Time for serious questions about our co-existence with animals

20:33, Apr 26 2012

My father's approach to having a pet dog would probably be considered quite harsh in today's terms and maybe even inappropriate.

If we ever have a dog, I think I would tend to follow his lead but I suspect he was shaped by being brought up around working animals that clearly had their place and needed to be kept there.

Working dogs didn't come in to the house and they followed directions or suffered the painful consequences.

The first pet dog we had, when we were very little, worried some sheep so Dad took it away somewhere and shot it.

I think it took a few weeks for the truth to come out but as a 5-year-old I knew that Dad had shot Rob the dog and I think I was OK with that. I didn't see dogs as an alternative to a baby or a cuddly toy. They were a subservient pet and we were the masters.

It was a few years later that we got our only real long-term pet dog. He came when I was about 10 and he was a pure- breed golden labrador called King who had come from one of the guys who worked for the Rabbit Board.


I, as the eldest boy, claimed some sort of ownership over him and learnt from Dad as he trained him.

We taught him how to sit, to come, to respond to a whistle, and to do one useful thing - collect the paper every morning from the bottom of the drive.

He was not allowed inside except for the first 18 inches past the front door where there was a carpet he could lie on. He was chained up outside every night rain, hail or shine and when he stepped out of line he got a hiding.

During weekends or after school my friends, who also had dogs, and I would stroll along the beach with the dogs off the lead.

Often our dogs and other local dogs would have vicious, tooth-and-nail, blood-spilling fights with each other. Watching them wrestle and writhe with each other always reminded me of the tigers chasing each other around the tree in the book Little Black Sambo.

It was like they were about to meld in to one and become like a pool of dog-flavoured butter.

We were pretty fearless when it came to dogs so we would wade in to the middle, kick one of the dogs and grab it by the collar and pull it out of the fight.

Considering all of the dog attacks we hear about nowadays, one might be thinking it was good luck we didn't get our faces bitten off, but it also had a lot to do with the way we treated the animals and our ability to assert ourselves with them. We had the confidence to manage them as animals even though they clearly had the ability to maim us if they chose to do so.

Admittedly it is a pretty major step up when it comes to dealing with circus animals and, to be brutally honest, I don't see any the sense in trying to have a relationship with man-eating lions or sharp-toothed bears.

To me it is just like parachuting out of an aeroplane when you don't have to. Pretty darn silly.

As a result of being an avid Wilbur Smith fan when I was a teenager, I spent several years convinced I would meet my demise at the angry end of an African lion - and I was terrified by the prospect.

The Lawrence incident, when two young lions escaped from the circus and roamed the streets of the small South Otago hamlet until they were tracked down and shot, didn't help my paranoia at all.

Although not a common occurrence, wild animal attacks happen enough for us to ask some serious questions about how we manage our coexistence with the rest of the animal kingdom. The Northland tiger attack a few years ago killed an experienced keeper as did the terrible elephant incident on Anzac Day.

Just last week two keepers were killed by bears in Japan and it is hard to forget the pathetic tragedy of Roy Horn being attacked by his tiger whilst on stage in Las Vegas.

Many come out in defence of animals that kill or maim, making statements about their welfare and the stresses they face as captive or performing animals. This may well be true and attempting to tame the untameable is not the animal's fault when it all goes bad.

But if it still good enough for an owner to have to shoot a dog for nipping a sheep or biting a toddler regardless of the situation, once an elephant kills someone we have no choice but to put it down.

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