sports car – as an extension of their ego,” he says. “People can go out there and buy whatever dog they want without having any knowledge of how to train and socialise it, and they don’t understand why it ends up eating their kids or biting the neighbour.”

Mokomoko, in fact, kept his own dog, Tango, in an electrified enclosure in his backyard, and he’s convinced that someone deliberately let it loose back in April 2004. At the time, however, he and his partner took the advice of a lawyer and agreed to a court order that exiled Tango to a kennel across the NSW border. That’s where Tango has remained – at $21 a day – while Mokomoko has set about proving that his dog comes from pedigree American Staffordshire terrier stock. First he tracked down Tango’s *parents, Zeus and Jessie; then he took swabs from them (while being videotaped) and hired a genetic science laboratory in Victoria to match the dogs’ DNA samples. It’s this evidence he plans to present to the Queensland Supreme Court. (Gold Coast City Council refused to *discuss its dogs policy but said it reserved the right to protect ratepayers.)

By his own count, Mokomoko has spent about $500,000 in pursuit of his mission, which has included helping 57 people overturn *council kill-orders on their dogs. Along the way he has bedevilled Queensland’s local government bureaucracy with a blizzard of emails, lawyers’ letters, freedom-of-information requests, court actions and the occasional media stunt. Last February he staged an elaborate sting operation by installing hidden cameras in a Gold Coast woman’s house in order to record council dog catchers wrongly identifying her pet Staffie as a pit bull – footage he posted on YouTube. “I’m in the security industry,” he shrugs, “I’ve got closed-*circuit television equipment. But I did put a sign on the door saying: ‘The house is protected by CCTV.’”

Mokomoko’s biggest victory, however, may be the case of Logan City Council v Rusty The Hound. Caught wandering in suburban Brisbane in April 2005, Rusty was impounded and sentenced to death after being identified as a pit bull by three council experts – one of whom was Deborah Pomeroy, a Brisbane City Council animal control supervisor who helped devise and teach the 22-point dog identification system used across southern Queensland. Mokomoko helped Rusty’s owner, Dino Da Fre, marshall a legal defence and the DNA evidence necessary to prove the dog was a Staffie cross-breed, and during the court hearing Pomeroy admitted she was self-trained, had no veterinarian qualifications and could claim no scientific basis for the identification system she’d helped devise. With its case in tatters, Logan City Council withdrew after six days of hearings, having spent more than $100,000.

Just how much Queensland governments have spent on such proceedings is impossible to verify, but the case of Andrew Richards gives some sense. A disability pensioner who rescued and raised pit bulls on a property in the Gold Coast hinterland, Richards moved his 17 dogs and his elderly father into northern NSW in 2006 to escape the Queensland crackdown. Unable to afford the breed-assessment costs demanded by his new local council, Richards was forced to put down 10 of his dogs, and the council killed the rest after he failed to obtain compliance certificates for them. At one point, police and RSPCA personnel turned up at his property without a warrant and forced him to dig up the corpse of one of his dogs to prove the grave was full. A weathered figure with a bushranger beard and a propensity for long flights of rhetoric, Richards has embroiled councils in so many freedom-of-information requests, telephone tirades and legal proceedings that one council alone has spent $40,000 dealing with him. Last month he appeared in Southport magistrates’ court charged with threatening and harassing staff at Gold Coast City Council.

“It’s bull**** – I haven’t threatened anyone,” Richard says. “I’m just someone who is persistent and annoying. I am absolutely relentless. All we want to do is own the world champion of dogs, the original nursemaid dog – that was the nickname they earned because they were so gentle with children – the pit bull. I intend importing and building a new family of dogs from the United States of America and overturning the federal laws and the piss-weak *prohibition of our dogs.”

A breed apart
Dog-lovers aren’t always the most rational people, as was proved recently when several went online to defend the pit bull that left a trail of corpses and injured victims in Melbourne. “I believe it wasn’t as aggressive as made out to be,” wrote “Aussiefloyd” on “I must say that I also feel sorry for the owner of the ‘attacking’ dog,” added “Mag*dalena”. “His dog was given the needle as he helplessly watched while being held by ambos/cops.” Mused “Hyacinth”: “Sometimes I wonder if it’s mistaken identity. Great White Sharks have this problem.”

In fact, the dog that killed the ****zu cross and lacerated its owner’s arm was registered as an American Staffordshire terrier, a breed that can legally be imported into Australia despite being widely regarded as an American pit bull terrier by another name. “They’re the same dog,” says Dennis Smith. “But the breeding clubs in the United States managed to *convince the American Canine Association that there’s a degree of separation, which allowed them to be registered as a separate breed.”

John Mokomoko agrees, and says the anomaly highlights the absurdity of bans aimed at specific breeds. His own dog would be legal if classified as an American staffie, but illegal if classified as a pit bull. Like many in the pro pit bull camp, he argues that bans have exacerbated the problem of rogue dogs by forcing registered pit bulls to live in caged and confined conditions that heighten their aggression, at the same time creating a black market of illegal breeding and unregistered dogs.

In Britain, the RSPCA recently ditched its support for breed-bans after it became clear that dog attacks have increased since they were introduced. In Western Australia, the union representing council rangers has called the bans unenforceable because breeds are almost impossible to verify. Some talk hopefully of the day when dog breeds will be verifiable by DNA; others advocate compulsory obedience training for all dog owners. It’s the perennial problem of legislating to combat human stupidity.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that these breeds are kept because of a deficiency in the owner’s personality,” says Hugh Wirth. “The person who comes walking down the street wearing a singlet and footie shorts with their great slathering Hound of the Baskerville on a leash gets a different feeling about themselves.”

Meanwhile, in a kennel somewhere on the north coast of NSW, Tango has just racked up his fifth year of quasi-imprisonment. “We are going to sue everyone involved in this and bankrupt them,” says his owner cheerfully. “Just to teach them a lesson.”