To completely understand the law surrounding animals, pets or otherwise, it is important to understand that an animal is a “thing”. It is a possession. Not much more or less than anything else you own. A wild animal is “owned” by the State and is this protected by it, even down to the frog or Brown House Snake in your yard. As a “thing” it has corporeal value. Corporeal value as in the Rand-value of that animal. A calf is worth R1500, for example. Incorporeal is for example a credit card. The plastic card itself has no value, but grants access to corporeal value. Seeing that an animal you own is property, it can be damaged, sold, destroyed or stolen. And as much love you have for your Bulldog, and as much of a personality it might have, it isn’t a real person in the eyes of the law.
When people talk self defence or private defence, we kind of forget about other creatures on the planet that may present a danger to us. An animal attack is a scary proposition. Especially from those with big teeth, fangs or claws. Mainly because of our most primitive fear: the fear of being eaten.
I’ve had nasty experiences with horses, cows, dogs, snakes, an ostrich and even some geese. OK, OK – a goose doesn’t have venom-dripping fangs, and cows are generally those dopey things we shout “Mooooo!” at when driving through rural areas. They, however, don’t always see it that way. Just as a Yorkshire Terrier may think it’s a Rottweiler.
Animals behave according to training and instinct
Something we kind of acknowledge, is that like gravity you cannot negotiate with an animal. You can’t explain your point of view and bargain an amicable settlement with a charging lion. We just have to respect their boundaries. A shark, for example, doesn’t know why it is a shark. Its level of self-awareness is something only a naturalist can explain. All it knows is that it has a set of hard-wired instincts, and very likely something akin to experience and learning from prior behaviour. Like its successes and failures. Pavlovian “classical conditioning” – stimulus and response. I’m afraid to say a lot of humans haven’t evolved much more of an intellect than that. If you think you have “a way” with animals like I did, try having a ‘tame’ zebra sneaking up behind you and biting you on the shoulder like I have. It bloody hurt. And so did my fist thinking it was harder than the damn thing’s head.
But animals can be trained. Pavlov proved that. We can control them, to a point. So, can the actions of a domestic animal, like your Beagle, be attributed to his knowledge of being a Beagle? Or was he responding to something like you trained him to, and hence became part of his psyche and behaviour? Again, I’m not any level of expert in animal husbandry, but laws that surround these things are quite clear. Especially when your animal comes into contact with other people, and indeed so if those people are injured or even killed.
Many times in the eons of my duties I’ve stood at a garden gate talking to a person, while their Alsatian is doing frothy somersaults in hysteria, praying for a part of my body to come in contact with his snapping jaws. Very often the person apologises to me, but I refuse it. I remind the person that their dog is doing his job. It is his home. I am the intruder/threat. He doesn’t know what a police uniform looks like, or what it means. Mind you, neither does the average Police dog: they don’t give a hoot what you are dressed like. They only respond to commands from their handler.
Animals simply do not process information in the same manner we do. Therefore we cannot expect them to have the same reasoning or decision making processes.
Dealing with a ferocious animal – legally
So, here starts the law. In legal terms an animal does not know the difference between right and wrong as we humans do. An animal cannot commit, nor be guilty of, a crime. A person in control of the animal might be, though. If negligence or culpability can be proven in court.
Under the Constitution of South Africa human life is supreme. If it comes down to a trade-off between me and Pixie, the Fox Terrier, I’m afraid to say Pixie is going to lose. But, let’s take this further. We must tackle the original question with all these things in mind. So here’s a scenario: you are out cycling, lawfully, with your children when a large dog comes charging down a driveway. The gate is open and the dog looks very scary. It is growling and salivating, and your instinct tells you that you must protect yourself and your kids.
A side topic for another day is how you can do this. People cycling in skimpy outfits don’t always have space for a Glock. Maybe you do when cycling casually in your neighbourhood. That’s fine. But now a dog is charging you – a surprise attack. Have you ever tried to draw your gun, or dig around for pepper spray, while riding a bike and being taken by surprise? Time and space are not on your side. The first thing likely to happen is that you are going to fall off your bike. Think about it.
Under almost every metro by-law in the country, if you own a dog your property has to be properly fenced. Confirm this with your local municipality or councilor. There are provisions for fines if this is not so, as the dog can become a danger to both vehicle and foot traffic. Although the owner is not able to personally monitor the movements of the dog 24-hours a day, he or she is ultimately responsible for any injury or damage the animal causes. If it is found as a result of his or her own culpability or negligence. This includes someone’s dog attacking you on your bicycle. Hence, a large proportion of what is reasonably expected from you as the animal’s owner weighs here.
The second trick to this comes under national statutory law. The offence is called “keeping a ferocious animal”. It also lends to you, the owner, having responsibility for keeping and safeguarding the animal from the general public. Why? Well for the exact reasons I put forward in the top two paragraphs. If you own a dog that injures or kills a person outside of your yard, because you failed to keep that dog in your yard, whether by fence, gate or neglect to make sure the gate was closed, you can be found guilty in a criminal court. Walking your dog has the same proviso. You have to be in full control of the dog at all times. That means it must be on a leash. If your child is holding the leash and the dog pulls away and bites someone, you were not exercising effective control over the dog and can be found guilty. If you release your dog in a public park, and it sprints over and picks a fight with my Rottie on a leash – let’s say you are going to lose on more than one count.
There is also a flip-side to this. If you are under attack by an animal and you are not inside the owner’s property, or you are a bona fide lawful visitor, you have every right to defend yourself with whatever means at your disposal then and there. The laws and justifications of self-defence apply here too – the attack must be imminent, or have commenced. There must be no other means for you to escape the attack, and you must not be legally bound to endure the attack. Recall that a human life supersedes that of any animal.
Remember I said a dog (or any animal owned) is a “thing”? If you unlawfully kill someone else’s dog, the worst you can be charged with and found guilty of is malicious damage to property. But to be found guilty, the completeness of the crime must include that the killing of (or injuring of) the animal was malicious. So, this is not to say (as in self-defence against a human attack) you will be charged and locked up if you protect yourself. If an unlawful attack happens against you, you are the victim. You open a case of keeping the ferocious animal against the dog owner, if he or she is known. This does not mean you have carte blanche to go shooting every pooch outside a person’s yard. I hope you have enough of a relationship with your community that you will ring a bell and get the owner to call their dog in.
For a long time, at least once a week while patrolling, I found dogs lolling along the road, clearly lost. Almost every time the dog came to me (and if I could find an ID collar), I would find out where his home was, pop the hound into the back seat or van cage, and take him home. If you don’t feel that confident, call the SPCA. Give them a description of the dog, its breed if you know it, if it is limping or injured, what road it is on and its direction of travel. Many pets now are chipped, so local vets can tell quite quickly who the animal belongs to.
Being prepared for an animal attack
Right, you are now all nice and educated on veterinary psychology and some legal tidbits. Your job is to now decide how you will prepare yourself for the eventuality of an animal attack. If you want to carry a firearm, please remember the responsibilities that go with it. If you shoot and injure a dog, you better follow-up and either get it medical attention or finish it off. Only you can make that decision. I have had to, and it’s not fun.
Do please understand that killing an animal is not necessarily cruelty to an animal. If an animal is severely injured, and I have to euthanise it, the act is tantamount to mercy. It is by no means cruelty. Torture, or lengthy abuse leading up to a death of an animal, is an entirely different matter.
A firearm isn’t always the best method of euthanising and injured animal either. A bullet can go straight through a relatively soft animal, hit the ground and bounce back up. I’m not going to go through a detailed “how to” on finishing-off injured animals. Least to say, get the squeamish people away and end the life as mercifully and painlessly as possible.
For defence against many animals, pepper spray is fine. Dogs (and primates, considering baboon attacks in Cape Town) have super sensitive noses. So they will not like OC spray at all. Put in the back of your mind that criminals also use pepper spray on animals. The nastiest dog you can imagine will sit there snorting and weeping, and will not be keen to fight you.
Caveat – pepper spray is chilli oil and water. If you don’t shake it before spraying, you will squirt water. Consider also that clever animals such as a baboons will work in a team. If you squirt all your OC spray at once, you are going to run out of ammo. And then you will be facing a gang of pissed off primates. The term retreat should feature loudly in this conversation.
With regards to “shock sticks”: not many animals, including people, like that loud, angry snapping sound. The problem with them being that you have to be in pretty close proximity to use it in the manner designed. On top of that I have a friend whose staffie thought it was a great toy, and wanted to grab it out your hand. Keep them charged. If you play with them often enough they will be flat by the time you need them.
A plain and simple stick is severely underrated in this context. Here you can include a compact telescopic baton (cyclists!). They don’t run flat or empty. Of course, there is no rule that says (like I advocate every multi-layered protective posture) you cannot carry more than one thing to protect yourself.
You don’t have to be in the Kruger Park to suddenly worry about snakes and wild tigers. To be properly protected, you must consider just about every eventuality you can. Remember that methods and tools can overlap and replace each other. If you simply cannot carry a firearm or knife, a nice solid knuckle duster properly applied will manually change most things minds.
Just be glad you don’t live in Canada and have wild bears wandering into the SPAR.
Last word – I beg you, if you have dogs or any animals; please safeguard them on and outside of your property, and do not allow them to get into a position where they may injure another person or themselves get injured. Use your heads.
Written by Harold F. Callahan*
*Harold F. Callahan is a police officer with many years of experience, and who will be gracing Paratus with hopefully regular and useful articles pertaining to SAPS-related information and issues.