Man cleared of cruelty to starving dog
The SPCA has accused Government animal wardens of failing to do their jobs and “showing no interest” after a man accused of dog cruelty walked free from court.
Kurt Dowling was accused of causing unnecessary suffering to Venom the pit bull, who was found emaciated and with a puncture wound to his head.
Mr Dowling, 30, from Farm Lane, Warwick, denied being Venom’s legal owner. Yesterday, Magistrate Khamisi Tokunbo cleared him of cruelty charges saying there had not been a “proper and full investigation” into who was legally responsible for the suffering the animal endured.
Mr Dowling indicated through his lawyer that he will try to get Venom back from the SPCA, where he is currently living. Speaking out after the verdict, SPCA vice president Sarah Haycock said the charity had to fight to get the case prosecuted in the first place.
“Unfortunately, we have tried to work with the Government animal wardens over the years and there has been no interest shown on their part in working together to prevent such cases in future,” she alleged. “They are refusing to bring prosecutions and they are the prosecuting arm. In this case, the wardens did not feel that this dog was starving and therefore did not want to bring this case to the courts.
“This is the first case we have ever brought on our own and since the SPCA does not have any power, there were no procedures in place to bring the case to the police and Department of Public Prosecutions [DPP]. The police weren't quite sure how to handle the case. Luckily, the Department of Public Prosecutions felt that this was a good case and agreed to take it.”
Mr Dowling's trial heard how Government wardens seized Venom from a property in Warwick on January 21 2011 after months of complaints from the SPCA and public about the dog’s condition, and five visits by animal welfare officials to the premises (see timeline.) He was chained up to a tree with a heavy chain around his neck, and a vet later found him to be extremely malnourished. Venom's licence, which was in the name of Keijon Steede, had expired almost a year earlier on January 31 2010.
Head Government Animal Warden Jeffrey Benevides told the trial Mr Dowling obtained a new licence for Venom the day after wardens seized him. However, they had to hand Venom over to the SPCA instead of Mr Dowling after the charity obtained a warrant to conduct a cruelty investigation in the case.
Giving evidence in his own defence, Mr Dowling said he gave Venom away to Mr Steede in 2007. He said the dog was living at Mr Steede’s girlfriend’s home, a short distance from his own home, at the time of the cruelty allegations. He said while he was not the owner, he took him for medical treatment after the dog wardens demanded it be given.
Clearing Mr Dowling of causing suffering to Venom between December 7 2010 and January 21 2011, Mr Tokunbo said there was “no doubt” that “Venom’s health was in poor condition” during the period in question “and he suffered unnecessary pain and injury”.
He noted that Mr Steede was the last registered owner according to the evidence, but that Mr Dowling responded to notices and got the dog veterinary care. Mr Tokunbo commented that there was no investigation to find out who occupied the premises where Venom was kept.
“I have doubts as to whether the investigation was a completely thorough one,” he remarked, saying there was not enough evidence to show Mr Dowling was responsible for the cruelty as charged. A proper and full investigation would have uncovered the true owner and whose care and responsibility Venom was under at the time.”
Defence lawyer Eugene Johnston asked the Magistrate to order the SPCA to return the dog to Mr Dowling. However, Mr Tokunbo refused, saying: “My finding is it’s not clear whose dog it was. You will have to deal with that.”
Speaking afterwards, Mrs Haycock said Government wardens should have seized the dog much earlier. According to her, they are allowed to pick up any unlicensed dog after the permit expires, although she understands that they normally give a three day grace period.
“The dog was unlicensed for a year. The licence was expired from January 31 2010 right through until the dog was seized,” she noted.
“That same day or the day afterwards, they licensed it. This dog was severely emaciated and was in shocking shape. The wardens were prepared to give it back to this guy having known about the cruelty situation over the last few months. The SPCA stepped in and said ‘we are investigating this as a cruelty case’ and we got a warrant to get them to hand the dog over to us.
“What the Magistrate has found is that the warden did not investigate properly who owned this dog and because it had been unlicensed for this entire year it was not clear who committed this offence of cruelty. Had they investigated this properly, we would have had a guilty verdict on somebody. Unfortunately, the SPCA is not given access to, or information from, the wardens' licensing database so it is impossible for the SPCA to know when the dog was licensed, for what period it has been unlicensed or who the last owner was. It wasn't until this was going to court that the wardens handed this information over to the Police and the DPP.”
Venom remains at the SPCA where Mrs Haycock says he is a good weight and well loved. However, she does not know what the future holds for him. He is currently unlicensed again, as the one issued to Mr Dowling last year has expired.
“Although he is in good shape weight-wise now, his overall health is poor due to the fact that he has many tumours and he has oesophageal damage which means he can’t breathe properly, which is likely due to the 50 pound chain tied around his neck and to the tree,” she said. “He has tumours and he’s covered from head to toe in scars. He is a very dangerous dog who is very aggressive to other dogs.”
Venom is suspected to have been involved in dog fighting, owing to the nature of the injuries he suffered.
“The Magistrate was clear that the dog should not necessarily go back to this person (Mr Dowling.) After temperament assessments conducted over the year the SPCA has determined this is a dangerous dog and needs care accordingly. We hope that the Government animal wardens will work with the SPCA to ensure that this dog is not released back to Mr Dowling," she said. “I would hope that the Minister of the Environment would review this case before deciding the fate of this dog.”
Venom, the pit bull at the centre of an animal cruelty case, was visited by dog wardens and SPCA staff multiple times.
But despite concerns over his health and welfare, he was not seized by Government wardens for months, despite having been unlicensed for more than a year. Magistrate Khamisi Tokunbo criticised investigators for failing to properly establish who was supposed to be caring for the dog. According to veterinary records supplied to this newspaper by the SPCA, Venom was picked up by the dog warden suffering from a leg injury in January 2009.
Government animal warden Herb Marshall told Mr Dowling’s trial he visited Venom on May 18 2010 at a property in Cedar Hill, Warwick after the SPCA passed on complaints from the public that the dog had no food or water.
Mr Marshall established that the dog did have water, and he left a note asking the owner to call. Mr Dowling got in touch saying he was the original owner but had given the dog away to Mr Steede. He was notified that the dog’s licence had lapsed as of January 31 2010.
According to the prosecution case, Mr Dowling, of Farm Lane, Warwick, said he would take back the task of caring for the dog.
According to SPCA welfare officer Debbie Masters, who called at the property in December 2010 following a complaint from the public, she found Venom tied to a veranda with a chain. His face was swollen from his cheek to his ear.
Mr Marshall visited the premises on December 7 2010 and noticed the dog had a swollen face and appeared to be thin. Fellow warden Beaman Smith described the dog as lethargic. Again the wardens left a note for the owner saying the dog needed medical attention. Again Mr Dowling got in touch, agreeing he would take Venom to the vet. The dog remained unlicensed at that point.
The trial heard that Venom was taken to Ettrick Animal Hospital the following day, December 8 2010. Dr Gaelle Roth reported that he was “skinny to the point of starvation”. She discussed treatment options, including euthanasia.
According to Mr Dowling, he obtained medication for the dog from Dr Roth and tried to help it get better. Ms Masters returned to the home on January 21 2011 after two more complaints from the public. She found Venom emaciated and chained to a tree with a heavy double chain around his neck.
According to Government warden Mr Smith who visited that same day, the dog was “a lot more bouncier and happier.” Venom was seized by the warden under the Dogs Act as he still did not have a licence. Vet Andrew Madeiros examined Venom the same day and found that he was severely malnourished, weighing 41lbs when a healthy weight would have been 55lbs.
The next day, Mr Dowling successfully applied to the Government wardens for a licence for Venom. However, the SPCA sought a warrant to get him handed over to them as they had launched a cruelty investigation. Mr Dowling went on trial later in 2011 and there have been several hearings since October leading up to yesterday’s verdict. Venom remains in SPCA care but Mr Dowling indicated yesterday that he wants him back.